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«Running Head: Intergroup Schadenfreude Malicious Pleasure: Schadenfreude at the Suffering of Another Group Colin Wayne Leach Russell Spears Nyla R. ...»

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Intergroup Schadenfreude 1

Running Head: Intergroup Schadenfreude

Malicious Pleasure: Schadenfreude at the Suffering of Another Group

Colin Wayne Leach

Russell Spears

Nyla R. Branscombe

Bertjan Doosje

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (in press).

Keywords: intergroup relations, emotion, intergroup emotion, social identity theory,


Intergroup Schadenfreude 2


Two studies examined intergroup schadenfreude -- malicious pleasure at an outgroup’s misfortune. Study 1 showed that schadenfreude regarding a German loss in soccer was increased by interest in soccer and threats of Dutch inferiority. The effect of inferiority threat was especially strong for participants less interested in soccer, as the more interested showed relatively high schadenfreude. Study 2 replicated these effects by showing a similar pattern of schadenfreude regarding losses by Germany and Italy in another setting. However, schadenfreude toward legitimately superior Italy was lower when a norm of honest and direct expression was made salient to participants lower in soccer interest. These results establish schadenfreude as an emotion that is moderated by the salient dimensions of particular intergroup relations.

Intergroup Schadenfreude 3 Malicious Pleasure: Schadenfreude at the Suffering of Another Group It is the wreckage of what surrounds me that provides the foundation for my virility (Fanon, 1967, p.211).

We are not always the most noble of creatures. Although we should feel sympathetic when seeing others suffer, we sometimes feel pleased. The German word schadenfreude (sha dEn froy dE) describes this malicious pleasure (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). Heider (1958, ch.11) argued that schadenfreude is malicious because pleasure is a “discordant” reaction to another’s misfortune. Unlike the “concordant” reaction of sympathy, schadenfreude establishes an antagonistic relationship to the unfortunate other. For this reason Heider saw schadenfreude as harmful to social relations.

Schadenfreude may in fact present a particularly insidious threat to social relations.

Unlike the more legitimate feelings of “pride” or “gloating” in the active defeat of another through direct competition (e.g., Leach & Spears, 2002), schadenfreude is only enabled when a third party or circumstance causes another’s misfortune (for discussions see Leach, Snider, & Iyer, 2002; Ortony et al, 1988). This is why Nietzsche (1967) contrasted the pleasure of passively “seeing” others suffer (i.e., schadenfreude) to the pleasure of actively “making” others suffer. He argued that seeing others suffer provides a more insidious, and thus illegitimate, pleasure because it is not actively earned through direct competition.

Despite its destructive potential as a particularly insidious form of malice toward others, there has been little research of schadenfreude. In fact, no work has examined schadenfreude in the relations between groups. Thus, we draw on Nietzsche to propose three factors that should moderate feelings of intergroup schadenfreude at outgroups’ misfortunes. We examine these

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Although schadenfreude is directed toward others, it is strongly tied to the (individual or group) self. For this reason Nietzsche believed that schadenfreude toward others’ misfortunes is greatest in those domains that are self-relevant (see also Heider, 1958). This suggests the proposition that intergroup schadenfreude should be greatest when an outgroup suffers in a domain of interest to ingroup members. For example, those most interested in international soccer should feel the most pleasure in response to a rival country’s downfall in soccer. This is because greater interest in the domain increases the self-relevance of others’ performance within the domain.

Although focused on the interpersonal level, a number of emotion theories also propose that others’ misfortunes in self-relevant domains promote schadenfreude (e.g., Lazarus, 1991;

Ortony et al, 1988; R. H. Smith et al, 1996). Although not specifically concerned with intergroup schadenfreude, research in the social identity theory tradition is also consistent with this notion.

For example, a number of studies have shown the negative evaluation of outgroups to be greatest in domains most relevant to ingroup identity (e.g., Mummendey & Schreiber, 1983;

Mummendey & Simon, 1989). Thus, there is good reason to propose that the malicious pleasure of schadenfreude should be greatest when outgroups falter in a domain of interest to the ingroup.

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Our second proposition is that schadenfreude should be increased by threats to the ingroup’s status. Nietzsche argued that those who are threatened by the possibility of their own inferiority have “a desire to deaden pain by means of affect” (p.127). Thus, feeling pleasure at

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essence, Nietzsche suggested that the affective pleasure of schadenfreude is a way in which ingroups can compensate for a status inferiority that threatens their self-worth.

Although an examination of interpersonal emotion, R. H. Smith et al. (1996) have shown schadenfreude to result from perceived inferiority in much the same way as Nietzsche suggested.

Under the guise of a career advising program, they exposed students to a male peer whose superiority (or inferiority) to them was made clear. As expected, the superior peer made participants feel inferior. The peer then suffered (or did not suffer) the misfortune of being denied admission to medical school. Those who perceived themselves as more inferior to the superior peer felt more pleasure when he suffered a misfortune. Importantly, R. H. Smith et al.

showed that feeling inferior to the successful peer is what led to schadenfreude in response to his misfortune.

At the intergroup level, social identity research also suggests that threats to ingroup status will increase malicious responses to outgroups that pose such a threat (for reviews see Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears & Doosje, 1999; Mummendey & Otten, 1998). For example, members of actual low status groups, whose group identity is “chronically” threatened by their relative inferiority to higher status groups, evaluate outgroups most negatively (Mullen, Brown, & Smith, 1992). So too have more “acute” threats of group inferiority, in the form of poor performance on a specific task, been shown to make more negative evaluations of outgroups that perform better (for a review see Mummendey & Otten, 1998). Thus, there is general support for the proposition that the threat of ingroup inferiority can increase schadenfreude toward outgroups that present such a threat.

Although schadenfreude may serve as an opportunistic form of revenge against

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also suggests another possibility. Indeed, the idea is reminiscent of the displacement (or scapegoating) argument that the threat of ingroup inferiority posed by a superior outgroup can lead to prejudice toward an unrelated target (see Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, & Sanford; Allport, 1954; Fromm, 1941). Although not based in psychodynamic theory, some prejudice research has shown that the threat of inferiority prompted by one outgroup is associated with malicious feelings toward an unrelated outgroup (e.g., Campbell, 1971; Kessler & Mummendey, 2001; Vanneman & Pettigrew, 1972). This kind of prejudice is more clearly malicious because it is a wholly self-serving attempt to use an outgroup’s lower status to compensate for one’s own inferiority. In a similar way, a more clearly malicious and self-serving form of schadenfreude may occur when an ingroup responds to the threat of status inferiority by feeling pleasure toward an unfortunate outgroup that does not pose the status threat. Thus, our second proposition is that the threat of ingroup inferiority should promote schadenfreude toward the threatening outgroup as well as toward unrelated outgroups that can serve as a target (perhaps because they are seen as rivals).

3. Legitimating Circumstances Increase (Opportunistic) Schadenfreude Nietzsche described schadenfreude as extremely opportunistic. Given that it is passive and indirect, schadenfreude relies on circumstances that cause another’s misfortune and make it legitimate for the ingroup to enjoy the opportunity (Brigham et al., 1997; Heider, 1958; R. H.

Smith, 1991). As Nietzsche put it (1967, p.123), our “[...]most secret tyrant-appetite disguises itself in words of virtue.” For example, schadenfreude appears less legitimate when another’s achievement is seen as deserved. This was shown recently in a study of interpersonal schadenfreude toward high achieving peers. Feather and Sherman (2002) showed that perceiving

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subsequent failure. In much the same way, intergroup schadenfreude should be sensitive to circumstances that make it appear more or less legitimate. For example, schadenfreude should be less legitimate in response to the misfortune of an outgroup that establishes itself as (legitimately) superior to the ingroup. Although the ingroup should want to be pleased at the misfortune of a superior outgroup, the outgroup’s superiority should make schadenfreude at one (perhaps isolated) misfortune appear illegitimate.

A number of social identity theorists have made a similar claim by arguing that an ingroups’ negative reaction to outgroups can be “constrained” by conditions that make it appear illegitimate (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; for a review see Spears, Jetten, & Doosje, 2001). For example, research has shown that low status groups are unlikely to devalue high status groups that enjoy a socially legitimated superiority (e.g. Doosje, Spears & Koomen, 1995; Ellemers, van Rijswijk, Roefs, & Simons, 1997). In fact, when a high status group’s superiority is seen as legitimate lower status groups evaluate the high status group as superior in relevant attributes.

Thus, low status groups confirm the “reality” of high status group’s legitimate superiority. When a high status group’s position is seen as illegitimate, however, low status groups appear less constrained and evaluate high status groups more negatively (Jetten, Spears, Hogg, & Manstead, 2000). Thus, there is good reason to believe that, like other intergroup evaluatons, schadenfreude is less legitimate in response to the misfortune of a legitimately superior outgroup.

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The idea that we can feel emotion as a result of our group identity and our ingroup’s relation to outgroups is a natural extension of theories of the group self, such as social identity and self-categorization theory. If we can define ourselves at the group level (in terms of

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but also intra- and inter-group emotions. Following this notion, E. R. Smith (1993) argued that the study of prejudice and intergroup relations is enriched by attention to emotion. He argued that specific emotions represent the evaluations ingroups make of outgroups better than more general notions of prejudice or group bias. There is now growing evidence that the study of specific intergroup emotions enables a more substantive characterization of evaluation in the context of intergroup relations (for reviews see Leach et al. 2002; Mackie & Smith, 2002).

Schadenfreude is an emotion important to intergroup relations because it is the misfortune of an outgroup that is explicitly enjoyed. This malicious pleasure distinguishes schadenfreude from positively valenced forms of intergroup evaluation that more actively celebrate an ingroup’s superiority with little apparent malice or derogation (e.g., “pride” or “gloating”). The passive and indirect nature of the malice in schadenfreude also distinguishes it from the active and direct antipathy shown in the anger expressed toward outgroups in direct competition with the ingroup (e.g., Kessler & Mummendey, 2001; Leach, Iyer, & Pedersen, 2002; Mackie et al.

2000). Thus, schadenfreude constitutes a unique intergroup emotion that has not been studied within the prejudice or social identity traditions or their recent extension in the notion of intergroup emotion.

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Sport can arouse great passions, especially when a favorite team locks horns with a longstanding rival. This is partly due to the fact that sports teams often represent important group identities (Branscombe & Wann, 1991). We therefore examined intergroup schadenfreude within the context of international soccer competition. We were particularly interested in Dutch reaction to the fortune of their neighbor and rival, Germany. Physical proximity, greater size, and better

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rival for the Dutch (as we establish in a pilot study below). In Study 2, we also examine schadenfreude toward Italy, a rival mainly in the domain of a particular soccer tournament in which they were matched against the Netherlands.

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The three propositions we developed above, supported by Nietzsche’s philosophy as well as social identity theory and the intergroup emotion perspective, serve as our general hypotheses.

First, we hypothesized that schadenfreude increases when an outgroup’s misfortune occurs in a domain of interest to the ingroup. The role of interest in the domain of the outgroup’s misfortune is examined in both studies. Second, we hypothesized that the threat of ingroup inferiority increases schadenfreude toward rival outgroups, whether they pose the threat or not. We examine the effect of an acute and chronic threat of inferiority on schadenfreude toward an unrelated outgroup in Study 1. We examine the effect of an acute threat in schadenfreude toward an unrelated outgroup and toward the outgroup posing the threat in Study 2. Third, we hypothesized that the circumstances surrounding an outgroups’ misfortune moderate the legitimacy, and thus level, of schadenfreude. In Study 2 we examine the legitimate superiority of the outgroup as a way to delegitimate, and thus decrease, schadenfreude. We also examine ingroup norms as moderators of the legitimacy of schadenfreude.

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