Schadenfreude – which literally means “harm-joy” in German –is the sense of pleasure derived from others’ misfortune. It’s a “poorly understood” emotion, according to a group of psychologists at Emory University in the US, and in their review paper in New Ideas in Psychology they propose a new “tripartite” model of schadenfreude based on the idea that deep-seated survival concerns can motivate us to see others as less than human.
Towards the end of the Disney film Aladdin, our hero’s love rival, the evil Jafar, discovers Aladdin’s secret identity and steals his magic lamp. Jafar’s wish to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer is soon granted and he then uses his powers to banish Aladdin to the ends of the Earth.
What follows next is a lingering, close-up of Jafar’s body. He leans forward, fists clenched, with an almost constipated look on his face. He then explodes in uncontrollable cackles that echo across the landscape. For many millennials growing up in the 1990s, it is an archetypical evil laugh.
A recent essay by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen in the Journal of Popular Culture asks what the psychology behind this might be. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is well placed to provide an answer having previously used evolutionary psychology to explain the behaviours of heroes and villains in fiction more generally.
Shame feels so awful it’s hard to see how it could have an upside, especially when you consider specific triggers of the emotion – such as body-shaming, which involves criticising someone for how their body looks. But is shame always an ugly emotion that we should try to do away with? Or can it be helpful?
The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS of 899 people from all over the world is that, as an emotion, shame can not only be useful but is fundamental to our ability to survive and thrive in a group. The essential job of shame, it seems, is to stop us from being too selfish for our own good.
The effect of playing sport on men’s testosterone levels is well documented. Generally speaking, the winner enjoys a testosterone boost, while the loser experiences the opposite (though far less studied, competition unsurprisingly also affects women’s hormonal levels, though not in the same ways as men’s). The evolutionary-based explanation for the hormonal effects seen in men is that the winner’s testosterone rise acts to increase their aggression and the likelihood that they will seek out more contests, while the loser skulks off to lick their wounds. When it comes to vicarious effects of competition on men’s testosterone, however, the findings are more mixed. There’s some evidence that male sports fans show testosterone gains after seeing their teams win, but other studies have failed to replicate this finding.
A new, small study in Human Nature adds to this literature by examining the hormonal changes (testosterone and cortisol) in fathers watching their children play a football game – a situation in which you might particularly expect to see vicarious hormonal effects since it’s the men’s own kin who are involved.
Alongside the physical jostle, thrust and tug of sport there is a parallel contest involving words. Although this trash talking between players before, during and after games is well known, it is surprisingly unstudied by psychologists. Yet these exchanges play a major role, arguably swinging the outcome of games. Consider an infamous example: the 2006 football world cup final in which Italy’s Marco Materazzi insulted the sister or mother (depending on whose account you believe) of France’s star player Zinadine Zidane, who in turn responded by head butting Materazzi. Zidane was then sent off, with Italy going on to win the game on penalties.
Is trash talking more prevalent in some sports than others? What does trash talk tend to be about? A new exploratory paper in Human Nature is among the first systematic investigations of trash talking in sport, and certainly the first to examine the phenomenon through an evolutionary lens.
Many animals, including sea lions and dogs, can accurately predict the size and strength of a potential adversary in part by listening to their vocalisations – such as the ferocity and depth of their barks or growls. People weren’t thought to be much good at doing something similar. But in previous studies, volunteers were asked to judge the absolute height and strength of another person, based on the sound of an aggressively-spoken sentence or a ‘roar’. Now in a new study, published in iScience, when participants were instead instructed to listen to recordings and judge how much stronger, or weaker, taller or shorter the vocaliser was, compared with themselves, they could do this with a high degree of accuracy.
As the researchers, led by David Reby at the University of Sussex, point out, this is potentially far more practically useful than being able to discern someone else’s absolute height or strength.
Celebrities are people famous for being famous. Have you ever given any thought to how it happens that pop-culture figures become so well-known, even when they have risen to the top upon a wave of interest for which there was not the slightest rational explanation? What is the real root cause of our lemming-like rush to keep tabs on insignificant but famous people? What leads us to share this information on social media? Why do we visit gossip portals and read tabloids, even though they’re totally worthless to us? Partial answers to these questions are given by a trio of researchers via a series of creative experiments that they’ve reported in Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
In 1914, the psychologist Leta Hollingworth’s experiments punctured holes in the prevailing idea that menstruating affects women’s intellect. But a century on, the ovulation cycle continues to interest psychologists, who today focus on how it affects sexual behaviour. A popular evolutionary psychology theory states that during fertile periods, women become more interested in men who use dominant masculine behaviour, as this signals they are likely to provide good genes for any offspring. A University of Goettingen team have now conducted the largest ever test of this idea, published as a pre-print at PsyArxiv.
You and your partner have had a tiff. Of all the things they could do to try to make up with you, what would be the most effective? A group of evolutionary psychologists recently put this question to 164 young adults. They presented them with 21 categories of reconciliatory behaviour, including giving a gift, cooking a meal and communicating better (derived from an earlier survey of 74 other young adults about ways to make up).
Men and women agreed that the most effective reconciliatory behaviour of all is communicating (for instance, by talking or texting). To varying degrees, both sexes also rated apologising, forgiving, spending time together and compromising as among the things their partner could do that would most likely heal wounds.
But some behaviours men thought would be more effective for making up than women, and these were their partner performing nice gestures (such as chores, favours and compliments), and offering sex or sexual favours. On the other hand, women thought their partner apologising or crying would be more a more effective way for their partner to make up than did the men.
Joel Wade at Bucknell University and his colleagues said these differences are in line with the predictions of evolutionary psychology, namely that thanks to sex differences in mating strategies shaped through our deep ancestral past, men are generally more concerned about opportunities for sex whereas women are more concerned about emotional commitment. The findings also complement past research, in the same vein, that’s found men are more likely to end a relationship if their partner is sexually unavailable, while women are more likely to end the relationship if their partner is emotionally distant.
“Evolutionary theory predicts a number of sex differences in mate selection, mate retention, and mate expulsion,” the researchers wrote in Evolutionary Psychological Science. “The present research expands this literature by documenting systematic differences in which actions men and women perceive as most effective in promoting conflict reconciliation within romantic relationships.”
We have a mostly impressive ability to identify people we know based on the sound of their voice, but prior research has uncovered an intriguing exception – we’re not very good at discerning identity from laughter. Now Nadine Lavan and her colleagues have published research in Evolution and Human Behavior that looks into why this might be and what it says about our evolutionary past.