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How to Manage the Guilty Pleasure of Watching Others Fall

The emotion of schadenfreude is valid. In fact, it may even have a purpose.

Key points

  • Schadenfreude is the joy we feel at others’ misfortune.
  • Schadenfreude serves as a psychological shield against feelings of inadequacy.
  • Mastering our emotions, including schadenfreude, is a crucial part of personal growth.
Lesli Whitecotton / Unsplash
Source: Lesli Whitecotton / Unsplash

Have you ever felt a little rush of joy after seeing the downfall of someone you don’t particularly like? This is what psychologists refer to as “schadenfreude”—the joy we feel at others’ misfortune. We’ve all felt it at some point or another.

While it’s generally considered a socially undesirable emotion, is it all that bad? Research shows that our enjoyment of others’ misfortunes can be both beneficial and detrimental. Here’s how.

The Benefits Of Schadenfreude

A study published in the European Review of Social Psychology sought to explain when and why people feel schadenfreude. The researchers found that people feel schadenfreude most intensely when it provides them with social comparisons that increase their sense of self-worth.

Additional research appearing in New Ideas in Psychology further deconstructed the experience of schadenfreude into three interrelated forms—aggression, rivalry and, justice. The researchers explain that:

  1. Rivalry schadenfreude is borne out of our need to make social comparisons, focused on our own social status in comparison to the sufferer.
  2. Aggression schadenfreude stems from a sense of social identity; it helps us draw a line between “them” and “us,” the outgroup we don’t like and our own “superior” ingroup. This way, the misfortune of the outgroup can feel rewarding.
  3. Justice schadenfreude reminds us that individuals who violate social justice will be punished in some way, and that, in a roundabout way, is our reward for sticking to our principles.

Sometimes, watching other people fail makes us feel better about ourselves. For instance, we’ve all secretly enjoyed that tiny ego boost when our not-so-favorite coworker messes up a project. Psychologists refer to this as “downward social comparison.” It’s like a shot of self-esteem, reminding you that you may not be so bad after all, and that others are worse off.

Other times, schadenfreude can feel like a dose of cosmic justice. When a repeat offender in the bad-behavior department gets their karma, you can’t help but feel a sense of justice served. It feels like the universe is giving them a little nudge to shape up. This can help maintain a sense of fairness in our social world.

From these perspectives, schadenfreude serves as a psychological shield against feelings of inadequacy, reminding us that we’re not alone in our imperfections. It helps us navigate our own feelings of self-doubt, highlighting that others, too have their moments of weakness.

The Harms Of Schadenfreude

As good as it feels to be a hater in the moment, indulging in your schadenfreude too much can strain your relationships and drain your empathy reserves. Relishing in others’ misfortunes can make it hard to connect with their feelings or offer them a shoulder to cry on. It might even place you on a lonely island of judgmentalism, slowly morphing you into a pessimistic and unempathetic Grinch.

One study investigated the associations between envy, stereotypes, and schadenfreude. Concerningly, the authors explained that when an outgroup is envied, the ingroup’s experienced pleasure at the outgroup’s misfortune was associated with a willingness to harm outgroup members.

Unbridled schadenfreude can put your moral compass in jeopardy, and might leave you preying on the downfall of others. In serious cases, overindulgence in schadenfreude could even lead to taking actions to ensure their downfall. When you take joy in others’ pain without considering the bigger picture, you might start sliding down a slippery slope of ethical ambiguity. This could lead to a less compassionate, more judgmental you, or even worse.

How To Moderate Your Schadenfreude

The secret to taming the emotional beast of schadenfreude is moderation and self-awareness. While experiencing it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, giving in to it too often could be detrimental. In the future, take a moment to pause and ask yourself why you’re feeling schadenfreude. Is it for the secret self-esteem boost? For a sense of standing up for justice? Or is it maybe a bad habit spiraling out of control?

By pausing to understand the root of your emotions, you can gain insight into your own psyche, fostering emotional intelligence and striving for a more balanced and empathetic response. Remember, it’s not about eradicating schadenfreude altogether but about wielding it as a tool for personal growth.


In a world where kindness and understanding matter, mastering our emotions, including schadenfreude, is a crucial part of personal growth. So, the next time you feel that tiny jolt of satisfaction when your frenemy stumbles, take a moment to reflect. Embrace the goodness of your morality and sense of self, but be wary of the ugly sides of your secret schadenfreude.

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