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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Your pain, my gain: Feeling pleasure over the misfortune of those you envy is biological

Press Release
Princeton University
Released October 28, 2013

Mina Cikara found her thesis when she wore a Boston Red Sox hat to a New York Yankees baseball game. Nicknames and vulgarities were among the souvenirs she took home. And, after hearing about the name-calling and heckling her then-PhD student endured, Princeton professor Susan Fiske was compelled to join her in pursuing the phenomenon further, exploring why people fail to empathize with others based on stereotypes.

Through a series of four experiments – one involving the aforementioned sports rivalry – the researchers found that people are actually biologically responsive to taking pleasure in the pain of others, a reaction known as "Schadenfreude." By measuring the electrical activity of cheek muscles, the researchers show that people smile more when someone they envy experiences misfortune or discomfort. While these findings hold significance for interpersonal relationships, the researchers also cite associated policy implications, such as how other countries view and stereotype the United States especially given that many countries envy the U.S., Fiske said. Their findings were reported in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

"Jealousy and envy are highly correlated," said Fiske, coauthor of the study and the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School. "When we ask people on surveys who is envied in American society, they report the same groups: objects of jealousy. This is all very much based on stereotypes. And so, in this study, we sought to better understand who is among these envied groups and whether that envy and jealousy elicits a harmful response."

"We were interested in the conditions under which people fail to empathize with one another and how, for some of those people, they experience happiness at another's expense," said lead author Cikara, now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "We wanted to start in a place where people would be willing to express their opinions and willingness to harm more freely, like we see in sports. We asked ourselves: what is it about rivalries that elicit a harmful response? And can we predict who will have this response?"

The entire press release is here.
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