Schadenfreude and cruelty

If emotions were Twitter feeds then schadenfreude would surely be ‘trending’ high right now. From Cheryl Cole’s surprise ejection from American X-factor to Manchester United’s drubbing at the hands of Barcelona, schadenfreude is the emotion of the moment or, at least, the term hacks are most likely to reach for to describe that warm fuzzy feeling we get on hearing of the comeuppance of celebrities of dubious talent and overpaid premiership footballers.

Given the inherent unfairness of the capitalist system, the popularity of schadenfreude should not surprise us. Look on it as nature’s way of compensating us for the wealth and fame showered on the underserving few.

What is less easily explained, however, was the reluctance of social psychologists to reach for the term following the death of Osama Bin Laden. This was the starting point of a fascinating talk given by Allan Young, Marjorie Bronfman Professor in Social Studies in Medicine at McGill University, at our recent conference on ‘Mastering the Emotions’.

Usually defined as ‘the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others’, schadenfreude would appear to be an apt description of the collective joy that erupted on streets of America the night the White House announced it had finally got its man. But writing in the New York Times the day after Bin Laden’s death, Jonathan Haight, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, chose to describe the frenzied celebrations as a form of ‘collective effervescence’ – Durkheim’s term for the joy experienced by individuals when they participate in group rituals for the communal good. According to Young, Haight’s eschewal of schadenfreude spoke volumes, pointing to the way that the term has been reduced by purveyors of ‘social brain’ theory to the neural equivalent of ‘empathic cruelty’.

Now nobody likes to be thought of as both empathic and cruel but one of the key findings from the burgeoning field of neuroeconomics is that such traits may be hard-wired into each and every one of us as part of a mechanism of ‘altruistic punishment’ that may have once conferred an evolutionary advantage. In a famous experiment conducted by Dominique de Quervain and his colleagues at the University in Zurich in 2004 involving a scenario known as the ‘trust’ game, player A is given a sum of money and offered the choice of advancing all or a portion of it to player B. If player A decides to trust B by advancing all of his money, the investigator quadruples his gift to B, and if B then sends half the money back both players are better off. However, if B violates A’s trust, then one minute after B makes his decision, A is given the option of punishing B by revoking the investigator’s top-up gift. In one variant A also has to reduce the amount he pays himself.

To their surprise, when the researchers scanned player A’s brain they found that a region known as the dorsal striatum lit up in anticipation of inflicting the punishment on player B. In other words, punishers were empathically mirroring the imagined (anticipated) distress of the cheaters and, at the same time, experiencing pleasure. Not only that but the more intense the punishment doled out to cheaters the more the punisher’s dorsal striatum lit up.

You don’t need to be a neurobiologist to realise that these findings are somewhat disturbing. After all, if we’re all hard-wired for altruistic punishment the implication is that ‘normal’ people may not be that far removed from psychopaths. Young’s suggestion, if I understand him correctly, is that such findings are also uncomfortable for social psychologists as it undermines enlightenment conceptions of human nature as both rational and perfectible. Instead, schadenfreude becomes an epiphenomenon of the brain, an ignoble reminder of our base beginnings when cruelty was its own reward, hence, presumably, Haight’s avoidance of the term.

I do not have space here to do justice to the rest of Young’s talk, suffice to say that he argues that the evolutionary narrative of the social brain has clear affinities with Adam Smith’s account of the moral underpinnings of capitalist social relations. However, Young argues that the thinker who comes closest to anticipating the notion of ‘empathic cruelty’ and confronting its implications for human nature is Nietzsche in his On the Genealogy of Morality (1887).

For Nietzsche the model of altruistic punishment makes no sense as, unlike Smith, Nietzsche does not see suffering as a form of economic exchange. It is not convertible like coins, transferable form one hand to another. Instead Nietzsche solves the riddle by arguing that the punisher’s gratification comes not from seeing the cheater suffer but from the visceral proof it gives him of his own power. In other words it is the punisher’s thirst for knowledge about himself and his world that explains the bond between empathy and cruelty.

Nietzsche’s solution is appealing as it seems to go the heart of the emotional displays that followed Bin Laden’s death. After all, what were they about if not visceral proof of American power and celebration of that fact? At the same time, Nietzsche’s solution accounts for the popular everyday usage in which schadenfreude is emotional shorthand for the affirmation we get from seeing those we consider undeserving of their elevated status being pulled down a peg or two.

The difference is that while the latter type of schadenfreude is generally considered a bit of harmless fun, the former type often strikes us as excessive and malicious. The hope, on this side of the Atlantic at least, is that schadenfreude isn’t reducible to mere affect and that while we may be hard-wired for empathic cruelty our capacity for reflection means we can also sometimes rise above it.

Mark Honigsbaum

3 thoughts on “Schadenfreude and cruelty

  1. Cheryl Cole and Friedrich Nietzsche in a single post – a real achievement! Next time how about Lady Gaga and Martin Heidegger?

  2. Pingback: An ‘Emotional’ Conference | The History of Emotions Blog

  3. You make Schadenfreude sound like a form of resistance (when felt towards bankers, inept government ministers and duplicitous footballers) while i have always felt it is something of which to be ashamed and about which to worry! Is it significant that there is no word for it in English? There is a brilliant word – or two words – in Hebrew: simcha la’ed.

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