Some of the most popular videos on YouTube are of would-be thieves getting their comeuppance, either knocked-out by brave store-keepers or caught out by their own dazzling ineptitude. Seeing a person deservedly suffer this way brings a special pleasure known as schadenfreude. A new study is the first to investigate whether young children are capable of experiencing this delight.
Katrin Schulz and her colleagues presented simple picture stories to 100 children aged four to eight years (52 girls). The stories involved a child performing a good or bad deed – such as a girl climbing a tree to collect plums for her little brother, or climbing the tree so as to throw plums at her little brother – and then experiencing a misfortune, in this case falling from the tree and hurting herself.
The kids of all ages showed evidence of schadenfreude, suggesting their emotional response to another person’s distress was influenced by their moral judgements about that person. That is, they were more likely to say they were pleased and that it was funny if the story character experienced a misfortune while engaging in a bad deed. They were also less likely to say they’d help a bad character. These effects were strongest for the children aged over 7. And it was only for this age group that intensity of schadenfreude mediated the link between a character’s good or bad moral behaviour and the participants’ willingness to help.
There is some consolation for readers who believe in the innocence of childhood. Overall the children’s levels of schadenfreude were low (averaging no more than 2.37 on a scale from 0 to 8, even for a morally bad character), whereas their levels of sympathy were much higher (always averaging higher than 5 on the same scale). Moreover, the kids showed almost zero schadenfreude when morally good characters suffered a misfortune, whereas they showed plenty of sympathy even for bad characters.
A weakness of the study is in the questions and pictorial rating system which some children found complicated. This means the age-related results may have been to do with basic comprehension and not to do with development of schadenfreude specifically. In fact, the researchers originally recruited three-year-olds, whom they believed would also show schadenfreude, but they had to be excluded because they didn’t understand the questions or rating scale.
“Our data revealed first evidence that schadenfreude might have an important impact on social (i.e. helping) behaviour even among young children,” Schulz and her colleagues concluded. “Thus, it is highly important to further analyse the determinants and consequences of schadenfreude. Right now, we are standing at the beginning of the understanding of this emotion.”
Schulz, K., Rudolph, A., Tscharaktschiew, N., and Rudolph, U. (2013). Daniel has fallen into a muddy puddle – Schadenfreude or sympathy? British Journal of Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12013