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15 June, 2006

Schadenfreude

Main Entry: scha·den·freu·de
Pronunciation: 'shä-d&n-"froi-d&
Function: noun
Usage: often capitalized
Etymology: German, from Schaden damage + Freude joy
: enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others
--Merriam Webster Dictionary, online edition

Of all human frailties, schadenfreude is perhaps the ugliest. There is something about taking pleasure in others' misfortunes that transforms us into unpleasant people we are usually not otherwise.

The New York Times notes a research paper which supposedly found the area of the brain in which schadenfreude resides:

First the experimental subjects watched people playing a game in which some cheated (bad people) and others played fair (good people). Then they watched the same people suffering from a painful stimulus.

The empathy circuits lighted up in both men and women when bad things happened to good people. When bad things happened to bad people, the women in the study were still empathic. But not the men. Not only did they show less empathy toward bad people, but the reward center in the left nucleus accumbens lighted up. All that translates as "Serves him right!"
I don't see that as schadenfreude at all, but more of a quid pro quo, you reap what you sow kind of thing.

Schadenfreude is more grotesque than that. It's what fuels tabloids and gossip, finger pointing and conspiratorial whispers. It's that secret glee in the smug feeling that we're better human beings than the unfortunate someone, born out of an unseemly cocktail of envy, pride and lack of empathy.

That is, of course, until the wheel turns and we become the object of schadenfreude ourselves.

posted at 12:50 PM by City Muse

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