There’s a phenomenon called “schadenfreude,” a German word meaning, “happiness at the misfortune of others.” It’s sung about in the Tony-winning musical, Avenue Q. New science indicates that brief thrill of laughter we feel when someone else falls isn’t just in our heads.
A series of experiments published in the New York Annals of the Academy of Science show people feel physical pleasure when presented with the misfortune of others. The first experiment showed subjects pictures of other people ranging from the elderly to rich executives. Subjects were monitored by precise machinery which measured facial movement. When the photos of the rich and privileged were paired with misfortune—like getting soaked by a passing taxi—subjects smiled.
The second experiment put subjects in an fMRI machine to measure blood flow to their brains and other physiological changes. Again, subjects reported feeling best when negative events happened to rich individuals. The fMRI data showed much the same.
In order to remove bias against the rich individual, researchers conducted a third experiment using only him. Subjects were given scenarios which saw the rich individual anywhere from noble pro-bono lawyer to a drug abuser. Consistent with other experiments, subjects reported feeling best about misfortune to the rich individual when his actions were prideful or amoral.
The final experiment did away with the rich individual altogether and had subjects watching baseball games. Fans of Boston and New York watched their teams played. As expected, they experienced joy when their rivals failed. But then showed a game between their rival and a neutral team, the same happiness at their rivals’ misfortune occurred.
Lead researcher Mina Cikara assures us that a degree of happiness at others’ misfortune is a typical response. Humans are hard-wired to be competitive. So laughing when others fall isn’t rude; it’s evolution.