According to psychologists at Emory University, schadenfreude can reveal something about people with dark personality traits. In a new article published in New Ideas in Psychology, the authors discuss how schadenfreude encompasses aggression, rivalry, and justice. But something more sinister connects the three.
“Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude,” said Shensheng Wang, a PhD candidate in psychology at Emory and first author of the paper. “The scenarios that elicit schadenfreude, such as intergroup conflicts, tend to also promote dehumanization.”
Dehumanization means depriving a person or group of people of positive human qualities. Essentially, you perceive them as not really being human anymore, and not really feel any empathy for them at all.
When there is a disconnect between the event and the person witnessing it, dehumanization is easier. For instance, in a viral video where you don’t know the person, or when a natural disaster happens and you’re too far away to comprehend it.
In a sense, schadenfreude is an example of dehumanisation, because it’s unlikely you’d feel so satisfied if bad things happened to people you care about.
“We all experience schadenfreude but we don’t like to think about it too much because it shows how ambivalent we can be to our fellow humans,” said psychologist Philippe Rochat, another author of the study.
“But schadenfreude points to our ingrained concerns and it’s important to study it in a systematic way if we want to understand human nature.”
Scott Lilienfeld, the third author, added that schadenfreude overlaps with several dark personality traits like sadism, narcissism, and psychopathy. On some level, it could explain the feeling sociopathic, psychopathic, or narcissistic abusers get when they hurt someone they’re close to.