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Even 4-Year-Olds Feel Schadenfreude

And it turns out that kids as young as four experience that weird glee of seeing someone trip and fall

Laughing? Crying? Reveling in your pain? Possibly all of the above. (Mark Kenny)

There’s a certain kind of pleasure that humans derive from other people’s pain. That feeling is so universal that it has its own long German word: schadenfreude. And it turns out that kids as young as four experience that weird glee when seeing someone trip and fall, watching an annoying neighbor’s beautiful lawn wither and die or witnessing the melt down of Rob Ford. (Okay, maybe that one is lost on 4-year-olds.)

A recent study tried to figure out just how young schadenfreude starts. The researchers looked at 52 girls ages four to eight. They told them simple picture stories about children doing good or naughty things. One girl climbs a tree to collect plums for her brother, and the other gathers the plums to throw at her brother. The character then experiences some misfortune like falling from the tree. The researchers then asked the children things like how sorry they felt for the character, how pleased they were that they fell, how funny it was to them and how willing they were to help the fallen character.

Here’s what they found, from Research Digest:

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.

If you prefer your children sweet and kind, you can take solace in the fact that while they did find schadenfreude in these kids, the levels were far lower than you might see in adults.

The authors of the study say that, to their knowledge, this is the first time anyone has looked at schadenfreude in children, so they’re hoping that more researchers investigate just how young children deal with witnessing misfortune. But let this be one reminder that children can be just as mean as adults.

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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