[Researcher] Katrin Schulz and her colleagues presented simple picture stories to 100 children aged four to eight years (52 girls). The stories involved a child performing a good or bad deed – such as a girl climbing a tree to collect plums for her little brother, or climbing the tree so as to throw plums at her little brother – and then experiencing a misfortune, in this case falling from the tree and hurting herself.
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.
Rose Eveleth adds:
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.
Update from a reader with a great little story:
When my twin sons were eight months old, one could crawl and the other could not. Both were on the floor with a number of toys surrounding them. My crawler (Milo) was playing with a rattle; his brother (John) watched him closely.
Milo dropped the rattle within reaching distance of John and scooted to a corner of the room to get a new toy. John picked up the rattle, examined it, and then began shaking it. Upon hearing the sound, Milo whipped his head around, then turned his whole body, raced over to John, and ripped the rattle out of his hand.
As John looked on both helplessly and indignantly (but, interestingly, he did not cry), Milo began shaking the rattle vigorously. Milo shook it so hard that almost immediately he whacked himself in the head and burst into tears, dropping the rattle. To John, it was as if the skies had opened up and a choir of angels had begun to sing. I have never seen a look of joy as ultimately pure as the look on John’s face as his brother cried. He didn’t even remember the rattle was there. It was in easy reaching distance. He just grinned a giant grin as he enjoyed the show of his brother wailing.
So I believe I can categorically state, at least for some children, they feel schadenfreude as young as 8 months. Do they know what it is? Probably not. (Then again, they don’t understand that you shouldn’t eat your own poop.) However, I think it’s a safe bet that it is ingrained in us from a very early age.
(Photo: Flickr user dullhunk)