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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The cognitive antecedents and behavioural consequences of schadenfreude in an evolutionary framework Black, Pamela Jean


Schadenfreude is the subjective emotional experience of malicious pleasure that follows from observing another person suffer a misfortune (Heider, 1958). This positive affective reaction is universal, experienced across the lifespan and across cultures. To date, research in this area has focused primarily on the cognitive appraisals that precede this emotion, highlighting the important role of upward social comparison prior to the ensuing experience of schadenfreude. Less focus has been placed on the remaining components of the schadenfreude response, such as the behavioural consequences, leaving much to be learned about this affective state. Using evolutionary theory as an organizing framework, the present three-study dissertation further explored the influence of social comparison on schadenfreude and tested several novel questions related to the impact of the nature of the misfortune, the experience of observing repeated misfortunes, and the ultimate effect of malicious pleasure on subsequent behaviour. Across the three studies, upward, rather than downward, social comparison reliably predicted feelings of pleasure for a target following a misfortune. There also was preliminary evidence that schadenfreude, in the context of an upward social comparison, dissipates following the observation of a single misfortune. Interestingly, relative to previous research, which has typically manipulated minor misfortunes, the present dissertation depicted major misfortunes, and participants responded with less schadenfreude. Finally, although social comparison and misfortune type did not directly influence helping behaviour, evidence was found for a relationship between the experience of schadenfreude for a target and a resulting lack of willingness to personally help that individual. Overall, the findings add to our understanding of the cognitive, behavioural, and subjective experience of schadenfreude and novel aspects of this research provide insights and important recommendations for future research on this common emotional state.

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