07/08/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Why Are Humans So Cruel?

Admit it or not, we've all felt it: Something bad happens to someone else, yet as a result we feel good. This psychological phenomenon is so widespread that it has even been given a name -- schadenfreude -- which roughly translates from German into English as "damage-joy" or "fail-joy."

Unfortunately, one does not have to look hard for evidence of schadenfreude. Just click on any article concerning celebrity failings, political scandal, the death penalty, lawsuits, natural disasters, obesity, war, or any other bit of misery and read the comments section. Schadenfreude is everywhere. But why do so many of us derive so much pleasure from misfortune while feeling pain at others' successes? Why are we, in short, so incredibly bitter?

Recent science is shedding light on this question, and the main culprit at work seems to be envy. The more we envy someone, the more pleasure we derive when that person meets some horrid end. As researcher Hidehiko Takahashi found through the use of fMRI scans, intense envy activates physical pain nodes in our brain's anterior cingulate cortex; conversely, our mind's reward centers are fired up when people we envy suffer misfortune, which results in feelings of schadenfreude. This positive correlation between envy and schadenfreude is so strong that the magnitude of the brain's schadenfreude response can be predicted from the relative strength of the previous envy response.

In addition to findings about envy, studies on schadenfreude have also centered around social comparison theory -- the idea that we use others' accomplishments and assets to derive some evaluation, positive or negative, of our own accomplishments. Thus, we feel schadenfreude because our self-worth does not exist in a bubble; it is relative. As such, the worse off others are, the better off we are (or at least think we are). Others' failings help us brush our own failings under the rug. Perhaps we aren't perfect, but "did you hear about Lindsay Lohan's drug charges? Man, I sure am better than her!"

Now, I'm not saying there aren't bad people in the world, or that all people are somehow equal on the moral landscape. Of course I'm not. But it does seem a bit unfortunate that we derive so much pleasure from the failings of others. I sincerely believe that schadenfreude is responsible for a large portion of the misfortune and suffering in the world, and that if we just spent a bit more time building one another up instead of tearing one another down the world would be a better place.

The best way to counter schadenfreude is probably to nullify its source: envy. This can be accomplished by remembering that whether from a scientific or religious perspective, we are pretty darned insignificant. What are humans against the boot of an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God? And even if the universe is purely material, what are we against the vast cosmos? Sure, we might feel envious when confronted with another's accomplishments, but what are those accomplishments and our resulting envies and indeed the sum total of accomplishments and envies when set against the vast, dark, beautiful cosmos? Nothing, that's what.

Carl Sagan captured this thought best:

"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity - in all this vastness - there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

Thus, while we might envy one another, and though this envy may cause us to unconsciously root for others' failure, ultimately the sources of our envy are vacuous. Even a king's accomplishments are nothing in the grand scheme of things, and set against the incomprehensible grandness of this universe the difference between an emperor and a peasant is nothing. So let's try to ignore schadenfreude the next time the ugly feeling works its way into our psyche, eh?

Life is far too short -- and the universe far too large and remarkable -- to be cruel over such pettiness.