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Schadenfreude, the experience of pleasure at the misfortune of others, is a very common emotion. It may seem mean-spirited, vindictive even, but if you have ever felt guilt about the satisfaction you experienced when someone else messed up, don’t be too hard on yourself.
Schadenfreude is the result of several deeply ingrained processes that the human brain spent millions of years evolving.
Raising your social status feels good because when we do it, it triggers the pleasure-creating reward pathways in our brain. The inverse is also true; studies have shown that having a very low social status is very stressful, and bad for your wellbeing.
But because it’s all subjective and relative, one way for your social status to improve is for someone else to lower theirs. And so, when we see someone mess up in ways that cause them to lose face, and thus lose social status, we can feel a burst of satisfaction as our own status is raised, at no cost to us.
Our brains have evolved to assume that the world is a fair place, even if the actual evidence for this doesn’t stack up. Our brains respond to perceived fairness and justice like they do to raised social status: they really like it.
So, when someone we deem to be higher status, who perhaps achieved their status via means we deem to be unfair, comes a cropper and experiences appropriate failure and misfortune, in ways that lower their standing relative to our own, it produces a heady cocktail of status and fairness, at zero cost to us.
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Do You Bask in Other People’s Misfortunes?
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