Monday, 3 June 2013

Kids experience schadenfreude by age four, maybe earlier

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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Unknown said...

"There is some consolation for readers who believe in the innocence of childhood."

Oh the naivety...

Anonymous said...

what bs.... all this says is that we are a vengeful and sinful in our nature... we have known this, but ignored it for so our entire existence

Anonymous said...

deleted the word so... fat thumbed that one

Anonymous said...

I always thought that this was common knowledge!

Anonymous said...

sinful in our nature? Ugh...go pray. We are complex, not sinful.

Anonymous said...

I think that in a society where we openly disapprove of "illegal" actions but we are not openly allowed to deal our own brand of justice on the bad guys, it is only normal for children to also display and learn the same reactions that grown ups show whenever they see a similar situation happen.

I don't think it's wrong to feel happy when a bad guy fails miserably or gets the punishment he deserves. First of all, he's selfish and doesn't care about the victim. Second, he'll take or abuse the victim without hesitation and would flee to enjoy what isn't rightfully his (or have enjoyed hurting the victim already).

Family of victims of horrible crimes like murder, rape, or massacres suffer so much. Do you honestly think that they don't want to beat or kill the responsible criminal? Do you really think they'd rather let the law give out punishments (where the criminal would most likely be fed 3 times a day, given proper health care) while their loved ones were treated like trash? Personally, if some criminal victimizes a family member, the criminal better wish he gets caught by the police first or else, he'll wish he were dead.

Dig into your mind for your true thoughts and feelings. You might be surprised that no matter how hard you try to mold yourself into society's expectations where each person should not be vengeful, you'll find your true self.

Unknown said...

I witnessed two-year-olds getting high on schadenfreude at the weekend. A whole bunch of them had decided that it would be a jolly good wheeze to clamber onto a wheelbarrow and jump up and down on it. Unfortunately, the fun and hilarity was short-lived, as a couple of them tumbled out of it. As the fallen ones dragged themselves along the grass, evidently distressed, the two-year-old spectators were laughing themselves silly - getting high as kites they were - couldn't get enough of it. (And in case you're wondering, yes, I did put an end to these antics before they got too out of hand).

So, in response to this post, I'd like to suggest that there's no 'maybe' about it - kids experience schadenfreude by age two - no doubt about it.

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alia said...

I absolutely love this blog post and how the study explains how it came up short.

In my psychology book Discovering Psychology, during the age of two to seven of age they are going through pre-operational stage of cognitive development. Which explains why the study fell short of when a lot of the children didn't understand the pictorial rating system and questioning. This is because of the symbolic thought which refers to the ability of words, images, and symbols to represent the world. Which the children in the study from 4 to 8 would have problems associating the pictures and questions to solve and understand the reaction they would get from it.
As the child development increases there will be a better chance to get a more accurate response or reaction from what the children really think and if they have the capability to have a schadenfreude enjoyment.
Also another thing that children are beginning to display egocentrism which children lack the ability to consider events from another point of view. This would be a problem because children might not understand how it might feel if they were the one getting hit by the plum from the person in the tree. When the child understands point of view they might be more sympathetic to more things and understand how they truly feel about the pictorial and questioning

I do like how this study was taken and pointed out other studies that have been done and problems that they had and how they don't have a very accurate study to have a good outcome. I think that they should maybe go for a higher age where the children will be in a different stage of development might actually have a better outcome that is more accurate. Also they could take another approach and try and get on the level of development as the 4 to 8 year olds in the original study.

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