No one wants to believe that they could ever be a bad person, but people fail. Going through life day by day isn’t hard enough; you can’t also handle the idea that you might be secretly mean. But being nice and rooting for everyone at all times can be very tiring. Sometimes, you might even find yourself rooting for someone else to fail. And you might even like it.
Although that might seem like something that just a straight-up evil person would do, that’s not the case. Feeling joy while watching people fail is something that everyone experiences. It actually can be explained by psychology. In all honesty, feeling joy at others’ misfortune is so common that the Germans even have a word for it: schadenfreude.
Your life is hard enough as it is. You have to fight tooth and nail every day to make money to provide for yourself and your loved ones. But somehow, there always seems to be someone brighter, more successful, more affluent, or with more opportunities. So, typically, you are bound to feel good when you see certain people fail. But this doesn’t mean you are an inherently bad person.
Five Reasons Why Some People Like Watching People Fail
It is better to understand why you feel this way rather than beating yourself up around it.
1. Watching People Fail Is Self-Affirming
Quite a few studies analyze human reactions to watching people fail. But one of the most well-known is the one conducted at the Leiden University of Netherlands. The lead researcher, Wilco W. van Dijk, says that you enjoy others’ misfortune only if you can derive something good out of it. In other words, it’s a tremendous self-affirming boost.
In the study, 70 undergraduate students read two interviews about a successful student who was about to land a great job. Then, they read an interview with the student’s supervisor, detailing how the student’s grades have started falling. The results found that people with lower self-esteem were likelier to experience schadenfreude.
This seems to be because they are more threatened by people who seem to be doing better than them. So, whenever those people fail, it allows them not to feel inferior anymore. And it also appears that if you are already self-affirmed, you are much less likely to feel joy when others fail.
There is a link between feeling inferior, having low self-esteem, and being glad to see others fail. But there is no proof that this makes you nasty or unkind.
2. It’s A Biological Response
What society deems as a normal response to seeing others suffer is compassion. But that’s not the standard response your brain goes to. Without empathy, no one would feel bad for someone who failed at something. The truth is, some people aren’t hardwired to be empathetic, and they have to make a conscious effort to turn it on.
And, especially when you envy someone, you might be that much more inclined to root for them to fail. Because the human brain is wired for self-preservation, it constantly wants to be on top. So, when someone is seemingly better than you, your normal biological response will try and end up on top. Schadenfreude is a part of everyday life, just like any other emotion.
When you see your rival blunder so bad that it can cost them the promotion you are after, at least some of you will feel good. When you see a big slacker co-worker get the punishment they deserve, you will smile a little. Some people are more individualistic and are glad to see that they can edge over their peers. And that’s a perfectly normal and natural response, just as natural as being compassionate.
3. You Feel Like Those People Got What They Deserve
Life can be very unfair, especially for people who don’t come from any privilege. If your parents aren’t wealthy, chances are you will have to learn twice as hard as rich kids to have the same opportunities. If you are part of a minority, you will have to struggle with stereotypes and discrimination your whole life. And the worst part is those entitled people take full advantage of their position without any consequences.
Of course, you will always meet people who will get ahead of you without deserving it. And that’s when feeling happy to see others fail is the most common, when you feel like they deserve to die. Everyone has that one colleague who seems to have their whole life together without working for it. Or that rude person who, for some reason, is the most famous around.
Or that person who is best friends with the boss and gets promoted all the time. And then there’s you. Just an average person must work, earn everything, and take failure in stride. So, of course, it doesn’t seem fair how easy life is for others and how hard it is for you. And when these people fail, it finally seems like they are getting a piece of what they deserve.
Like someone took care of the payback for you. And that doesn’t make you the wrong person. Just because some people have the magical ability to let everything roll off their backs doesn’t mean you have to either. You are allowed to feel happy that the playing field is evening out somewhat.
4. Watching People Fail Is A Form Of Dehumanization
Before you get all riled up, dehumanization is not precisely what you might think. In the worst case, it means completely denying that someone is human, just like an executioner would. But that’s not how psychologists use it because the term is more nuanced. Psychologists show that dehumanization happens in about all aspects of human interactions.
And people will usually see their peers as more human and look at outside groups as less human. And in some cases, the dehumanization can even be that complete denial of humanity. This usually happens because it is impossible to care about everyone. If you don’t want to be smashed by all the suffering in the world, you have to not care about some of it.
For example, someone living in Western states can’t afford to worry about the working conditions in Eastern countries all the time, or they wouldn’t be sad all the time. To a certain extent, they have to dehumanize those outside groups to protect themselves. And schadenfreude is just another form of dehumanization.
Again, if you don’t understand the concept, the word in itself seems pretty bad. But it just means that people have a way of protecting themselves from being affected by all the bad things around them. So, sometimes, you can even get a little satisfaction from watching other people outside your group fail.
5. It Shows That You Want Something Others Have
Achieving what you want is something that’s notoriously easier said than done. Everyone talks a big talk about how you should follow your dreams, but no one tells you how hard the road is. And, when you see someone else living your dream, it can sting a lot. So, when those people fail, it can signal that you want what they have. The reason you are happy is that if you can’t succeed, neither can they.
It might seem like a mentality that only an evil person would have. But it’s very common, especially when you can’t follow those dreams. When you see someone living the life you want, it’s normal to feel envious. And from envy, it’s a quick way to start to feel upset or even mad at them.
And it feels like if you can’t do what you want to do, no one should. All this lashing out happens because you are unhappy or feel trapped. But, if you stop to take into account when you feel schadenfreude, you might figure out what sets you off. You might even figure out what your dreams are and what’s worth going after.
This often happens when you see people who are close to you succeeding while you are stuck doing something you hate. And it can feel horrible to be happy when a friend or a co-worker fails. But don’t beat yourself up. You are not a bad person if that’s how you feel.
Final Thoughts On Why Some People Like Watching People Fail
Schadenfreude is such a common feeling that the creators of Inside Out even considered having a character based on that emotion. In the animated movie, the main characters are the five most common feelings humans feel: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. The interesting thing is that everyone knows how normal these five feelings are. But no one seems to know just how common people feel joy when others fail. Even though this emotion hasn’t been as discussed as others, there is still a psychological consensus on why people think it.
There seem to be a few reasons why people like seeing others fail. However, studies show that people with low self-esteem experience it more than most. Because some people always feel like they are not enough, it can be reassuring when they see others failing. It’s the best reaffirming boost, even if most people don’t realize it. Not just that, but it’s how some people’s brains are wired. Not everyone can be empathetic and compassionate all the time.
Sometimes, the need for self-preservation takes over, and you see others’ failures as a way to get ahead. And it’s pretty common to feel schadenfreude when you think some people don’t deserve what they have. Some people don’t have privileged connections and must struggle for everything they have. So, when someone else gets ahead without putting in the work, you will want to see them fail. Or maybe it’s just a sign that other people have something you want.
And sometimes, it’s even done as a form of dehumanization, which is just meant to protect you from feeling all the weight of the world. No matter how much others might judge you for feeling schadenfreude, know that everyone feels it to a certain extent. And it doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad friend. It’s normal and even biologically determined, and you should never be ashamed of feeling that way.