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Why We Secretly Love Other People's Misery

06/09/2015 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

By Barbara Stepko

Your gorgeous BFF gets a huge, honking zit smack-dab on the middle of her forehead, the day before a big party you'll both be attending. Do you a) feel awful for her and try to pick up her spirits with an "It's not that bad!" pep talk, or b) try to pick up her spirits with an "It's not that bad!" pep talk... while secretly smiling to yourself?

Yeah, we thought so.

Welcome to the wonderful world of schadenfreude, a long-winded German word that sounds like a delightful Christmas cookie, but actually has a more malicious meaning -- namely, taking pleasure in another person's misfortune. (The literal translation is "harm-joy": schaden means damage or harm, freude means joy.)

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According to a recent study from the University of Kentucky that confirms earlier findings about said schadenfreude, men and women are both guilty of delighting in someone else's hot, flaming fire of shame. But we do our happy dances for different reasons.

Researchers found, for instance, that women get all giddy when another female experiences misfortune tied to physical attractiveness (think: a bad haircut or hard-to-drop post-pregnancy poundage).

Men, meanwhile, get off on other guys' misfortune in social status--say, being fired or maybe getting hit with a highly-publicized suspension after flinging around an under-deflated football (we're looking at you, Tom Brady).

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Why the difference? The researchers link our different reactions to schadenfreude to what's called "mate value": Evolutionary science tells us that when it comes to looking for a mate, men tend to care more about a female's physical attributes; women, on the other hand, are drawn to a male's social status (a powerful, high-paying job, for example). So anything that knocks the competition down a few notches -- and makes them seem less desirable to the opposite sex--may help thin out the dating pool.

Yep, gloating is pretty fun. There is, however, one thing that's guaranteed to cut the celebration short: Can you say karma?

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