You watch with envy as your long-time colleague gets yet another performance bonus – something you’ve strived for but never obtained. Not long after, you see him trip over in the office in front of everyone. Do you find this situation pleasingly amusing? In other words, do you experience schadenfreude?
According to an international team of research psychologists, your answer will likely depend on the specific kind of envy you feel toward your colleague. Niels van de Ven and his co-workers say there are in fact two types – malicious envy and benign envy. Both involve comparing yourself to someone who is better off in a way that matters to you, but with malicious envy your focus is on the person and wishing they didn’t have the advantage you covet, whereas benign envy involves greater focus on the object of your envy and how you might achieve it for yourself. In some languages, such as Dutch and German, they actually have separate words for these two types of envy.
Malicious envy leads to schadenfreude, the researchers say, but benign envy does not. They demonstrated this in a series of three studies involving hundreds of people, one conducted in Dutch, the other two in English. The general format was the same throughout – participants recalled a situation in which they’d envied another person’s achievement, and then they answered questions about the specific type of envy they’d experienced. Next they were asked to imagine the person they envied had suffered a minor misfortune and whether they would find this amusing. Finally the participants answered questions about their other feelings for the envied person, such as whether they resented them and whether their achievements were seen as deserved. The consistent finding throughout was that malicious envy, but not benign envy, was associated with stronger feelings of schadenfreude, even after factoring out the influence of other feelings such as liking and deservingness of success.
As the researchers explained, this pattern of results makes sense because:
“the motivational goal of malicious envy is to hurt the position of the other to prevent the other from being better off. If a misfortune befalls the superior other this motivational goal is satisfied, triggering positive feelings (i.e. schadenfreude)”.
Past research on the links between envy and schadenfreude have been inconsistent. Also, scholars have disagreed about whether the essence of envy is simply coveting what another has, or whether it necessarily also involves some malicious intent towards the envied. van de Ven and his colleagues say these inconsistent results and debates over definitions are resolved by recognising the key difference between benign and malicious envy – or what in Brazil and Russia they call “white envy” and “black envy”.
van de Ven, N., Hoogland, C., Smith, R., van Dijk, W., Breugelmans, S., & Zeelenberg, M. (2014). When envy leads to schadenfreude Cognition and Emotion, 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2014.961903