They say there is no joy like the joy at another’s misfortune, but at what age do we already know how to feel and express it?
Until now, researchers believed that children didn’t develop such a sophisticated emotion until the age of seven, but a new study conducted at the University of Haifa found evidence of schadenfreude in children as young as two. “The study strengthened the perception that schadenfreude is an evolutionary mechanism that develops within us as we cope with situations of inequality,” said Prof. Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, of the University of Haifa’s Psychology Department, who led the study.
Schadenfreude is an emotion of joy in the face of someone else’s misfortune, and it can be rooted in jealousy, competitiveness, or sometimes even hatred. According to one theory, schadenfreude is 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 mechanism that enables us to feel pleasure at another’s misfortune even when there is no competition for resources.
Until now, the prevailing assumption among researchers was that children younger than 7 years old are not emotionally developed enough to have such feelings. This study, conducted by Prof. Shamay-Tsoory, along with Dorin Ahronberg-Kirschenbaum of the University of Haifa’s School of Education, and Nirit Bauminger-Zviely of Bar Ilan University, sought to determine whether such an emotion exists even earlier, at ages 2 to 3.
To do this, the researchers set up 35 groups comprising 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 his 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 that is a 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.
Apparently, therefore, 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 Prof. 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.”