Have you ever seen something bad happen to someone and felt just a little bit happy about it? Or even laughed a little (think Tosh.0 or America’s Funniest Home Videos submissions)? Click here to watch an example from the Simpsons. That’s called schadenfreude, which occurs when you experience happiness because of the misfortune of others. Seems kind of mean, doesn’t it? So, why do we experience schadenfreude, and what purpose might it serve in relationships?
A group of researchers hypothesized that experiencing schadenfreude signals to oneself that the “mate value” (or how desirable a person is to potential romantic partners) of the misfortunate person has been decreased.1 For example, a group of women may laugh at a man who trips and may see him as less of a “catch” than a man who strides by confidently. The researchers also thought that if others’ mate values decrease due to misfortune then one’s own mate value experiences a relative boost. So if a man witnesses another man tripping, then he might think to himself, “Ha, he just made a fool of himself. I’m smoother than that guy, which makes me a better potential partner.” The researchers predicted that schadenfreude is especially likely to occur between people who compete for the same mates. Thus, a man might be more likely to experience schadenfreude when he sees another man tripping compared to when he sees a woman tripping. They conducted two studies to test these hypotheses and focused their attention on friendships because friends sometimes compete for the same mates.2
In their first study, the researchers asked participants to describe a time when they felt schadenfreude as a result of something that happened to a friend of the opposite gender or the same gender. The participants also answered questions about how happy they would feel about various misfortunes occurring to their opposite- or same-gender friends. Experiencing schadenfreude was common: all but one of the 285 participants were able to recall a time when they experienced schadenfreude. Moreover, as predicted, participants felt greater happiness at the misfortune of same-gender friends than they did for opposite-gender friends.
The researchers also looked at whether certain misfortunes were more likely to elicit schadenfreude in men than women and vice versa. They found that indeed men and women were more likely to be happy after different types of misfortunes had occurred to their same-gender friends. For example, men were more likely than women to experience schadenfreude after a same-gender friend experienced a loss in social status (e.g., by missing a big play in a sports game), whereas women were more likely than men to experience schadenfreude after a same-gender friend experienced a loss in physical attractiveness (e.g., by breaking out in acne). This makes evolutionary sense when we consider that men often desire physical attractiveness in a long-term partner (making it an important indicator of a woman’s mate value) and women often desire social status in a long-term partner (making it an important indicator of a man’s mate value).3
The second study focused on same-gender friendships and tested the researchers’ ideas about schadenfreude signaling change in mate value. In this study, the researchers asked participants to think of a same-gender friend whom they envied and rate how much they envied their friend. Participants then imagined that this friend had either gained 15 pounds or had failed two major exams, rated how happy they were about their friend’s misfortune, rated their own and their friend’s mate value, and indicated how close they were to their friend. Overall, participants didn’t experience much schadenfreude when imagining their friend’s misfortune, especially if they were close to their friend. They did experience some schadenfreude though.
As expected, women experienced more schadenfreude after imagining that their friend gained 15 pounds compared to failed two major exams. Men, on the other hand, experienced the same level of schadenfreude whether they imagined that their friend gained weight or failed the exams. Thus, people seem to tune in to what attracts a mate, and the simple act of thinking about an envied friend experiencing a misfortune related to mate value can make people feel just a little bit happier.
Although participants weren’t explicitly asked if they saw their friend as a mate rival, participants did somewhat envy their friend; and participants who were single envied their friend more than participants who were in a relationship. In addition, participants rated their friend as having a higher mate value than themselves, thus it is possible that they saw their friend as a rival. However, even with this notion in mind, the hypotheses that others’ mate value decreases due to misfortune and one’s own mate value experiences a relative boost were not supported. Participants’ ratings of their own and their friend’s mate value did not vary depending on the scenario imagined, even when the misfortune in the scenario was important to their gender’s mate value. So, for example, even though women experienced more schadenfreude after imagining that their friend gained 15 pounds, they didn’t rate themselves as having a higher mate value than their friend in this scenario. Nor did participants who imagined their friend gaining 15 pounds rate their friend as having a lower mate value than those who imagined their friend failing two major exams.
This research tells us that it’s common to laugh at someone’s slight misfortune and that we’re more likely to do it when it happens to a same-gender friend than an opposite-gender friend, potentially because the former may be a mate rival. However, we’re less likely to be happy when something really bad happens to a friend (e.g., if the friend is beaten up) or if it’s our best friend who experiences the misfortune. Finally, this research suggests that we might not raise our own mate value and lower the mate value of misfortunate others when we experience schadenfreude. Nonetheless, more research is needed before we can discredit this idea. The researchers did not explore the idea as fully as they did with their other hypothesis, and there are a variety of reasons why the idea may not have been supported in the one study where they tested it (e.g., it’s possible that rating strangers instead of friends would have elicited the change in perception of mate value). In sum, if you laugh when a cocky friend gets taken down a notch, especially if the friend is a potential rival, it could be because it might signal to you and others that the cocky friend is not so desirable after all.
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1Colyn, L. A. & Gordon, A. K. (2013). Schadenfreude as a mate-value-tracking mechanism. Personal Relationships, 20, 524-545.
2Bleske, A. L., & Shackelford, T. K. (2001). Poaching, promiscuity, and deceit: Combatting mating rivalry in same-sex friendships. Personal Relationships, 8, 407-424.
3 Li, N. P., Yong, J. C., Tov, W., Sng, O., Fletcher, G. J. O., Valentine, K. A., Jiang, Y. F., & Balliet, D. (2013). Mate preferences do predict attraction and choices in the early stages of mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0033777
Dr. Lisa Hoplock – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa’s research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations — situations affording both rewards and costs — such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals.