Confession: if a hurricane destroyed Mar-a-Lago, our immediate response would be to break into smiles. Would you? Would you smile even harder picturing President Donald Trump, devastated by the loss of his prized property?
The type of pleasure in beholding pain that accidentally befalls another person is called schadenfreude — a German compound built from words for damage and joy. If you’re secretly pleased that someone you envy is lonely, or if they become happy when an injury prevents you from competing against them, that’s schadenfreude. And if they’re especially happy because they think you’re a jerk who deserves to be sidelined, that’s also schadenfreude, in a righteous form.
Schadenfreude also has spinoffs: simple pleasure in someone else’s setback, no matter how it comes about — accidentally, through vengeance, or otherwise.
Righteous schadenfreude sees the other’s pain as cosmic comeuppance and is often broadcast unapologetically. A model case is the Trump campaign’s “own the libs” meme. Trump supporters get an emotional payoff from humiliating his liberal opponents. By contrast, “ugly” schadenfreude feels embarrassing and often petty, as if it needs to be hidden or confessed in whispers. In feeling guilty at enjoying someone else’s missed chance to get an extra sausage — especially when the sausage is small — we may be tacitly admitting that our own setbacks would not seem quite as nice.
What about our reaction to a hurricane hitting Mar-a-Lago? It’s both ugly (we find it embarrassing) and righteous (“serves him right!”). Someone who considers Trump an evangelical savior wouldn’t react the way we would, just as Boris Johnson’s followers felt concerned, not smug, when he was hospitalized with COVID-19. Though schadenfreude is felt viscerally, it can be informed by antecedent allegiances.
The schadenfreude we’d feel toward Trump’s loss from a hurricane would have no consequences if we kept it to ourselves. But if we stood in the park with a bullhorn gleefully describing his frustration and celebrating his demise, there would be reactions. Some people might agree, others would be offended, and most people would probably dismiss us as crazy ladies.
If we anonymously sprayed our sentiment deeper into the public by using the internet, we could avoid any “crazy lady” effect and attract scores of angry opponents and celebratory supporters. Their reactions to one another could easily have disastrous political consequences. The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes can help explain why.
Hobbes claimed to analyze in one fell swoop interpersonal reactions and political dynamics. Deeply troubled by the civil war of his time, he observed that we can easily be made to feel superior in value to others, and that when we act on this feeling — which he thought we are strongly prone to do — the people to whom we feel superior respond in kind, setting into a motion a potentially lethal dynamic. Vengeful dynamics produce engaging plots in movies or plays; left unchecked in reality, the cauldron easily boils over into low-grade civil wars.
Schadenfreude belongs to this category of fecund emotion. With its fast-track to feelings of superiority, it has a terrifying capacity to motivate collective violence, creating opponents out of people who don’t start out opposed, transforming visceral, momentary responses into standing motivations to tolerate and even inflict harm. Neuroscientist Mina Cikara argues that schadenfreude belongs to a learning system that trains us to tolerate subsequent harms on the group whose pain gave you pleasure. In one study, it took only minutes for people divided into initially arbitrary groups to celebrate the opposing group’s loss. Averse to causing harm to others? Feeling pleasure every time they feel pain can train you out of that. Schadenfreude propagates, cultivating enthusiasm for harm.
Schadenfreude also gets reactions. It can convert a misfortune into a lightning rod in a storm of political enmities. That makes it effective in propaganda. When Notre Dame’s spires burned in the cathedral’s fire in April 2019, Twitter allowed on its platform an account masquerading as Fox News that fabricated a tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that read: “They reap what they sow #NotreDame.” It appeared alongside other baseless accusations that Rep. Omar was cheering on the demise of the West. Trump claimed in 2015 that “thousands and thousands” of people in New Jersey “in towns with large Arab populations” had celebrated the fall of the twin towers in 2001 after Sept. 11.
The logic of emotional manipulation by schadenfreude is simple: if the “other side” has abandoned concern for an opponent’s welfare, the way is cleared for responses that do the same. Just as learning that someone was happy about your injury would probably leave you offended, accusing others of schadenfreude in public will provoke indignation, offense and, ultimately, aggression. It is terrifyingly effective. There may be no more efficient way to sow mutual distrust within a society than to make it appear to be divided into groups that celebrate one another’s pain.
Whether real or fabricated, the rubbernecking powers of schadenfreude help explain why politics in recent years has been so thickly infused with the sentiments that grow around it: indignation, offense, impropriety. Orchestrating these feelings for fun and profit has been elevated into a mode of activism, creating a type of persona that mixes puerile jocularity with righteous indignation — think of the late internet hoax-master Andrew Breitbart, or his less wealthy, left-leaning counterpart Adam Rahuba. Rahuba found “comedic value” in Gettysburg, where a militia member accidentally shot his own leg with the gun he’d brought to intimidate flag-burners at a Union cemetery. Except there were no flag-burners: Rahuba had advertised a fake flag-burning event on Facebook. An unapologetic Rahuba told Washington Post reporters on camera that he was “balancing things out.”
Social media platforms where schadenfreude proliferates belong to an informational ecosystem geared toward emotional reactions known for their contagion, such as outrage and incredulity. Activating and witnessing such emotions on a large scale can feel rewarding, yielding big emotional pay-off. Schadenfreude’s flash-feeling of superiority is sticky, congeals easily around false scapegoats, creating narratives that misdirect blame for things many people want but may not have – such as public institutions that respect their worth and dignity.
Schadenfreude’s emotional divisions are here to stay: Someone else’s pain will often cause you to feel pleasure. Public expressions of such feelings feed political illusions: hurricanes are not ways of holding anyone accountable, and becoming detached from concern for the welfare of fellow members of society is the antithesis of politics.
Since no one wants to be manipulated or lied to — either in personal life or in politics –any aspiring democracy is indebted to movements that thrive on emotions that are politically healthier than schadenfreude. We should insist on a media ecosystem that imposes serious disincentives on deceptive schemes, both domestic or international, because individual regulation of this emotion won’t be enough. Meanwhile, exposing how schadenfreude works may reduce the emotional payoff of this pernicious feeling, leaving us less vulnerable to manipulation.
Susanna Siegel is a philosophy professor at Harvard University. Kelsey Ichikawa is a recent graduate of Harvard, where she studied neuroscience and philosophy.