NYTimes, August 24, 2002

Sorrow So Sweet: A Guilty Pleasure in Another's Woe


Kenneth Borovina, a 34-year-old carpenter from Dumont, N.J., has a lot to be stressed out about these days. His grandmother is in the assisted living wing of local nursing home, and her life savings have gone from $600,000 to $250,000 in the last year, decimated by the sagging stock market. But there's one thing that cheers him: news that yet another rogue chief executive is under investigation or, better still, arrest.

"They're getting what they deserve," Mr. Borovina said. "That makes me feel great."

Mr. Borovina is indulging in what seems to be this summer's favorite guilty pleasure &emdash; delighting in others' misfortune, or schadenfreude. Between Martha Stewart, Michael S. Ovitz, L. Dennis Kozlowski, Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling and Samuel D. Waksal, there's plenty of misfortune of various kinds to go around and, as it turns out, plenty of delight.

"Right now the schadenfreude is flying high," said John Portmann, a professor of religion at the University of Virginia and the author of "When Bad Things Happen to Other People" (Routledge, 2000). "We Americans love putting people up on pedestals and we love taking them down."

While many are busy reveling in this ignoble sentiment, a far-flung group of scientists is looking at it with a clinical eye. Taking their cues from evolutionary biology and psychology, they are inducing schadenfreude under research conditions, measuring it and sizing it up in an effort to understand why people can't help feeling an emotion almost everyone agrees is repugnant.

"We want to know what drives the interest in disaster and misfortune,"' said Richard H. Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky who has published two papers on the subject.

Philosophers through the ages have pondered the nature of schadenfreude. Schopenhauer wrote that its presence in a person's heart was a clear sign of evil. R. C. Trench, a 19th-century British archbishop, wrote that even having a word for such a damnable emotion was evidence of a culture's corruption. But scientists who study schadenfreude take a more charitable view. However contemptible schadenfreude may seem, they say, we are programmed to feel it. As Professor Smith said, "It's human nature."

To explore just what provokes such feelings, Professor Smith invited two groups of undergraduates to evaluate what he said was a training video about getting into medical school. One group was shown a film in which an actor played an aspiring medical student who had a BMW, an attractive girlfriend and a wealthy family, and who boasted of being able to get straight A's by barely studying at all.

The other group was shown a tape of a young man of modest means, with no girlfriend or car, who studied himself bleary just to get B's.

Questionnaires, not surprisingly, indicated the students felt higher levels of envy toward the first applicant.

Professor Smith then showed his subjects an epilogue that revealed that neither student was going to medical school after all; they had both been arrested for stealing methamphetamines from a school lab. A second questionnaire measured how his subjects felt about the news. The fall of the wealthy, good-looking medical-school applicant inspired more glee than the fall of the other.

Envy, Professor Smith said the test showed, was a "potent predictor of schadenfreude."

An Australian researcher, Norman Feather of Flinders University in Adelaide, takes a different view. He says the key is not envy, but resentment. He presented subjects with written descriptions of three imaginary students, one with average grades, one who made A's by studying and another who made A's despite slacking off.

Professor Feather said he found that both A students were envied, but that the A student who didn't have to study was resented as well. He then showed his subjects an epilogue that revealed all three students had done poorly on a test.

"We found that the more students were seen not to deserve their status, people were much happier about their fall from grace," Professor Feather said.

He likened his laboratory test to the public reaction to the current corporate scandals. Disgraced executives at a company like Enron, he said, would be like that A student who didn't study. "If there were shoddy practices, then you resent them," he said. "You don't think they're deserving, and you feel schadenfreude."

Professor Feather and other psychologists base their work on what is known as Social Comparison Theory. The field was conceived in the 1950's by a psychologist named Leon Festinger and is based on a rather simple premise: that humans evaluate themselves not so much by objective standards as by comparison with people around them. An old psychology-conference joke illustrates the point. Two men are walking in the woods when they come across a bear. The first man reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a pair of sneakers. "Why are you putting on sneakers?" the second man asks. "You can't outrun a bear."

"I don't have to outrun the bear," the first answers, "I just have to outrun you."

"Many people don't appreciate that when they come to conclusions about their own abilities &emdash; whether they're a fast runner or not, whether they're smart or not, whether their opinions are the right opinions or not &emdash; they use social comparisons as a basis for that judgment," Professor Smith said. "They look around."

When people around us falter, the theory goes, we often look better to ourselves. "You would expect an evolved psychology to welcome harm to its social competitors," said John Tooby, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Michelle K. Duffy, an assistant professor of management at the University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business and Economics, who has researched schadenfreude in the workplace, believes that part of the pleasure of watching rogue chief executives fall is the chance it gives people to feel morally superior.

"It allows the average person to say, `Aha, they didn't earn these things through their merits, they earned them through devious methods,' " Professor Duffy said. "Now we can say, `It's not about my lack of competence, but because I wasn't willing to do the unethical things that they did.' "

Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, and the organizer of a 1997 Pleasure in Other's Misfortune Conference at the university, said the people we envy most are those closest to us.

"You will envy more a colleague of yours who makes a thousand dollars more a year than you will a C.E.O. who makes a million dollars more than you," he said. "We also care about famous people. They are symbols to us."

From the point of view of evolutionary psychologists, it's not so much that celebrities are symbols as that we think of them as our peers. Professor Tooby argues that our brains are hard-wired for the small social groups to which humans were limited since caveman days. The information age of the last 50 years &emdash; an "eye-blink," in evolutionary terms, Professor Tooby said &emdash; has complicated matters by making us feel close to, and sometimes competitive with, people we don't actually know.

"Part of our mind knows we've never met Martha Stewart, but another part thinks she's part of our small social world," Professor Tooby said. "You see them on TV. You think you know them."

"The glee against Martha Stewart," Professor Tooby said, "is because there's something slightly grating about the socially competitive way she goes about telling you how you should live." Her implicit message is, he said, "You might attain something above where you presently are but not above me."

"There's a certain eagerness to see an event in her life which lowers her status," he added.

When that event comes, say, in the form of a Congressional investigation into possible insider trading, the argument goes, people are prone to the same emotions they might experience if that overpaid colleague of theirs got into trouble with the boss.

Of course, not everyone feels schadenfreude at the same events or to the same degree. Research has shown that people with low self-esteem are more susceptible to schadenfreude than those whose self-regard is high. And while some may bask in this glee unapologetically, others might quickly feel ashamed of it, and successfully shut off their schadenfreude valves.

This research may actually prove useful to those fallen titans who find themselves on the receiving end of the emotion. "If the person who's getting pleasure from your misfortune doesn't understand why, then you may get some small satisfaction in telling them about their ignoble feelings," Professor Smith said.

And if his theory is correct, there may be another bright side to being the object of schadenfreude. "If you experience misfortune," he said, "at least they won't envy you anymore."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company