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Malicious joy is a reaction to unfair divisions, study suggests

Posted July 7, 2014

People often feel Schadenfreude – malicious joy triggered by the misfortune of the other person. But when and why? Researchers at the University of Haifa carried out an experimental study testing how little children react to the unlucky accidents faced by other kids. Their study revealed that positive emotions are intensified by unjust distributions.

“These findings imply that social comparison and sensitivity to fairness develop early in life further highlighting the evolutionary significance of positive reactions to the termination of an unfair situation,” the psychologists claim.

Schadenfreude is a pleasure experienced when other person experiences unlucky event. Evolutionary origin of this emotion remains a mystery. Some scholars conjecture that schadenfreude, as well as other competitive social comparison based-emotions such as envy and jealousy, originally evolved, as a response to competition between rivals over limited resources.

Experiment phases. Image courtesy of the researchers.

Experiment phases. Image courtesy of the researchers.


Prominent examples of such competition are rivalry between siblings or concurrence for mating partners. Others think that positive emotions are felt, because misfortunes of others signalize potential rewards. However, alternative hypotheses exist. According to one of the models, malicious joy is a response to inequity aversion. People experience this emotion, because they have a feeling that event was fair.

“To test this hypothesis, in the current study we examined the emotional reactions to equal and unequal conditions in the distribution of parental attention in two and three years of children,” the scientists say. The experiment had two phases. In the first phase, mother reads a book and in the second phase she accidentally spills water over it.

Children reactions were tested under two conditions: Equal and Unequal one. Under the Unequal condition a mother reads a book for one of the kids and under the Equal condition she reads the book for herself. “We sought to examine if two- and three-year old children can show signs of schadenfreude following the termination of the jealousy phase (UNEQUAL) as compared to the control (EQUAL) condition,” the researchers write.

The evidence supporting the theory, which relates malicious joy to inequity aversion, was found. The study disclosed that emotions were more intense under the UNEQUAL condition. “While inequity produced higher jealousy ratings than equity, the termination of the inequitable situation produced higher schadenfreude ratings as compared to the termination of the equitable situation,“ the scientists report. Interestingly, the reactions towards the same-sex targets did not differ from the reactions to the targets of different sex. The psychologists think that this finding contradicts evolutionary model related to mating.

Article: Shamay-Tsoory S.G., Ahronberg-Kirschenbaum D., Bauminger-Zviely N., 2014, There Is No Joy like Malicious Joy: Schadenfreude in Young Children, Plos one 9(7): e100233. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100233, source link.

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