Podcast – Episode 0076 – The Dangers of Schadenfreude

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In this episode Joel and Antonia talk about the dangers of Schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune) and apply it to the recent Ashley Madison scandal.

In this podcast on Schadenfreude you’ll find:

  • Schadenfreude – taking pleasure in another person’s suffering.
  • People don’t realize it, but there’s a lot of Schadenfreude going on in society. They don’t see it as Schadenfreude but as Karma or Justice.
  • Cruelty is never right nor is taking pleasure in cruel twists of fate. What we should be focusing is how we can prevent the incident from happening again.
  • We understand the feeling of helplessness and we can feel that way sometimes.
  • As it turns out, it can be a sure way to make us feel better or regain power about ourselves. It’s a self-affirming/self-empowering boost.
  • When people feel disempowered, they want each individual person to pay for it. They want to reclaim power by seeing other people be put in their situation. While this may temporarily work, it doesn’t do anything to solve the problem.
  • When we assume that the person who’s offending us should actually suffer (the idea that somebody should suffer because they’ve hurt our ethical principles), it doesn’t solve anything. It just keeps everything in the shadows.
  • What problem are we trying to solve? It’s the feeling of powerlessness. By doing Schadenfreude, you are solving your own problem. You may think your problem has been solved but it’s only short term.
  • The emotion of righteous indignation exists for a reason. We feel indignant when things are truly offensive to us and our feeling of righteousness propels us from doing something about it.
  • Righteous indignation may make us feel powerful, but it’s not real empowerment.
  • The human race is constantly evolving and we need to deal the issues that we’ve been keeping in the dark for so long.
  • As we enter the space where we’re going to deal with all these stuff hidden in the shadows, how are we going to deal with them?
  • You can’t control what’s going to happen in your life but you can control how you think, feel and respond to it.
  • Working on ourselves is the solution. It would require more of us in order to calm down and deal with all the issues. Ask yourself, what is the mature, empowered action/response I can bring to this?

In this episode Joel and Antonia talk about the dangers of Schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another person's misfortune). #podcast #ashleymadison #personalgrowth

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Showing 24 comments
  • Erika

    Thank you for this discussion. The subjects you chose were intense. But you have a precision, and at the same time so much compassion in the way you talk about them. You look at the issues from different perspectives and discuss ways in which we all can be part of solutions instead of feeding into the cycle of suffering. I appreciate this so much. Also, I am grateful for the insightful and personal comments the discussion inspired.
    This idea of feeling disempowered in aspects of one‘s life (or life in general) and then trying to feel powerful in a specific context where one feels permission to speak or act out, I find this important and (for lack of a different word) powerful.

    The way you used the word Schadenfreude felt unfamiliar to me though (as a German speaker). At first, I wondered if it was about the severity of the topics you were applying it to; but though I usually hear the word used in connection to „lighter“ incidents, I can easily imagine that it can be applied to „heavier“ subjects. What I then realised was that it feels unfamiliar to use the word to describe something one wishes on someone. The way I would use it, and have so far experienced it being used, is to describe the glee one may feel when something bad has happened to someone and one feels the person deserved it. Sorry for being nitpicking, I just felt like describing this nuance.

  • Susan H

    There are many times that I have had the conversation alone (yes, in my own head) that you both have opened up in this podcast. I didn’t realize that there were others who shared a view any different than “hang all sex offenders”. I postponed listening to this podcast due to the sensitive nature, I had to make sure I was ready to open this up for myself, lukcily I was. I also took a lot of time to think through my own comment on this topic. I have read all the comments to date. I am thankful for all the perspectives and really appreciate each personal experience that has been shared.

    My father is currently in prison on child pornography charges, 2nd offense. He’s a sex offender, a pedophile.

    A brief history:
    The first arrest was in 1999, sentence began in 2000. At that time our family was led to believe (by my father) that the child pornography was received by mistake & he failed to report it, which incriminated him. In many ways the niavity of my family helped us all cope. We believed him to be a victim of a raid; he was a victim because he claimed to have reeived child pornography but did not report it so he was guilty by distribution.

    Upon release in 2004 he was fortunate to find employment and a friend of his (he lost many) rented their house to him. His life was somewhat in order.
    He was to request permission for all travel, which was necessary for him to visit his mother, my sister, and myself as we all lived in a different state than he did. He registered as a sex offender, attended many therapy and counceling session – one that included shock therapy.

    In 2007 I received a call from my fathers employer stating he had not come to work for several days and didn’t even call off, which was very uncharactristic. After having called a few friends that lived locally to check on him (since I live out of state) I was informed of another raid; he had been taken to jail on a violation of his probation that had something to do with child pornography. Goodbye niavety and hello big ugly truth.
    The 2nd offense turned out to be a 15 year sentence.

    My intent is to bring a different perspective to the conversation. I am a mother (of a now 18 year old). As you can imagine this hits very close to home and hit even closer at the time of my fathers encarceration, as my son was a lot younger at that time, yet this is not the angle I am going to take. I am also not going to take the angle of a concerned member of society, although I also felt this aspect very deeply. The mix of emotions surrounding how I should feel was overwhelming, since I could see this situation from many sides. Today though, I would like to present the angle from the lens as the daughter of a sex offender.
    My father is a sex offender. He is still my father and I cannot change this. I am presently estranged from him but not due to his imprisonment.
    It’s ugly to see how many people will judge a family based on one persons actions. Our family did not commit any crime, in fact, we were unaware of any problem.
    It’s sad to see how a family is willing to lie to cover up shame. We didn’t talk about what happened, the topic NEVER came up. We never openly spoke about it to my father or amoung ourselves. I believe I was the only one willing to open a conversation, yet, when I tried my sister would lash out at me and tell me I should have done something since I was living with him the first time he was arrested. My Grandmother would just shut down and tear up. My mother (my parents are divoced and had been for 10+ years at the time of the arrest) would tell me that my father was always sexual and she would go on about how he had affairs. None of this conversation or lack of was helpful. Nobody, even myself, could find the dialogue to open this up in a healthy way.
    It’s sad to feel that loving a pedophile needs to be justified. Society tells you that it’s not ok to love a person whose actions have deemed them unloveable. I spent years feeling that as a mother and a member of society I should feel guilty for loving my father.

    What was done by him and the people who create and distribute any form of child pornography is not something I will ever approve of. On the flip side, hearing people say that all sex offenders should die is also something I will never approve of. I believe my father has an addiction and that there are not proper resources available. I believe that the way society views addicts of this type can be changed. I believe the culture around how we approach ALL addictions can change.
    Each person suffering from an addiction has someone that they love/smeone that loves them that is also suffering from the addicts addiction/actions. There are faces behind the face. There are people wanting a better world where there are no victims, shame, or suffering. I have always wanted to open this conversation, create support for families, and stop the hiding .
    “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgement” – Brene Brown


    In the podcast the following conversation starters were articulated and I want to keep these in my toolbox to use when I approach any issue. This is profound to me and especially helpful with this topic. While I have spent years feeling powerless by not being able to talk about my thoughts regarding my fathers crimes I held tight to my belief that there’s a bigger picture that society is not looking at.

    1. How we should feel about the topic
    2. How we should talk about the topic
    3. How we’re going to solve the problem

    Punitive punishment was also brought up… The punitive punishment did not seem to work in the case of my father (even with shock therapy).
    I did a report for a college class about 4 years ago regarding recidivism, when I think of punitive punishment my mind goes to the recidivism data and how the systems just aren’t working to help solve the bigger problem (not specific for any one offense) http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4986

  • Catlyn

    Regarding the Santa Claus brouhaha that was mentioned, I wonder if the mothers’ vitriol was actually rooted in protecting their children’s innocence – their sense of wonderment and magic about the world. That stage of life is so fleeting; they seem to develop a sense of cynicism and skepticism about the world at younger and younger ages. So, I wonder if it wasn’t so much the “loss” of Santa that angered the mothers as much as it was the symbolic loss of a little piece of their child’s youth.

    That being said, I have no particular love for Santa either. I saw him used as an instrument of guilt in a lot of my friends’ families…. “santa’s watching! better be good!”

  • Juliana

    Hi Guys!

    I’m a big fan of your podcast but here I have to comment something. Your definition of schadenfreude here is not entirely correct. Schadenfreude is feeling pleasure for someone else’s suffering but not only when have been offended before. Schadenfreude can simply me being laughing about someone who stumbled over his own feet or having a stupid accident. We don’t have to have a connection with these people and it does not mean we are wishing someone bad but maybe just making fun of them for experiencing some sort of unfortunate incident.

    I was born in Germany so I have an exact feeling for the use cases of schadenfreude.

    Besides that: Keep on doing this great work m, I really enjoy listening to it.

    • Charis Branson

      Thanks for your comment Juliana and your perspective as a German native. When I look Schadenfreude up on the internet I get the sense that it can have a wide range of uses – from harmless enjoyment over someone tripping to more malicious enjoyment over someone who has somehow offended our principles (getting caught for cheating on taxes or spouses, etc.). Joel and Antonia were referencing its more malicious usage and trying to make us aware of our all too human tendency to rejoice in other’s misfortune…no matter what it is. In a perfect world, we would feel more compassion and less glee.

      I found this really interesting article re: Schadenfreude from researcher Wilco W. van Dijk, of Netherlands University, where he showed that Schadenfreude was the sign of a low self-esteem and an individuals need to feel superior to the person they were gloating over. The article ended with the observation:

      “‘We know that it’s very good to feel empathy and sympathy for people, so if you feel schadenfreude without any sympathy or compassion for that other person,’ that would not be good, van Dijk said. ‘Our society thrives on compassion and empathy.’ While some of us get a kick out of the small blunders of a colleague, say, others experience schadenfreude due to another’s grave misfortunes, as van Dijk has found in research yet to be published.” (http://www.livescience.com/17398-schadenfreude-affirmation.html)

      • Astre

        Hello! Is there any way to download your podcasts? :>

  • Astre

    Hello! Is there any way to download your podcast? I installed iTunes just for you, but I really don’t know how to dl from there, and there are only 50 items listed anyway. :/
    I want to listen to everything you made. Could you make it possible to downlaod from your website? Or even make a package (or few packages) with all the stuff up to date?
    As for now I’m listening only when I can be online. Putting it on my mp3 player would make it so much easier and quicker to get through all the material.

    Please help, I’m your big fan 🙂

  • Yas

    This podcast was excellent in so many ways. I’ve had this thought for many years, but never really expressed it formally, and any attempt to resulted in pretty judgmental and condemnatory responses. Although I like the word “schadenfreude”, what it represents is a little alarming. I remember going to school the morning after Osama bin Laden was killed, and although I in no way approved of what he did in his lifetime, the amount of joy expressed by fellow students and friends alarmed me. There was no questioning the loss of a human life, no sympathy, nothing. It wasn’t that they were relieved or thought justice was done that bothered me, it was the way people smiled and cheered and rejoiced which let me feeling uneasy.

    As you said, I think we’d all be better off if we were more willing to empathize, even with people we disagree with. Everyone is on their own journey, with their own struggles, and circumstances that shaped who they are. I think I’m going to make this the topic of my own recording.

    I hope more people come to think of these issues and the dangers of self-righteous judgment. Thank you for this podcast. 🙂

  • Barbara

    A very important topic! Thank you for this discussion. The example that comes to my mind is when there is a perceived instance of animal mistreatment. For example, a dog left outside in a snowstorm. The level of vitriol expressed in people’s comments is unbelievable. But I think you all have explained it by discussing people’s feelings of powerlessness. That makes a lot of sense. A lot to think about, to apply to self, too. (Btw, my dog LIKES snowstorms!)

    • Joel Mark Witt

      Thank you Barbara for sharing your feedback. I too have seen this with animals. A friend of mine used to hitchhike around the country with his dog.

      He said people tried to steal his dog from him in outrage because they assumed (since he looked homeless from days on the road) that the wasn’t caring for his pet. Had the cops called on him multiple times for “animal cruelty.”

      I think people truly are looking for ANY way to feel empowered in their lives. And they don’t stop to see what’s actually going on.

      Thanks again for being a part of the Personality Hacker community.

  • Dan

    Excellent topic guys. I also really appreciate the above comments as well.

    This is a subject I’ve been thinking and reading about quite a bit lately. Yes, it can be extremely difficult to set aside our emotions (perhaps even impossible for some) and have a rational discussion about this but I think it’s critical that we as a society do so.

    My personal opinion is that mindless vindictiveness is actually an evolved trait that served us in our past. E.G. My clan of primates occupies one end of a valley and your clan has the other end. You do some perceived wrong to my clan so I gather up my guys, come to your area while you’re sleeping, and murder every one of you. Guess whose genes now own the valley and whose have been kicked out of the pool.

    It’s not serving us anymore though. If we look at issues such as pederasty on a systemic level I think it becomes clear that this approach is actually contributing to the problem. You guys talked about this some in the podcast. Remember, most pedophiles and pederasts were themselves victims as children. So, in our righteous insistence on loudly condemning anyone who has these types of desires as well as demanding punitive (vindictive) justice for those who act on it, we are ensuring that none of these people are getting any kind of help to combat their desires. In turn, some of them will continue to act on said desires, victimizing children who will then grow up to be adults who have a higher likelihood of becoming predators.

    In short, the inability to set aside our emotional reaction to this is a SIGNIFICANT node in a system that produces child victimization.

    Stacy – you touched on recognizing the mental illness behind cheaters, sex offenders, etc. Very good point that I don’t think enough people realize. There’s a really good, short essay by Abigail Marsh (Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University) where she talks about this very thing. Her statement is that we need to stop seeing a distinction between antisocial behavior and mental illness. All antisocial behavior is mental illness with the only difference being that it is externally expressed as apposed to internally. She has some other good points in there as well. If you’re interested in reading it, the essay can be found in the book, “This Idea Must Die.” Also, thanks very much for sharing your experience. All I can say about it is, “Wow.”

    One last thing I would like to say about Schadenfraude: The opposite of it is powerful, beautiful, and inspiring. Here is an article from my favorite website that has some awesome examples of this:


    Warning #1: Some adult language in this article
    Warning #2: Onion wielding ninjas may sneak up behind you while reading this. I know, it happened to me.

  • Stacy Parker

    Felix O’ Murchadha in “Violence, Victims, Justifications & Philosophical Approaches” states it very clearly: Victimization not only shatters one’s fundamental assumptions about the world and one’s safety in it, but also severs the sustaining connection between self and the rest of humanity. Victim’s of human inflicted trauma are reduced to mere objects by their tormentors: their subjectivity is rendered useless —and viewed as worthless”. In order for a trauma survivor to recover, the survivor needs to be able to control the environment (within reasonable limits)and reconnect with humanity. That can only happen with reality based skill building and total empathy.If self is created and sustained by others, it can also be destroyed by others. No person should be summed up into 1 encounter, one word, one label. No one should be labeled and rejected, voice silenced because of one acronym—-from victim to offender. READ: “Unfair the New Science of Criminal Injustice” by Adam Benforado. After 20 plus years of immersion in the criminal justice system as an Independent Advocate Victim/Witness/Community and Offender, it comes down to seeing people as people. Every human being needs to realize that we are a combination of experiences and education with neurological variances that impact our perception. People with mental illnesses, like all human beings cannot see themselves (behavior). To experiment as to what it is like for a human being who is a sociopath or psychopath: if you saw a beautiful glass and acquired it, when you hold it in your hand and rub your finger across it, you are focused on the glass, it’s beauty and the pleasure it gives you. Is the glass feeling pain? Does the glass object to you owning it? Silly you say, a glass isn’t a person. They are two different things. However, it does come down to perception and connection. If you do not have a neurological connection to the glass, you imagine what the other person is feeling and look for clues. What if your neurological system is broken or operates differently and the only thing you know about feelings is your own. Sexual imprinting is a habit loop the brain craves to reproduce pleasure. If you smoke and quit, or eat a twinkie every day, or take a pill, that is a habit loop your body depends on. Breaking the cycle is a complex problem. What do you get from the habit? What can you replace the habit with? I worked sex offenses for five years. Sex offenders are victims, not always of sexual abuse but human rights violations (objectified in other ways). If we look at all people as surviving the now, establishes habits or behaviors that each individual justifies. In a society that operates on acceptance and rejection, what do people do when they are rejected? We adapt and change behaviors for human connection. What if you are not concerned with connecting, but instead see acceptance as a way of controlling your behavior in order to “shop” in the world for your needs? Yes I have worked with offenders face to face. Yes I have been victimized. Yes I have had a child kidnapped, and broken because a neighbor mentioned to a predator what I do for a living. When these things happen, what do you do? With all my training and insight, I loaded my gun and I aimed it at the predator and said “right now there is a battle between my mind and my heart, you have 10 seconds, I suggest you run. Did I kill him?, no. I pressed charges, went to every parole hearing, and check on him frequently more than 20 years later. When people ask me why I do what I do: I can’t forget the picture in my head of my four year old sitting on the bed next to a 6’4” officer giving a statement. It is important that we all educate ourselves on human behaviors and the atrocities we are capable of committing to each other. Monsters, no, just a broken person who has no boundaries or understanding of the harm or injury they are causing in a drive to get needs met. People who cheat, do not have good communication skills to ask for their needs or express them. They are also empathetically deficient. Instead they assume their needs are going to be rejected or have been and justify their actions. Now they have a new habit loop. Most of us live on assumption, justification and judgement. Changing those behaviors can be hard, but necessary. Carrying revenge through your life will destroy you. However, that doesn’t mean you will forget, or that you will let your guard down again without some work. I understand how hard it is in the general public to not understand predatory and harmful behavior. I wish that those in the “know”, would educate those that are not. The bottom line is we cannot see intent, skill building and boundaries will red flag behaviors any individual should pay attention to. Great podcast. PS. The dog eating your face off if you take drugs. A child will remember that and probably have nightmares when at age 10 knows a prescription is drugs, medicine are drugs, the dog is going to get me.

    • Charis Branson

      Thanks for your comment, Stacy! You make some very interesting observations. To quote you: “Every human being needs to realize that we are a combination of experiences and education with neurological variances that impact our perception.” I really liked this point as it is something I try to remember before judging others. I think it is easy to assume everyone has the same way of looking at things as we do. But people have different values and priorities and formative backgrounds. If we can remind ourselves of that we may not be so condemnatory. I don’t know if you have ever read “Mindhunter” by John Douglas, but he talks about the minds of serial killers and how many of them had absolutely horrific childhoods. I often wonder how much more damaged I would be if I had an unstable mind and came from an unstable family.

      I also appreciated this point: “People who cheat, do not have good communication skills to ask for their needs or express them.” That seems a little too simplified on the surface, but when you really consider the various excuses one has/uses for cheating, a lack of communication skills could be at the heart of all of it…whether its their inability to communicate or their partners.

      Thanks again for observations!

    • Susan H

      Stacy – Thank you for your comment. It gave me the courage to write my own comment. I am thankful for people like you that have a broad perspective on these topics and can see the humanity. Thank you for your service of helping others that society has deemed unlovable or unworthy.

  • Theresa

    I just finished this podcast and it is so very good. The point that people who wish harm on others are dealing with their own emotions on a subject and can’t show up to be part of the solution is so true.

    Another good word, thank you.

    • Joel Mark Witt


      Thank you for sharing some very personal things here. I can’t even imagine having to go through your experience. I truly appreciate your willingness to respond here in the midst of what I can only imagine would be strong emotions coming up for you.

      The world needs more people like you.



  • Theresa

    I am in the middle of listening to this, and am listening to the part on pedophilia. I am a survivor of repeated childhood sexual abuse with multiple perpetrators. I have done a lot of healing work around this, and also work with other women on their journey in this area.

    I agree that keeping this in the dark just makes this grow and thrive. I welcome conversation both from survivors and perpetrators. This issue has a lot of shame around it, and it dis-empowers people on a core level, affecting almost every are of the survivors life. I am in full support of therapy that does not include risk of punishment. However, I am not sure what I would think about someone who disclosed that they are currently engaged in this with a child.

    Thank you for talking about this topic. (ENFP is me!)

    • Charis Branson

      Thanks for your feedback, Theresa! I think it would be hard for a lot of people if confronted by an admitted pederast. Perhaps a better solution would be controlled disclosure, where people who aren’t triggered can be the ones who receive and counsel the perpetrators.

      I’m glad you are working through your past and finding ways to help others do the same. We value your perspective.

    • Antonia Dodge

      I really want to thank you for sharing your experience, Theresa. I was admittedly nervous that we could come across unsympathetic to people who have been at the receiving end of this kind of abuse. I’m so glad it didn’t trigger you that way, and in fact your wisdom on the subject resonates with the ultimate message.

      We’re very grateful to have you in our community. 🙂


    • Susan H

      Thank you for sharing Theresa! You also helped give me courage to write a comment on this podcast.

  • stacy

    I posted on fb something along the lines of this podcast…And of course came the backlash. But to sum up what I said- When someone you love hurts you (say by cheating), you obviously question if this person truly loves and values you. But if you seek revenge on said person, then really your love for that person should also be called into question. The way I see it- if you truly selflessly love someone their pain is your pain. Their happiness is your happiness. So when you seek revenge on someone you love because they hurt you, then this makes you no better than the person whom hurt you. This is not to say that you should tolerate being treated poorly. But you have a choice at that point.
    Being an INFJ I take on so many diff’t perspectives to situations yet sometimes its difficult to get ppl to see outside themselves to understand these perspectives.

    • Charis Branson

      Thanks for the comment Stacy! I agree with you. When I hear of someone reacting in the extreme over a perceived betrayal (even if it has nothing to do with them), I assume they have had some previous experience that they are referencing to fuel their anger. For example, someone lashes out against the people on Ashley Madison, so I assume they have either been cheated on, have cheated, or had a parent who was unfaithful. As an INFJ myself, this helps me have some compassion for such people.

      However, when talking about people who want a teacher fired for telling the truth I find I can’t create a perspective around that so my compassion (and tolerance) for such people is limited. Thanks again for sharing your insight!

    • Anuradha N S

      Hi Antonia and Joel

      Firstoff, kudos for taking a very delicate subject and delivering the various viewpoints beautifully.
      Secondly, love the thinker and the feeler bits that I could identify. The way Antonia could keep her feeling aside to think through the issue almost in an objective manner, as well as, Joel’s insistence for the feelings to be heard and felt.
      Thirdly, I am from India. You mentioned karma. Karma in the easiest way of understanding is “you reap what you sow”. So you are right in mentioning that karma doesn’t manifest as what you think the other person should go through, but as an organic consequence of ones action. Though somewhere i felt you aren’t relating the two but are susbscribing to the view that when people say karma will take care of him/ her, they mean the individual that has offended them will get the consequences that they feel is justified for the individual’s actions (example, pedophiles should be raped and killed in prison). That isn’t what it means. Consequences to one’s karma is delivered by the universe/ God and is the inevitable result of the system of who they are being and their actions.

      Just wanted to clarify the abive point. People’s reaction to the offence are just part of the consequences. The consequences are determined by us when we act (karma basically means actions).

      Thanks and Regards


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