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Schadenfreude: Rejoicing In Rivals' Misfortune May Be Biological, Study Suggests

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Why is it that misfortune that befalls certain people can make us feel empathetic and wanting to help, while misfortune that befalls others can actually make us feel happy? A new study shows that Schadenfreude might actually be biological, and that who the misfortune befalls is a critical factor in how we react.

Researchers from Princeton University found that we are most likely to be happy about others' misfortune when the "other" is someone we feel envious toward. And that envy is associated with competition -- like a rival sports team -- and high status -- like a rich businessman.

"A lack of empathy is not always pathological. It's a human response, and not everyone experiences this, but a significant portion does," study researcher Mina Cikara said in a statement. "We need to remember this in terms of everyday situations. If you think about the way workplaces and organizations are set up, for example, it raises an interesting question: Is competition the best way to get your employees to produce? It's possible, in some circumstances, that competition is good. In other ways, people might be preoccupied with bringing other people down, and that's not what an organization wants."

Cikara and professor Susan Fiske conducted four experiments for the study, which is published in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

For one of the experiments, researchers monitored the cheek movements -- in order to find indicators of a smile -- of study participants as they looked at pictures of different kinds of people, such as drug addicts (indicative of disgust), elderly (indicative of pity), Americans (indicative of pride) and rich professionals (indicative of envy). The study participants were told that each of these kinds of people had good, bad or neutral things happen to them, such as winning five dollars, getting soaked by a taxi, or using the restroom. The study participants smiled more, as was measured by the cheek movements, in response to negative events involving the rich professionals.

For another experiment, researchers looked at brain scans from functional magnetic resonance imaging, as well as self-reports, from study participants who were asked to look at the same pictures and events from the first experiment and rate whether they felt bad or good. Again, the study participants felt bad when positive events happened to the rich professionals, but felt good when negative events happened to them.

Then, after two weeks, researchers had the participants take a survey online where they were presented with a scenario of hurting someone (through electrical shocks) so that others could be spared. The participants were more willing to shock someone they felt envious of. The researchers noted it was interesting that the participants were so forthcoming in saying that they would hurt someone.

In another experiment, researchers looked at how rivalry might play a role in Schadenfreude. They specifically picked study participants who were big fans of either the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees baseball teams for this experiment. They had the participants watch their teams and opponents score runs, make great plays, or strike out. Through self-reports and fMRI scanning, the researchers found that participants experienced pleasure when their teams did well.

Then, they had the participants watch their teams, or their rivals, go up against the Baltimore Orioles -- a neutral team. Participants didn't feel good or bad in reaction to good plays or strike-outs by the Orioles, and in general didn't want the Orioles fans to suffer any harm. But when it came to their rivals playing against the Orioles, they were happy when the Orioles won.

In addition, a later online survey also showed that fans of one team were more likely to say that they would heckle or threaten a rival team's fan as they watched the plays in the experiment.

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