Gain from her Pain: It’s Evolution!

Imagine an obnoxiously attractive person of the same sex walking toward you on the street. Let’s say it’s someone that you would consider “competition.” Suddenly, a bus drives by and covers them with mud. How do you feel? If you’re a human, you’ll probably experience some level of schadenfreude. This German word roughly translates to “harm joy,” and means taking pleasure in another person’s pain. Although it seems somewhat evil, this feeling may actually have evolutionary roots.

In evolutionary terms, men are attracted to women who have physical qualities that express fertility, such as a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio and youthful, clear skin. Women, on the other hand, try to attract men who are willing to invest resources in them. Men demonstrate this quality with their social status, physical strength, and/or ambition. When you consider your own value as a potential mate, you must first look at the surrounding competition to see how you stack up. Whether you are male or female, being able assess and compare “mate value” helps you find and secure a mate. So, if another person’s mate value drops, you’ll probably experience some amount of schadenfreude.

In two studies by Colyn and Gordon (2013), the researchers tested this human tendency to compare ourselves to others based on mate value. They argued that schadenfreude actually serves as a mate value tracking mechanism, which allows us to sense when a competitor has lost value as well as our resulting gain. The researchers hypothesized that women would feel schadenfreude more powerfully when a same-gender friend experienced some loss in physical attractiveness. They also proposed that men would feel schadenfreude more powerfully when other male friends experienced some loss in social status.

The researchers asked 299 undergraduate college students to write down an instance where they felt schadenfreude toward a same-sex friend, then to rate a series of hypothetical misfortunes that could happen to this friend. These misfortunes ranged from STDs and bad haircuts to tripping in front of members of the opposite sex. Interestingly, all but one of the participants was able to recall feeling schadenfreude toward a friend at some point, which seems to make college friendships synonymous with wishing the worst for each other. (Oh we are wicked!)

The studies revealed that women did indeed take pleasure in their friends’ pain when the misfortunes were related to some reduction in physical attractiveness. Men, on the other hand, felt more schadenfreude when their male friends were embarrassed socially. The studies did not prove, however, that men or women felt their mate values rose as a result of a misfortune happening to a friend.

Yes, this all seems like depressing news, but don’t give up on friendship yet! Keep in mind that the study tested only college students who generally haven’t yet developed what we might consider “life-long friends.” Also, the closer the subjects were to their friends, the less schadenfreude they experienced, and none of the participants felt schadenfreude when physical pain was involved. 

It does seem that as we get older, we become more selective about our friendships, causing us to gravitate to those who give us strength, who cry with us, and who hold us closely when times are tough. So, while it’s okay to be cautious around competitive college friends, we might also understand friendship as an evolving process that we are quite capable of molding into something beautiful. We know when we’ve found our allies, and when we do, we never let them go.

Colyn, L. A., & Gordon, A. K. (2013). Schadenfreude as a mate-value-tracking mechanism. Personal Relationships, 20(3), 524–545. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01422.x

“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it. It just blooms.” -Sensei Ogui


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