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Five Questions for Social Psychologist Sa-kiera Hudson

This Berkeley Haas assistant professor is studying a less understood social emotion called “schadenfreude.”

May 31, 2024
by Nathalia Alcantara
A professional portrait of Sa-Kiera Hudson. She is wearing a suit and a patterned tie, with a serious and contemplative expression on her face. Hudson has glasses and long dreadlocks. Photo by Jim Block

Congratulations on your recent National Science Foundation CAREER award. Can you tell us about the research it supports?

People readily organize themselves into social groups because they create a sense of belonging and safety, and they help define a person’s sense of who they are. But while creating a sense of belonging for “us,” social groups can also make other social groups into “them.” This distinction between “us” and “them” can lead to conflict and competition.

Empathy explains why people engage in helpful and cooperative behavior, but it does not explain why people seek to harm members of other groups. This project focuses on a different and less understood social emotion called “schadenfreude.” Schadenfreude is when people feel good about another person’s pain. It is especially likely to occur when group dynamics are competitive, and it thrives under perceived threat and when “us” versus “them” conditions prevail. This project develops the idea that schadenfreude is a significant cause of harmful intergroup conflict.

Why is it important to understand schadenfreude now?

Across the world there has been a resurgence of increasingly rigid beliefs in “us” and “them” fueled by perceived threat, leading to intensified intergroup animosity. These are the exact conditions under which schadenfreude thrives, suggesting that we are not only in an empathy deficit as a nation, as proposed by Barack Obama in 2006, but perhaps also in a schadenfreude surplus. Much of the current work on conflict interventions focuses on empathy. The proposed research suggests that to effectively intervene in particularly violent and competitive conflicts, there needs to be a stronger focus on schadenfreude.

All of us experience schadenfreude at some point in our lives. Is it always a bad or harmful emotion, or does it also serve a purpose?

I take a sociofunctional approach to emotions, which argues that emotions serve a purpose. From that perspective, schadenfreude is not inherently bad. But it is socially unacceptable in most contexts.

What practical steps can we take to mitigate the harms of schadenfreude in daily life?

One of the biggest contributors to feeling schadenfreude is low self-esteem and engaging in unfavorable social comparisons. Reducing zero-sum thinking and practicing healthier ways to bolster self-esteem can reduce schadenfreude. In my research, I have some hints that being more interdependent with others can help curb feelings of schadenfreude. But there has not been much work on modulating levels of schadenfreude, making it an exciting next line of research.

Are there positive counterpart emotions, like “freudenfreude”—the delight in others’ success—that can affect social interactions?

Schadenfreude is part of a broader class of emotions called “counter-empathy.” Empathy has multiple components, including the cognitive capacity to understand the emotional experiences of others, the affective resonance one has with another person, as well as the motivational desire to promote others’ well-being. Empathy can also be both positive or negative, meaning one can desire to understand and resonate with a target’s negative feelings (negative empathy) or positive feelings (positive empathy). Thus, the colloquial use of the term “empathy” is that of negative empathy, but what freudenfreude is trying to capture is that of positive empathy! It has been called “happy-for-ness” or even “compersion” in some communities. It is absolutely an important emotion. To complete the story, there are two types of counter-empathy that mirror the two forms of empathy: One, schadenfreude, or feeling positively in response to another person’s pain, and two, “gluckschmerz,” or feeling negatively about another person’s pleasure. Similar to negative empathy, feeling positive empathy is perceived to be adaptive for humans living in a social world.

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