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Schadenfreude

 

ˈSHädənˌfroidə/
noun
1. pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

When I was a little girl, my mother often recited this poem to me:

‘When I was at the party,’
Said Betty, aged just four,
‘A little girl fell off her chair
Right down upon the floor;

And all the other little girls
Began to laugh, but me –
I didn’t laugh a single bit’,
Said Betty seriously.

‘Why not?’– her mother asked her,
Full of delight to find
That Betty – bless her little heart! –
Had been so sweetly kind.

‘Why didn’t you laugh, my darling?
Or don’t you like to tell?’
I didn’t laugh, said Betty,
‘Cos I’m the one who fell.

Laughing girls - photographer Caroline Hernandez

Photographer: Caroline Hernandez

There is no doubt that the laughter of young children is as contagious as a yawn. But there is also no doubt that at times that laughter is misdirected.

For most adults the misfortunes or embarrassment of their peers seem to be a source of endless hilarity – one only has to watch America’s Funniest to see what is considered amusing. This reaction to the humiliation or discomfort of our fellowman is known as schadenfreude and a number of studies have been done to try to determine why we find the bad luck of others so entertaining. But are children really as malicious as that, and, if so, is it genetic or is it a learned behaviour?

In a study carried out at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany (1), children aged between 4 and 8 years were shown picture stories of a child carrying out an activity with either a positive or a negative intention, for example, climbing a tree to pick fruit for a sibling or to throw fruit at the sibling. In both cases the child has an accident – falling out of the fruit tree and hurting himself. Although the researchers reported that a small amount of schadenfreude was felt by the children even when the child in the story was carrying out a good deed, by far the majority of them reacted with pleasure when the child who hurt himself was intending to hurt his sibling. In this case schadenfreude was prompted by the degree to which the children felt the accident was deserved.

Even younger children have been shown to derive a certain amount of pleasure from the misfortunes of others. A 2014 study found that children as young as two years showed signs of schadenfreude in response to what they perceived as unfair situations involving their peers.(2)  In this study some of the toddlers were videotaped watching their mothers reading a story to child of the same age as themselves while another group were shown their mothers reading on their own. In both cases the book was then spoilt when water was spilt on it. When the researchers analysed the reactions of both groups of toddlers they found a greater incidence of jealousy and accompanying schadenfreude in the first group. So this study linked jealousy to the feeling of pleasure in the observed misfortune.

Jealousy is also the major issue in sibling rivalry which can become so intense that one child may deliberately set out to get their sibling into trouble in order to enjoy their misfortune while they bask in their parents’ approval.

In both of these studies schadenfreude is linked to the child’s belief that the other’s misfortune is, in some way, deserved.  In my experience working with young, preschool children, not many appear to enjoy the random mishaps of their peers and even try to comfort them, whereas the tendency to laugh when a peer is embarrassed or even hurt seems to increase as they reach school age.  I stress that this is simply my observation, not a scientific conclusion.  It does, however, suggest to me that, on the whole, schadenfreude is a learned response. (3)

Siblings - photo by Ben WhiteAnd yet there are some young children who seem to completely lack the ability to feel for their less fortunate friends, while others appear to have been born with a greater propensity for empathy and compassion than most of their peers.

It’s the old nature vs nurture question which keeps raising its aged head, although today we know the issues are far more complex than the question suggests.

A more important question is, can we teach children empathy and how do they learn to be kind?   – the subject for another blog?

 

Photographer: Ben White

 

 

 

1. Schulz, K., Rudolph, A., Tscharaktschiew, N. and Rudolph, U. (2013), Daniel has fallen into a muddy puddle – Schadenfreude or sympathy?. Br J Dev Psychol, 31: 363–378. doi:10.1111/bjdp.12013

2. Shamay-Tsoory SG, Ahronberg-Kirschenbaum D, Bauminger-Zviely N (2014) There Is No Joy like Malicious Joy: Schadenfreude in Young Children. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100233. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100233

3. See Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory.

 

May 10, 2018 - Posted by | Children

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