Why we experience schadenfreude when watching "Idols": The self-enhancing properties of another’s misfortune in the media

J.W. Ouwerkerk, Wilco W. Van Dijk

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In the media we are often confronted with reports about the misfortunes of others. Indeed, the frequency of such bad news-reports far outweighs that of reports of good fortunes. Hence, an important question is how we react to the mishaps, setbacks, or downfalls of others in the media. It has long been assumed that people will show negative emotions (e.g., sadness, disappointment) following reports of misfortune or suffering of others. However, we are not the most noble of creatures. That is, we sometimes experience malicious pleasure following the misfortune of others. The German word schadenfreude is used to describe this discordant emotional reaction. Previous research has identified several factors that influence the experience of schadenfreude. Studies demonstrate that schadenfreude can be evoked by misfortunes happening to people who are disliked (e.g., Zillmann & Knobloch, 2001) envied (e.g., Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, Nieweg, & Gallucci, 2006) or resented (e.g., Feather, 1994). Furthermore, research has demonstrated a causal link between the perceived deservingness of, and responsibility for, a misfortune and the level of schadenfreude (e.g., Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, & Nieweg, 2005; Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, & Goslinga, in press). Although these findings are interesting, and tell us something about when schadenfreude is likely to be elicited, they tell us little about why we experience schadenfreude. According to Frijda’s (1988) laws of emotion, an event will only elicit positive emotions when it serves motives relevant to the self. What motive could possibly be served by the misfortune of others in the media? We argue that another’s misfortune in the media may often serve people’s striving for a positive self-evaluation or self-esteem, especially following a recent personal failure. Accordingly, a first experiment shows that students experience more schadenfreude when reading an article in a student magazine (SUM) about a misfortune befalling another student following a recent personal failure on a self-relevant task (i.e., a threat to one’s self-esteem) rather than when no feedback is provided. In a similar vein, a second experiment demonstrates that people experience more schadenfreude when watching an Idols-audition following a recent personal failure rather than a recent personal success on a self-relevant task. Moreover, the latter experiment shows that this effect is stronger for individuals with chronic low performance self-esteem, thereby providing further evidence for the self-enhancing properties of another’s misfortune in the media.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Feb 2008
EventEtmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Duration: 7 Feb 20088 Feb 2008


ConferenceEtmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap


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