Not little angels? Pleasure at another’s misfortune is evident

Study: ‘Schadenfreude’ exists in toddlers.

(photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
Although young children look angelic, even as young as the age of two they tend to learn that they should worry first about themselves, according to a new study by University of Haifa psychologists.
Toddlers already show signs of feeling pleasure at another’s misfortune – known in German as schadenfreude.
Until now, researchers believed that children didn’t develop such a sophisticated emotion until the age of seven, but the research provided evidence that schadenfreude is an evolutionary mechanism that develops within human beings as they cope with situations of inequality,” said Prof. Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, of the psychology department, who led the study. Dorin Ahronberg-Kirschenbaum of the university’s School of Education and Nirit Bauminger-Zviely of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, carried out the study with her.
Schadenfreude can be rooted in jealousy, competitiveness or sometimes even hatred. According to one theory, it’s an evolutionary mechanism that develops as a result of competition over limited resources, for example, the struggle between two siblings over their parents’ attention. This mechanism, which develops at an early age, turns later on into a system that enables us to feel pleasure at another’s misfortune, even when there is no competition for resources.
The psychologists created 35 groups comprised of a mother, her child and a friend of the child who is the same age. The groups were subjected to two situations.
The first was an “equal” situation in which the mother encouraged the children to play together, ignored them for two minutes and then began to read a book aloud to herself for two minutes. After those two minutes, the mother was told to take a glass of water that was on the table and pour it by “accident” on the book. In the second, “unequal” situation, after the first two minutes the mother took the child that wasn’t hers on her lap and began reading the book aloud to him or her.
Here, too, after two minutes, the mother spilled the cup of water on the book.
The researchers found that when the unequal situation was brought to an end, the mother’s own child showed visible signs of happiness, as expressed by jumping up and down, clapping hands or rolling on the floor. By contrast, when the water was spilled while the mother was reading the book to herself, there were no similar reactions.
According to the researchers, the “misfortune” that made the children happy was the fact that their peer had stopped hearing the story, which strengthens the theory that schadenfreude is a social development in reaction to inequality.
During the study the researchers also found evidence of jealousy that expressed itself by children trying to force themselves between their mother and the book, or playing with their mother’s hair while the mother was reading the book to their friend. These expressions were stronger than the expressions of schadenfreude, which upholds the findings of previous studies that show jealousy is a stronger emotion than schadenfreude.
Thus apparently, the emotion of schadenfreude is embedded in children far earlier than previously thought.
“Social comparisons, in which we compare what we have to what others have, as well as emotions of justice, develop at a very early age and constitute positive evolutionary mechanisms to cope with inequitable situations,” said Shamay-Tsoory. “Because social-comparison reactions are linked to character traits like self-esteem and altruism, it’s possible that people who think less of themselves are more likely to suffer from feelings of schadenfreude.”