Return to the Convent, by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, 1868. The painting depicts a group of brown robed monks who are laughing while a lone monk struggles with an ass.

Word Smith: Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another person or organization. It is a borrowed word from German, with no direct translation. The use of the word in English originated in the 18th century.

The painting above, by Zabala, is often affiliated with the concept of schadenfreude in social psychology. Examining the images more closely, with schadenfreude, there is a relationship between observers above (fellow monks) and target monk. Their emotion is of joy and humor. They are also grateful that the ass is not theirs. You can feel the negative energy, which is accentuated by the dislike of the lone monk and the resentment of him by his fellow monks.

Several social constructs float above the image: regret, anger, rage, embarrassment, and satisfaction. These various feelings are exhibited in some or all of the participants in the scene. The picture reveals that the pleasure in schadenfreude is due to the idea that the observer engages in a personal comparison with the target monk. An interesting side effect of these schadenfreude moments is that others (not impacted by the calamity) can gain a more favorable self-view from the misfortune to this monk, who moments before, may have been on equal footing. Due to the mishap, however, the “pecking order” lines are likely drawn for the near future, some at the top, and others at the bottom.

Some critics feel that the sensation of schadenfreude can be particularly sweet, when the person in question has been warned by those around them of hidden calamities. The person may have flagrantly disregarded the warnings or advice from colleagues as meaningless or foolish. The resulting mishap is, therefore, their “just desserts!”