"People were willing to hurt an envy target, saying, 'Yes, let's shock her,'" Cikara says. "We found that surprising because we weren't certain participants would self report that. While it's true that people are generally averse to harming others, the bottom line is that people don't feel this way all the time." (Credit: "woman smiling" via Shutterstock)

If we envy others, we smirk when they suffer

When researchers measured the electrical activity of cheek muscles, they found that people smile more when someone they envy experiences misfortune or pain.

The findings suggest that people are actually biologically responsive to taking pleasure in the pain of others, a reaction known as “Schadenfreude.”

“Jealousy and envy are highly correlated,” says Susan Fiske, coauthor of the study and a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. “When we ask people on surveys who is envied in American society, they report the same groups: objects of jealousy. This is all very much based on stereotypes.

“And so, in this study, we sought to better understand who is among these envied groups and whether that envy and jealousy elicits a harmful response.”

Malicious glee

Mina Cikara, the study’s lead author, says the goal was to investigate conditions under which “people fail to empathize with one another and how, for some of those people, they experience happiness at another’s expense,” continues Cikara, who completed her PhD at Princeton and is now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We wanted to start in a place where people would be willing to express their opinions and willingness to harm more freely, like we see in sports. We asked ourselves: what is it about rivalries that elicit a harmful response? And can we predict who will have this response?”

In the first experiment, the researchers examined participants’ physical responses by monitoring their cheek movements with an electromyogram (EMG), which captures the electrical activity of facial movements when an individual smiles.

Participants were shown photographs of individuals associated with different stereotypes: the elderly (pity), students or Americans (pride), drug addicts (disgust), and rich professionals (envy).

These images were then paired with everyday events such as: “Won five dollars” (positive) or “Got soaked by a taxi” (negative) or “Went to the bathroom” (neutral). Participants were asked how this would make them feel, and their facial movements were recorded.

“Because people don’t like to report envy of Schadenfreude, this was the best method for gathering such responses. And, in this experiment, we were able to viscerally capture malicious glee,” Fiske says. “We found that people did smile more in response to negative than positive events, but only for groups they envied.”

‘Let’s shock her’

In their second experiment, the researchers used self-reporting and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—which measures blood flow changes associated with brain activity—to determine whether participants were willing to harm certain groups.

Participants viewed the same photographs and events as the first study and were asked to rate how they felt on a scale of one to nine (from extremely bad to extremely good).

Similar results emerged: participants felt the worst about positive events and the best about negative events in regards to the rich professionals. Two weeks later, the researchers followed up with an online survey in which the participants were presented a scenario-based game that involved the option to hurt another person, such as through electric shocks in order to spare several others.

“People were willing to hurt an envy target, saying, ‘Yes, let’s shock her,’” Cikara says. “We found that surprising because we weren’t certain participants would self report that. While it’s true that people are generally averse to harming others, the bottom line is that people don’t feel this way all the time.”

Status and competition

Manipulating stereotypes was the goal of the third experiment. Using various scenarios regarding an investment banker as an example, the researchers threw counter-stereotypic information at participants. In one article, the banker was himself, employed and status quo. In another, he was advising clients pro-bono (eliciting pride). In the next, he was using his work bonuses to buy drugs (disgust) and, finally, he was unemployed but still dressing to go to work (pity).

Again, the findings matched earlier experiments—participants rated the articles associated with disgust and envy with less warmth than the pride or pity scenarios.

“This experiment shows that the dimensions predicting envy are high status and competition, and, when you move those around, the envy goes away. This is consistent with the story about who gets envied and why. A lot of it is tied into money because that’s an easy thing to look at,” says Fiske.

Red Sox and Yankees

In the final experiment, the researchers used Cikara’s experience—a game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Both groups of fans were prescreened for “intense fandom.”

Participants were again monitored through fMRI and self-reports after watching a series of plays in which opponents struck out, scored runs or made fantastic plays. As predicted, participants reported experiencing more pleasure during positive outcomes for their team.

When a third neutral team—the Baltimore Orioles—was thrown into the mix, the fans reported little to no reaction to positive or negative events and did not wish to cause Orioles fans harm. But they were happy when their rival team lost to the Orioles, showing pure Schadenfreude, says Fiske.

An online survey completed by participants two weeks later showed that both groups of fans were more likely to heckle, insult, threaten, or hit a rival fan while watching the plays.

“We used a sporting event because it’s something you can bottle,” says Fiske. “Rabid fans are passionate about it, and we were looking for an intergroup phenomenon that reaches people where they live. This is certainly it. But it’s important to remember that this study isn’t just about sports teams. It’s about intergroup rivals of more consequence.”

Fiske thinks of the study as a simulation or model of group envy or harm.

“In our larger model of stereotypes, we find that when things go smoothly, people go along to get along with these envied groups. It’s when the chips are down that these groups become real targets of Schadenfreude.”

Around the world and in the workplace

In terms of policy implications, Fiske and Cikara agree there are many.

“Around the world, the American government is seen as high status and competent but not necessarily as a group sharing other people’s or countries’ goals. So, as far as other people are concerned, we’re the world’s bullies, and we have data that show that,” says Fiske. “And so, if we want to work with another country, it’s not the respect we’re lacking; it’s the trust. We need to remember that these stereotypes really affect how we enter other settings.”

“A lack of empathy is not always pathological. It’s a human response, and not everyone experiences this, but a significant portion does,” Cikara says. “We need to remember this in terms of everyday situations. If you think about the way workplaces and organizations are set up, for example, it raises an interesting question: is competition the best way to get your employees to produce?

“It’s possible, in some circumstances, that competition is good. In other ways, people might be preoccupied with bringing other people down, and that’s not what an organization wants.”

The Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University supported the research, which was published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Source: Princeton University

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  1. Ema

    So don’t be surprised when envious people show you no mercy. Don’t be shocked when they smile at your pain. They will work to tear you down. They will pretend to be on your side just so they can betray you and harm you. Never trust an envious person, especially one who gives into their envy.

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