If you delight in Schadenfreude, you may have psychopathic tendencies

When you do not put yourself in another person’s shoes, you can distance yourself from having to feel empathy for that person’s misfortunes.

Do you take secret delight when you watch other people fail in their careers? Do you love watching your colleagues lose? Germans have a name for this behavior, Schadenfreude, which translates to “harm-joy,” and now a new study has linked it to dark personality traits.

For New Ideas in Psychology, a group of Emory University psychologists used an emotion model to demonstrate how Schadenfreude can make us act like psychopaths.

How Schadenfreude turns us into temporary psychopaths

The psychologists looked at the emotions of aggression, rivalry, and justice to create a framework for understanding Schadenfreude. They found that people who scored high on the“dark triad” of personality traits — narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism — also tend to feel more Schadenfreude. They found that at the core of these emotions and within the behavior of Schadenfreude is a desire to dehumanize the other.

“When people experience Schadenfreude, they undergo a [temporary] process similar to that experienced by individuals with high levels of psychopathic personality traits: motivated by certain situational and to a lesser extent dispositional variables, the perceiver tends to dehumanize the victim, temporarily losing the motivation to detect the victim’s mind, much like a psychopath,” the study writes.

Dehumanization, in other words, plays a central role in Schadenfreude. When you do not put yourself in another person’s shoes, you can distance yourself from having to feel empathy for that person’s misfortunes.

“The scenarios that elicit schadenfreude, such as intergroup conflicts, tend to also promote dehumanization,” Shensheng Wang, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.

The good news is that this dehumanizing feeling fades away and does not stay with us. Unless, of course, you are already a psychopath. 

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.