Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: The pleasure we take from other people's pain


The pleasure we take from other people's pain

My friend, a diehard baseball fan, is very happy whenever the Boston Red Sox win. He told me recently, however, that he is just as happy when the team's archrivals, the New York Yankees, lose. Now, thanks to a group of Japanese researchers, we have some scientific evidence that my friend's feelings are normal for Red Sox fans. And when the Red Sox lose, the same feelings are normal for Yankees fans.

The Germans call it schadenfreude, or taking pleasure (freude) when someone else — especially someone who is envied — suffers a hardship that should evoke pity (schade). The researchers, led by Hidehiko Takahashi of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, described an experiment that helps us to understand the neural basis for this kind of pleasure. In the Feb. 13, 2009, issue of Science, they reported that pain and pleasure activate the same regions of the brain whether the stimulus is physical (a blow to the face) or social (a blow to the ego).

In the experiment, researchers presented subjects with a series of scenarios that were meant to provoke envy or schadenfreude. The authors hypothesized that subjects' reactions would intensify when they closely identified with a target person's attributes or abilities. For example, a Red Sox fan might relate more to the fortunes of a Yankees fan than to an Arsenal soccer club fan in London.

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