As the scandal unfolded, the sports celebrity who had built an empire on his image as an upstanding family man was revealed as a glutton for extramarital sex and an author of tawdry texts to mistresses and paid escorts. Almost overnight, Mr. Woods became a target of ridicule, not to mention a website and a Twitter account with the sole purpose of propagating jokes about him.
The wicked delight over that turn of events has a German name so apt we’ve adopted it in English. Schadenfreude, or “harm-joy,” is the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune, and Richard H. Smith, a University of Kentucky psychology professor, has built a career around studying it and other social emotions. He previously edited an anthology about envy, a close sibling to schadenfreude.
As perverse as the emotion may seem, it serves an adaptive function, Dr. Smith argues in this enjoyable book. It stems from social comparisons, which allow us to assess our talents and determine our status in the social order. The urge to make these comparisons appears hard-wired — studies show that even monkeys and dogs measure themselves against their peers.
Schadenfreude provides a glimpse into what the psychologists Roy F. Baumeister and Brad J. Bushman have called “the most basic conflict in the human psyche” — the friction between our selfish impulses and self-control. “We are all savages inside,” the author Cheryl Strayed wrote in her Dear Sugar column at the website The Rumpus. “We all want to be the chosen, the beloved, the esteemed.”
But life doesn’t always turn out that way, and when we encounter someone who is more chosen, beloved or esteemed than we are, our natural instinct is to tear them down to our level. If this illicit desire is fulfilled by happenstance, schadenfreude ensues. Clive James captured the feeling in a poem that takes its title from its first line: “The book of my enemy has been remaindered/ And I am pleased.”
When envy invokes pain, schadenfreude provides a potent antidote. Mr. Woods’s success on the golf course and seemingly perfect life — beautiful wife, family and flawless reputation — “provided an acute contrast for most people, even if they were not interested in golf,” Dr. Smith writes. Though some people were surely inspired by him, perhaps more felt diminished. His downfall brought him closer to their level, and thus allowed his enviers to feel better about themselves.
The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes proposed that humor often arose from a sudden sense of superiority, and Dr. Smith writes that our culture thrives on downward comparisons that provide this “sudden glory.”
“Do we watch reality television for precious insights into the human condition?” he asks. “Please. We watch for those awkward scenes that make us feel a smidgen better about our own little unfilmed lives.”
A similar sensibility fuels gossip magazines. In an analysis of 10 weeks’ worth of The National Enquirer, Dr. Smith and Katie Boucher, an Indiana University psychologist, found that the higher a celebrity’s status, the likelier that an article about the person focused on misfortune.
We take extra delight when schadenfreude seems deserved, as it does when the person’s higher status damages our self-image. Research by Benoît Monin, a Stanford social psychologist, shows that the mere presence of a vegetarian can make omnivores feel morally inferior, as they anticipate judgment.
“Vegetarians need not say a word; their very existence, from a meat eater’s point of view, is a moral irritant,” Dr. Smith writes. Discovering hypocrisy in the high-minded person eases this irritation, so catching a vegetarian devouring a hunk of meat gives steak lovers a burst of schadenfreude: “We are not as inferior as we were led to believe; now we can assume the contrasting position of moral superiority.”
By traditional definitions, schadenfreude is a passive emotion among bystanders who play no role in the target’s misfortunes, but Dr. Smith argues that this demarcation is “too neat,” contending that while action “complicates the picture,” it doesn’t eliminate schadenfreude.
Yet broadening the term to include revenge and other actions robs the word of its satisfying specificity. It’s the lack of participation on the part of the witness that gives schadenfreude its gleefulness and makes its acknowledgment permissible — your secret target has fallen and you had nothing to do with it.
Though this book is intended for the lay reader, at times the writing feels academic, and the author leans too heavily toward summary, offering successive quotations from other scholars when a stronger synthesis would better serve the reader. And while it is probably true that the social comparisons underlying schadenfreude helped fuel anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, a chapter on schadenfreude’s role in the Holocaust comes across as an attempt to give the subject unnecessary gravity.
Despite its flaws, this slim book is worth reading for its insights into the dark side of human nature and the delightful drawings that turn up periodically in the text. Created by the author’s daughter, Rosanna Smith, these depictions — a tortoise raising its arm in victory, Aesop’s ant and grasshopper sharing a meal — give the same sense of delight as those drawings that pepper the pages of The New Yorker.
Dr. Smith concludes that schadenfreude “need not be demonized.” Better to embrace the opportunity it provides to indulge our dark sides than to deny its existence. So long as it remains passive, schadenfreude can enhance our self-worth and serve as a reminder that even the most enviable people are fallible — just like us.