The Science of Schadenfreude

The Naked Scientists spoke to Now here's a story that'll bring tears to your eyes, and especially if you're a woman it seems. Tania Singer from University College...
22 January 2006

Interview with 

Now here's a story that'll bring tears to your eyes, and especially if you're a woman it seems. Tania Singer from University College London has been looking at the science of sympathy.


Tania - What we do is investigate empathy, so that's brain responses to the pain of other people. What we wanted to know was whether these rain responses to the pain of other people changed as a function of whether you like or dislike someone.

Chris - So how did you do it What was the actual paradigm you used?

Tania - We knew that using economic games is very potent to inducing liking and disliking in people. In these games, each subject engaged in monetary exchange games with two actors. The subject could send money to these actors. One actor would always reciprocate the trust of the subject by sending high amounts of money back, and so engaging in big amounts of co-operation. The other actor would always cheat by sending small amounts of money back and keeping most of the money the subject sent them to himself.

Chris - So very quickly, the subjects would have developed an intense dislike for the cheater.

Tania - Exactly, because humans really dislike to be cheated on but like, on the other hand, to engage in co - operation.

Chris - So once you'd nurtured these intense feelings of like or intense feelings of dislike in the volunteers, what did you do to see if the people's empathy could be changed?

Tania - The subject could now see either the fair player or the unfair player getting pain delivered through little electrodes attached to the hand of the actor. Now we could measure brain activity while the subject was perceiving the fair or the unfair player getting painful stimulation to the hand.

Chris - And what was the outcome? Were people generally less empathic to people who had cheated on them?

Tania - The surprising bit was that women showed empathy for fair and unfair players, but the men showed a total absence of these pain-related empathy responses to the unfair player. Instead, they showed an increase in activity in areas which process reward.

Chris - So the men were almost being satisfied by seeing the person get their just-desserts then.

Tania - Exactly. The men basically showed what we call schadenfreude, which is the satisfaction of seeing someone suffering who you dislike. That was also surprisingly correlated, so the more men expressed a desire for revenge, the higher the activity in these regions in men.

Chris - Why do you think it's just the men?

Tania - So that's a very good question. We had expected both men and women to show these responses. It might have been that the means of revenge is a physical means here, that is a painful stimulation. It might be that in evolutionary terms, men have favoured physical threat and women would perhaps take more of a psychological revenge. If we would have allowed the subjects to give punishment points, perhaps the women would have given the same amount of punishment points, but women don't actually like revenge in terms of physical threat.


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