Schadenfreude, or “happiness at the misfortune of others,” isn’t a fun emotion for most of us, but we all feel it, if only for a brief moment. And, to this point, it’s been assumed that it was just a result of the modern human condition, that an increasingly connected yet distant society is turning us all into misery-loving jerks. But neuroscientists at UCLA have, while researching far more important things, accidentally discovered that our minds are actually specifically wired to experience schadenfreude.
The UCLA team was studying observational learning, or learning how to perform tasks by observing the actions of others. They set up an experiment where the study group learns a card game by watching other people play, and in the course of their studies, found that they were detecting, well, schadenfreude when somebody botched a hand. Further investigation uncovered that schadenfreude doesn’t make you a monster; it’s an involuntary reaction, and the same neurons fire when you win a game. By firing those neurons, your brain is reinforcing that you shouldn’t make the same mistakes the person you’re observing is. Yes, your brain is kind of a jerk, but at least it wants to learn!
That said, the team stops short of saying this is absolutely a hard-wired response. The sample size was small, with just 10 participants, as it used epilepsy sufferers who have electrodes implanted in their brains. Furthermore, it’s difficult to pair firing neurons with emotions; just how neuron activity ties with the emotions we feel is a complicated question that neuroscientists are struggling to offer a definitive answer to. Still, it’s a fascinating discovery and one worth remembering the next time you see somebody faceplant into their coffee on the street. Nobody can help laughing, but you might also deny your impulses, walk over, and offer a hand.