Feeding the Green-Eyed Monster: What Happens When Envy Turns Ugly

Feb 26, 2018

Envy: it's an unflattering, miserable emotion. And it's universal. All of us, at some time or another, will experience that feeling of wanting what someone else has, and resenting them for having it.

Of course, like all human emotions, envy has a purpose. It's a tool for social comparison, one that can alert us to imbalances in the social hierarchy. Sometimes, these feelings of envy can prompt us to improve our lives, says Harvard social psychologist Mina Cikara.

"If you have more than what I have, I may be inspired by what you have," she says.

But envy can also turn malicious, causing us to feel resentment, rage, and a desire for revenge. University of Kentucky social psychologist Richard Smith says malicious envy is often intertwined with another dark emotion, schadenfreude — the pleasure we feel at the suffering of others.

Researchers have found evidence that malicious envy and schadenfreude may be fueled by competition in realms like politics and sports. In one study, researchers found that hard-core sports fans felt pleasure when a rival team's player was badly injured. In another study, researchers found that some people felt joy when American service members died in large numbers in the war in Iraq, because it made the other political party look bad.

The research into the link between envy, schadenfreude and harmful actions is just beginning, but Mina Cikara says there's growing evidence that dark emotions and violent acts are related.

Schadenfreude, she says, "is present in the most dire of human conflicts. If I feel good every time I watch a bad thing happen, maybe next time I'll make a bad thing happen."

This week, we explore emotions that can inspire us to become better people — or to commit unspeakable acts.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Rhaina Cohen, Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Renee Klahr, and Matthew Schwartz. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

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VEDANTAM: Way back in the third century A.D., a monk in the Egyptian desert warned of evil spirits people should try to overcome. In Christianity, these became known as the Seven Deadly Sins - pride, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, wrath, and one more - envy. It's an ugly, miserable, unflattering emotion, and it's universal. Everyone at some time or another will experience this feeling of wanting what someone else has and resenting them for having it.

JESSICA KYLE: Hi. My name is Jessica Kyle (ph) from Atlanta, Ga.

VEDANTAM: In 2014, Jessica and her best friend traveled to the remote Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. They were there to teach English. It was meant to be a grand adventure, and it could've been a high point in their friendship, except Jessica and her friend got sick - really sick - with dengue fever.

KYLE: I was single, and she was married to a doctor. And her husband was really worried about her and was able to get her evacuated to Kenya.

VEDANTAM: To Nairobi, to be exact, to a hospital with air conditioning, good food and excellent medical care. Jessica, meanwhile, was stuck on the island.

KYLE: Where it was about a hundred degrees, and we had no electricity. And I was very hot and didn't have any good food.

VEDANTAM: Jessica couldn't stop thinking about how her friend was getting much better care than she was. Now, besides being sick, Jessica felt she was suffering from a new malaise.

KYLE: I was really, really envious of her to the point where it was actually physically painful - other than just having dengue fever - that envy I felt because I wanted to be in her place.

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VEDANTAM: Indeed, that is the purpose of envy. It's a tool for social comparison. It cues you in to your relative position among friends, colleagues and peers. In Jessica's case, she was clearly in a weaker position than her friend. The envy was sounding the alarm. Jessica did eventually recover, as did her friend. And when they were reunited, Jessica told her friend about the pain of being abandoned.

KYLE: And it took several conversations with her when she got back on the island, explaining how much I was hurt by that, knowing it wasn't her fault, but still needing to get those feelings out there. She's still one of my best friends. And I did get over it eventually, but it was really, really hard.

VEDANTAM: Of course, not all stories of envy end with growth and understanding. Very often, envy leads to wicked places and tragic consequences.

MINA CIKARA: People started sending me a link to a story about people in the Gaza Strip or people in Israel who were sitting on their couches, watching bombs get lobbed at the other side and cheering.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we delve deeply into an emotion that most of us prefer to hide. It's an emotion that can have a positive side, prompting us to take steps to improve our lives. But envy can also turn malicious, prompting us to resentment, rage, even revenge.

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VEDANTAM: It's hard to imagine life without the pleasure of happiness or the pain of deep sadness. These emotions help make us whole. They give us a way to understand life in all its beauty and suffering. But an emotion like envy is entirely different. It feels repugnant, useless. But of course, that's far from the truth. Envy, in fact, drives us in fascinating ways, sometimes making us better people, sometimes not. To understand it, we begin where any good conversation on envy should begin...

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The Simpsons...

VEDANTAM: ...With Homer Simpson.

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DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson, laughing) It's funny 'cause it's true.

VEDANTAM: Homer is an excellent example of pretty much all the Seven Deadly Sins. He's lazy.

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CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) I'm just a big, toasty cinnamon bun. I never want to leave this bed.

VEDANTAM: And gluttonous.

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CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Sixty-four slices of American cheese - 64, 63...

VEDANTAM: ...And greedy.

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CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Where's my money? Where's my money?

VEDANTAM: Homer's also consumed with envy, especially of his do-gooder neighbor, Ned Flanders.

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JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) You know, if you gave Ned Flanders a chance...

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh, here we go again. Look, I don't care if Ned Flanders is the nicest guy in the world. He's a jerk.

VEDANTAM: Homer can't stand Flanders. Why? Well, Flanders is a pillar of the community. He's got a nicer house, a fancier grill, a better job.

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CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) ...End of story.

KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Well, we can't hold it against him just because he has things a little better than we do.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Excuse me. Better? Thanks a lot, Marge. You really put me in my place.

KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Oh, Homer.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Don't get me wrong. It's worth feeling 3 inches tall to find out what kind of a person you really are, Marge Simpson, president of the international-we-love-Flanders fan club.

VEDANTAM: Usually, Homer is left to stew in his own bitter bile. But one day, Flanders does something unusual. He announces he's quitting his job.

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HARRY SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) As of Friday, I'm saying toodle-oo to the pharmaceutical game.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Leaving - I can't believe it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What is he talking about?

SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) No, I kid you not.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What are you going to do, Ned?

SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) Well, sir, like 1 out of every 9 Americans, I'm left-handed. And let me tell you, it ain't all peaches and cream. Your writing gets smeared. Lord help you if you want to drive a standard transmission.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Amen to that.

(CROSSTALK)

SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders) Well, sir, I'm opening up a one-stop store for southpaws - everything from left-handed apple peelers to left-handed scissors. Going to call it The Leftorium.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As character) Ooh.

VEDANTAM: The Leftorium, a store with gadgets for left-handed people. Finally, Homer feels he has the upper hand. The Leftorium, he believes, is a truly stupid idea. Homer dreams that it will finally lead to Flanders' downfall.

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CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson, laughing) I'm telling you, Flanders' store was deserted. So what do you think of your bestest (ph) buddy now, Marge?

KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson, grumbling).

YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Dad, do you know what schadenfreude is?

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) No, I do not know what schadenfreude is. Please tell me because I'm dying to know.

SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) It's a German term for shameful joy, taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Oh, come on, Lisa. I'm just glad to see him fall flat on his butt. He's usually all happy and comfortable and surrounded by loved ones. And it makes me feel - what's the opposite of that shameful joy thing of yours?

SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Sour grapes.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Boy, those Germans have a word for everything.

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VEDANTAM: Part of what makes Homer Simpson such an interesting character is that he happily and openly expresses thoughts and feelings many of us secretly identify with, including envy and its nasty sidekick, schadenfreude. Envy taps into a dark side of human behavior, but that doesn't mean it's without value. Like all emotions, it has a purpose.

The anthropologist Christopher Boehm has written extensively on the hierarchies that have long existed among our ancestors, both early hunter-gatherer tribes and our primate relatives. Christopher makes two points about the origins of envy. The first - inequality is everywhere.

CHRISTOPHER BOEHM: In a hunter-gatherer group, there are always individuals who are more gifted, individuals who are more intelligent, individuals who are more attractive socially or sexually and so on. So there are a considerable number of inequalities within even an egalitarian society.

VEDANTAM: The other point Christopher makes is that such differences matter. They're not lost on the members of a tribe. Even primates pay attention to social ranking - who has less, who has more.

BOEHM: Over half a century ago, a primatologist named Chance wrote an article on baboon behavior, in which he discussed the direction of attention in the group. And he simply measured where different individuals' gazes were directed in a systematic way. He found that the alpha male - no surprise - was gazed at ever so much more than anybody else.

VEDANTAM: And it wasn't just the alpha male. Every member seemed to be intimately aware of where he or she stood in the hierarchy of the tribe. This combination - the reality of inequalities and the fact that we're hardwired to notice them - this is the fuel for our endless capacity for envy.

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VEDANTAM: Mina Cikara, a social psychologist at Harvard, says it's exactly the same with humans. We make sense of the world through social comparisons.

CIKARA: When you meet a new person, there're a lot of things about them that you register immediately. But you don't just register them in some abstract or absolute sense. You register them relative to yourself. So not just - how tall is this person? - but how much taller or shorter are they than I am?

VEDANTAM: We do this because the comparison tells us where we fit in, what our place is in the human hierarchy. What's more, it alerts us to imbalances that might need our attention. Sometimes the comparisons we make don't matter that much. I might look at my colleague Steve Inskeep and notice he not only hosts a popular public radio program...

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STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: It's Morning Edition from NPR News.

VEDANTAM: But he also manages to find time to write a new book nearly every other year. I feel envious of Steve, but in a way sociologists call benign. I don't wish anything bad to happen to him. I just wish that I was more like him.

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INSKEEP: OK, Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Maybe the feeling might push me to work harder.

CIKARA: So if you have more than what I have, I may be inspired by what you have. And so I may have - I may experience these benign forms of envy, which could also manifest as admiration.

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LEAH MOORTHY: I remember this one time in college, I was going with two girlfriends to go shopping. They were about to buy a new table for their apartment they were getting together.

VEDANTAM: This is Leah Moorthy (ph) from Houston, Texas. On that shopping trip with friends, she found herself suffering from benign envy.

MOORTHY: One of the friends had just gotten married to a senior who had graduated, and he was out somewhere else in the country making money. And she had - she checked her bank account before we left, and she had $1,500 in there. And that was a substantial amount of money to me back in college days where, you know, I only had a few hundred dollars on a good day in my bank account.

VEDANTAM: Leah was envious of her friend and the kind of table she could afford. She made it a goal one day to get her own nice table.

MOORTHY: My first table that I bought for my apartment was $15 from Goodwill. And of course it didn't last. But years later when we saved and we were patient, my husband and I, and we finally were able to buy a good table, it's been with us for almost 10 years now. And I think learning that patience when it came to money and time was a very good lesson.

VEDANTAM: So Leah's envy motivated her to plan and save and build the kind of life she wanted. And it worked. But envy doesn't always work in this happy fashion. In fact, there's evidence that envy makes us unhappy, and there are ever more sources of envy in our modern world. In an earlier episode of HIDDEN BRAIN, we feature the researcher Ohad Barzilay, who conducted a study into the effects that Facebook has on our lives. He compared the mental well-being of people using the site regularly against a control group that was prevented from using Facebook.

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OHAD BARZILAY: What we're first finding is that using Facebook make you more comparative. You compare yourself to others more often. You judge yourself. You compare, am I better or worse than my friends? Am I happier; are they happier - and so on.

VEDANTAM: Ohad found that spending time on social media puts people in a mode where they engage constantly in social comparison. They look at where their friends are having dinner and compare it to their own sad bowl of microwaved ramen noodles. They look at where their friends are honeymooning and think about their own lonely lives. They look at posts about the blue ribbon their friend's daughter took home from the science fair and wonder why their own kids never make the honor roll.

BARZILAY: Being engage in excessive social comparison decrease one's happiness. So it's not that you think that others are happier than you are. But you need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again, and this social comparison engagement makes you less happy.

VEDANTAM: At the University of Pennsylvania, psychologist Barbara Kahn observed something similar. Her students would often report that they were unhappy while they were off doing amazing things, attending a destination wedding or on a great vacation. Their Facebook feed told them that they were missing out on fun things that their friends were doing back home.

BARBARA KAHN: What we found out from a lot of experiments that we ran - the thing that was generating the FOMO, the feelings of fear of missing out - it isn't really a fear. It's like a social anxiety, and it's really more about what are your friends doing in building up their social group history that you're missing out on. So it's not really about the experience per se. In all of our experiments, we found that it was really more a function of an anxiety that something might happen in the group experience that will shape the group history in the future that you may not be part of and that will undermine your group belongingness.

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KAHN: And in fact, when we went back and said, OK, if you could make this decision again, would you choose to go to the beach weekend or to the wedding - although we didn't use that example in our studies but that kind of thing - would you choose to go to the clearly better experience, or would you go to do the routine thing your friends were doing on a regular basis, almost every time, people said oh, no, I'd go to the exotic event. It wasn't that they didn't think that that exotic event was better and the smarter decision. They had no regret about making that decision. What they were anxious about - and we're using the word anxiety - was that maybe something would happen in the group that would forever change the dynamics of the group, and they wouldn't have been there when it happened.

VEDANTAM: But sometimes seeing that others are doing things that you can't do or that others have what you don't have doesn't merely produce feelings of envy. It produces anger, resentment, as we saw with Homer Simpson.

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CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) D'oh.

VEDANTAM: When we come back - how a different kind of envy sometimes called hostile envy can lead to terrible consequences.

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CIKARA: The more hostile forms really have to do with leveling the playing field not by bringing me up to where you are but rather bringing you down to where I am.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

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VEDANTAM: Our topic today...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I had times when I felt great envy of families...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I was really envious of her resilience...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So I was envious of other people's feelings...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I hid these feelings for a long time, and it made me really kind of think that I was this terrible person.

VEDANTAM: ...Envy and schadenfreude. Psychologists, anthropologists and primatologists have all studied how animals pay close attention to how well they're doing compared to their peers. In one classic study, Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal and his colleagues found that monkeys refuse to do a task if they feel that other monkeys are getting a bigger reward than they get for the same task.

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VEDANTAM: In another study conducted by researchers at the University of Zurich and the University of Nottingham, teams composed of two workers had their pay cut. In one case, both workers received the same pay cut. In another, only one worker received the pay cut while the other salary remained unchanged. The researchers found that productivity declined more steeply when only one worker suffered a pay cut. The reason may feel intuitive - workers were comparing their salary to those of their peers. When everyone suffered a pay cut, it didn't make them feel good, but it didn't make them feel envious because everyone was in the same boat. When only one person suffered a pay cut, there was instant envy.

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VEDANTAM: We can all understand and empathize with this form of envy. But it can be harder for us to confront an uglier form, what sociologists sometimes call malicious envy. What's interesting and sad is that we reserve this kind of envy for our neighbors, classmates, friends, our peers. Here's social psychologist Mina Cikara.

CIKARA: People pick relevant comparison standards on relevant dimensions. So those are two key ingredients. And it's an extremely important point. I'm not going to compare my salary, say, to Warren Buffett's (laughter). I'm going to compare it to another assistant professor in my department or at another university in the same department.

VEDANTAM: So again, ironically then, the most virulent forms of envy are reserved for people, in some ways, who are in the same boat as us.

CIKARA: That's exactly right.

VEDANTAM: Once malicious or hostile envy is aroused within us, it's an easy leap to schadenfreude. When the targets of our envy stumble and fall, we cheer. Hostile envy might gnaw at you, but schadenfreude feels pleasurable. It soothes the pain of envy. This push and pull fascinates Richard Smith.

RICHARD SMITH: Psychologist - social psychologist at the University of Kentucky.

VEDANTAM: Richard has extensively researched and written about both kinds of envy. Among the books he's authored is one on schadenfreude called "The Joy Of Pain." Richard's always on the lookout for good examples of envy and schadenfreude. One of his favorites is from the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie "Amadeus." It's about the Italian composer Antonio Salieri and his complicated feelings toward a peer and fellow composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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VEDANTAM: In fact, as the movie opens, Salieri is at the top of his game. He's one of the most influential figures in European music and the official composer to the Hapsburg court. His future is bright until Mozart arrives on the scene. Salieri is eager to meet the young man.

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F. MURRAY ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) As I wandered through the salon, I played a little game with myself. This man had written his first concerto at the age of 4, his first symphony at 7, a full-scale opera at 12. Did it show? Is talent like that written on the face?

VEDANTAM: But instead of an erudite and elegant man, Salieri discovers that Mozart is coarse and loud. The first time Salieri sees Mozart the musical genius is groping a young woman, his hand stuffed down her blouse. Salieri is disgusted. He's envious. Why, he asks himself, has God given such a dirty-minded creature such talent? Soon enough, Salieri has his opportunity to pull Mozart off his pedestal.

SMITH: My favorite scene in the movie is - that kind of captures the envy - is when Mozart's wife comes to Salieri.

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ELIZABETH BERRIDGE: (As Constanze Mozart) I've come on behalf of my husband. I've brought you some samples of his works so that he can be considered for the royal appointment.

SMITH: At first, Salieri sort of pretends as if he wants to help.

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ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) I will look at them, of course, the moment I can.

BERRIDGE: (As Constanze Mozart) Would it in too much trouble, sir, to ask you to look at them now?

ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) I'm afraid I'm not at leisure this precise moment. Just leave them with me. I assure you they will be quite safe.

BERRIDGE: (As Constanze Mozart) I really cannot do that, sir. You see, he doesn't know I'm here.

ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) Then he didn't send you?

BERRIDGE: (As Constanze Mozart) No, sir. This was my own idea. We're desperate. We really need this job.

SMITH: Then she gives him the sheet music. And he gets up and looks at it.

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BERRIDGE: (As Constanze Mozart) Wolfgang would be frantic if he found those were missing. You see, they're all originals.

SMITH: And it's done wonderfully in the film.

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ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) These are originals?

SMITH: You hear him imagining the music in his head because he's a musician. He can look at the notes and hear the music.

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SMITH: He's also talking in the background.

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ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) Music, finished as no music is ever finished.

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ABRAHAM: (As Antonio Salieri) Displace one note, and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall. It was clear to me that sound I had heard in the archbishop's palace had been no accident. Here again was the very voice of God.

SMITH: And the way the film shows it, you see his face, and it's in pain.

VEDANTAM: So the thing that's very moving and very beautiful about this is also the idea that Salieri is someone who actually is talented enough to actually appreciate what it is that Mozart can do, that he actually can look at that sheet music and hear the music come to life, which, obviously, most people would not be able to do.

SMITH: I suppose you could say that enhances that sense of core similarity, in a way. I mean, he knows what it is that he's appreciating. That's part of the pain - that intimate knowledge.

VEDANTAM: The pain is too much, and the only thing that would relieve it is the joy Salieri imagines he will feel when Mozart is destroyed.

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VEDANTAM: And that is exactly what happens. Salieri becomes the architect of Mozart's downfall. He watches with pleasure as the younger composer succumbs to overwork and dies, penniless and desperate.

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VEDANTAM: In our modern lives, there are endless examples of this kind of envy.

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JIMMY SWAGGART: You have an obligation. You have an obligation to walk holy and to walk righteous and to walk pure before God.

VEDANTAM: In the 1980s, Jimmy Swaggart was one of the most popular TV evangelists in the United States. He described himself as God's messenger.

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SWAGGART: But I'm going to preach what I believe this word says. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are personifications of the Lord, Jesus Christ. We are supposed to be examples of righteousness.

VEDANTAM: Swaggart said there was no room for moral compromise.

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SWAGGART: Our church in Baton Rouge, La., the other day - we just started a ball team. And I told them - I said, if girls show up on that ball diamond with shorts on, I will appreciate you and do everything I can to help you in Jesus, but I'll send you home to get some clothes on.

VEDANTAM: But Swaggart apparently had trouble keeping his own clothes on.

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VEDANTAM: It came out that he was involved with a prostitute, sometimes meeting her for trysts at a rundown motel. Swaggart confessed on his national TV broadcast.

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SWAGGART: I have sinned against you, my Lord. And I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain.

VEDANTAM: Many of Swaggart's followers were devastated, but plenty of his critics crowed with delight. There was no need to even hide the schadenfreude because, after all, Swaggart was a hypocrite. He'd gotten rich preaching righteousness while using his money to sin. Mina Cikara says it was, in fact, a perfect recipe for schadenfreude.

CIKARA: So if a person has ill-gotten gains, and they - those gains then get taken away from them, we feel pleasure in large part - you know, again here, we're not benefiting ourselves, but we feel good because some justice has been done. There was - some karmic restoration has taken place.

VEDANTAM: In fact, in a TV interview, even the prostitute he'd been with, Debra Murphree (ph), felt he'd gotten his just deserts.

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DEBRA MURPHREE: He's up there crying, and I know those tears aren't real.

EILEEN PROSE: How do you know?

MURPHREE: They just can't be. I mean, because he was up there preaching about all this stuff and then doing it.

VEDANTAM: Not surprisingly, Jimmy Swaggart's downfall proved irresistible for those who thrive on schadenfreude - late-night comedians.

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JIM CARREY: (As Reverend Dr. Carl Pathos) And I'm the Reverend Dr. Carl Pathos, the ministry's spiritual gynecologist.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Mina and Richard point out that hypocrisy often triggers schadenfreude, but it's often not the only spark of this emotion.

CIKARA: We tend to feel pleasure when people who get too big for their britches get taken down a peg.

VEDANTAM: Too big for their britches. Or to put it another way...

CIKARA: The cutting down of tall poppies.

VEDANTAM: The cutting down of tall poppies. These are not just the hypocrites but people who are also too greedy, too rich, but also perhaps too nice, too smart, too pretty, too successful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARTHA STEWART LIVING")

MARTHA STEWART: Hello, and welcome to "Martha Stewart Living." I'm so glad you could join us today. We have a program filled with great ideas and very interesting projects.

VEDANTAM: In 2004, Martha Stewart was accused of insider trading.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A jury in New York convicted Martha Stewart today on all four counts against her in the ImClone stock case. She was charged with...

VEDANTAM: After her sentence was announced, it was open season for Martha-in-prison schadenfreude.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Martha Stewart - inside trader and CEO ho - sentence, 30 years.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Martha Stewart) Hello, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Hey, mami (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Something fresh moving. What's up, baby?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Martha Stewart) I've made us some decorative name tags out of birch bark so we could get to know each other better.

VEDANTAM: Why take such pleasure in the downfall of Martha Stewart? She was an all-American success story, someone who turned her passion for beautiful things into a business empire. Why not celebrate a success like that?

SMITH: Yeah, she's an interesting case. The way I see it is that in a way, she was too good at too many things. Even though at least the way she would present herself was someone who was doing things to help people, it's just the sum total would have a cumulative effect of just too much.

VEDANTAM: She was too tall a poppy. Martha Stewart herself recognized that she got under people's skin. She acknowledged as much to now former NBC anchor Matt Lauer in an interview after her release from prison.

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MATT LAUER: You're a magnet for praise and sometimes criticism.

STEWART: Oh, it's sort of equally.

LAUER: Do you think it's 50/50?

STEWART: Oh, I think it's sometimes much worse. And it's - and I don't understand it. I write books. I publish beautiful magazines. I've done television shows that are devoted to how-to and good living.

LAUER: Why do think people criticize you then?

STEWART: I don't know. I don't know. I'm just - maybe because I'm confident. I think sometimes maybe I'm too confident. Maybe I should have failed, and maybe I should have just gone away and dug a hole and jumped in. I - you know, who knows?

VEDANTAM: Well, Richard Smith knows a bit, and he believes humans have evolved to resent those who outperform us.

SMITH: If you look at the words that we have available in our language for, say, feeling happy over someone's success, I actually can't think of any (laughter) - not a single word. You have to sort of add other words to kind of clarify what kind of happiness you're having. Though envy - we do have words for envy, resentment and so forth. So I don't think it's so natural for us to feel happy for others' success, just all other things being equal.

VEDANTAM: Primatologist Christopher Boehm has noticed similar behavior in his studies of hunter-gatherer tribes. These groups are extremely vigilant to the person who gets too big for his britches.

BOEHM: They may criticize him. If it gets too bad, they may ostracize him. If it really gets too bad, they'll kill him.

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VEDANTAM: When others are doing fabulously better than we are, our instinct is to pull them down closer to where we are. When that happens, when they fall - well, it feels good. Of course Martha Stewart and Jimmy Swaggart are both anecdotes. Our feelings toward them haven't been measured in any scientifically valid way. It turns out envy and schadenfreude are very hard to study. Most people know it's wise to hide these negative emotions. When we come back - measuring these unseemly emotions in the lab.

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VEDANTAM: When we open the pantry and devour a box of cookies, we usually hide the evidence. When we fantasize about winning the lottery and hoarding the cash or imagine flipping the desk of our most irritating colleague, we tuck those emotions away. Gluttony, greed, wrath - we don't want to expose them to the light of day. But envy and its wicked cousin schadenfreude - these may be the emotions we bury the deepest.

CIKARA: You know, I think we all know - we all learned very early on that we're not supposed to express pleasure in response to other people's misfortunes. Now, there's another perhaps less overt reason to do that - is that once you express schadenfreude, it demonstrates that you were feeling envious of that person in the first place. And so one of the problems with expressing envy of course is that you have to admit outwardly that you understand that you are inferior on some dimension.

VEDANTAM: And who wants to do that?

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VEDANTAM: Of course as with most things in life, there are some exceptions, times when it's OK to express such emotions.

CIKARA: Politics is one.

VEDANTAM: Celebrity gossip is a second, and...

CIKARA: Sports is a third.

VEDANTAM: And so it's these areas, especially sports, that social scientists have honed in on in their efforts to study envy and schadenfreude.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils against Coach Cal and the Kentucky Wildcats early on.

VEDANTAM: Richard Smith and colleagues at the University of Kentucky put together a study on basketball rivalry between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Duke Blue Devils.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHEERLEADER: Hey, hey, go, Cats. Move it. Score.

VEDANTAM: Now, obviously Kentucky fans experience a type of schadenfreude when the Blue Devils lose. But what the researchers wanted to know was whether schadenfreude led to more sinister places. So they asked University of Kentucky students to respond anonymously to an article describing an injury to the star player on the rival Duke team. What they found is that students who didn't care about basketball felt no schadenfreude and considerable sympathy for the injured player. Hardcore Kentucky fans, however, had an entirely different reaction.

SMITH: We showed pretty clearly that especially people who were highly identified basketball fans were quite happy when the rival player for an opposing team got a severe injury.

VEDANTAM: These fans were happy when a rival player got seriously injured. Schadenfreude, in other words, is such a powerful emotion that it can make us feel good when a rival suffers serious physical harm. Mina Cikara wanted to know what exactly was happening inside the brain when a fan feels the pleasure of schadenfreude.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: Yankees suck. Yankees suck.

NEIL DIAMOND: (Singing) Sweet Caroline...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: Red Sox suck.

DIAMOND: (Singing) Good times...

VEDANTAM: So she did a study looking at baseball fans.

CIKARA: We recruited Red Sox and Yankees fans to participate in our study. And so the idea here was that we would recruit these hardcore Red Sox and Yankees fans, and they would see baseball plays unfolding while they were lying in the functional MRI machine.

VEDANTAM: Mina was interested in a part of the brain that's activated when a person is experiencing pleasure.

CIKARA: And so we had these participants, these Red Sox and Yankees fans, watching these plays unfold in the scanner. And after each play, we asked them how good they felt about the play and how bad they felt about the play. And what we found was that participants not only - they felt the most pleasure when their own team did well, particularly against their rivals. But they also felt more pleasure than a control condition when they saw their rival fail even against a third-party team.

And the idea here is that there's no material benefit to your own team. So if you're a Red Sox fan and you see the Yankees get tagged out at the end of one play, there's no material or actual benefit to you as Red Sox. You can make the argument, you know, it might change league standings. But we were always showing participants plays from the very beginning of a game where it couldn't determine the outcome of a game and, therefore, each team's respective league standings. And the idea is that the reason this is pleasure is driven solely by the rivalry. You haven't benefited materially in any way. You only feel pleasure because it feels good to watch a rival fail.

VEDANTAM: In another study, Mina and her colleagues tried to measure schadenfreude by analyzing muscle movements in the face.

CIKARA: We've used something called facial electromyography whereby we place electrodes on the main muscles of the face, and we measure specifically from the cheek muscles because those are the muscles that pull your lips into a smile. And engagement of that muscle is very reliably related to people feeling pleasure.

Now, it can't tell us the difference between happy, pure, unadulterated joy and schadenfreude, which is this more malicious form of pleasure, but it can tell us that there is some positive affect being felt, or it suggests that there's some positive affect being felt. So we've used that as an indicator of schadenfreude when people are exposed to targets suffering a misfortune.

VEDANTAM: If I remember correctly, you conducted a study once where you evaluated how people were reacting to various people in various situations - people getting soaked as a taxi drove through a puddle. And some of those experiments sort of utilized the same measurement techniques.

CIKARA: Exactly. So for example, one of our arguments - one of the questions that we asked ourselves was, which groups tend to be the envied groups? You know, people respond with less empathy to all sorts of out-groups. And when I say out-group, I just mean groups to which I do not belong. But not all out-groups are equivalent.

So for example, if I saw an elderly man get splashed by a taxi driving past him, I don't think I would feel any pleasure. But if I saw Bernie Madoff getting splashed by a taxi, I'd feel all sorts of pleasure, right? And the idea is that people feel bad when bad things happen to people for whom they feel pride or people for whom they feel pity like the elderly. They even feel bad when bad things happen to homeless and drug-addicted individuals. The only time they feel good when a bad thing happens is to those groups, again, that are seen as competitive and high-status in society. So that's wealthy individuals, business people and so on.

VEDANTAM: Part of what's interesting about this research is that it's looking at brain responses like pleasure and pain that are quite primal. They may have helped hunter-gatherers form strong tribal identities. But for modern humans, these neurological responses might have a downside.

CIKARA: Now, one of the things that we were interested in, in large part inspired by some of the work by Richard Smith and his colleagues, was whether or not this pleasure response that people self-reported was related to a desire to harm the rival team and associated individuals.

VEDANTAM: In the MRIs of the baseball fans, Mina discovered that those who reported the most pleasure at watching their rival fail were also the people who had the most activation in a small part of the brain known as the ventral striatum. So with that in mind, Mina followed up.

CIKARA: So two weeks after we scanned them we sent all of our participants a Web survey where we asked them how likely they would be to engage in a variety of aggressive behaviors. And the thing that we found that was really exciting for us as academics, but probably bad for the world, was that those people who exhibited that much more ventral striatal activity when watching their rival fail two weeks earlier in the scanner were the same people who then told us they would be that much more likely to threaten, heckle and hit a rival fan.

VEDANTAM: In other words, the amount of pleasure you take in a rival's failure is a potent predictor of how far you might take matters into your own hands.

SMITH: What do you do if you, in fact, envy another group? And if it's a malicious form of envy and it reminds one of one's inferiority, one solution to that is to find ways to eliminate that source of one's envy.

VEDANTAM: Eliminate the source of one's envy. Maybe that happens by accident when a rival team's star player blows out a knee. But Richard says it could also be an act of cutting down of an envied group. In fact, he believes that malicious envy and schadenfreude may have been one of the underlying triggers of the Holocaust. The suffering of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s came after a time of Jewish prosperity when many average Germans were struggling financially.

SMITH: If you look at a lot of the history of Jews in Germany, also in Austria, they were very, very successful and in a way were disproportionate successful in many areas of German life.

VEDANTAM: Richard's theory is that this may have spawned malicious envy among some Germans.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking German).

VEDANTAM: This envy was then spurred on by Nazi propaganda.

SMITH: Along the way, of course, Nazis did various things before they engineered the Final Solution. But any time Jews suffered in some way, either because of things that the Nazis did deliberately to engineer it, like Kristallnacht and so forth, would be satisfying in that sense if one understands how envy would produce that type of reaction in the first place. And if you have enough experiences of feeling good when someone suffers or some group suffers, then the next step, in a sense, is to actually literally engineer it fully.

VEDANTAM: Sometimes, however, there is nothing we can do to pull down those above us. They're too powerful, too distant. That's why Mina and Richard think our insecurities find a different outlet.

CIKARA: There's a very strong psychological impulse to avoid being placed in the last place. That is last place aversion, this idea that you're - you can live with wherever you are on the totem pole so long as you're not at the very bottom because as long as you can look down and see that there's at least another person or another group beneath you, there's comfort from which you can derive from knowing that information.

So one of the interesting things that people often bring up is this paradox whereby poor people will oftentimes support policies that are bad for them. And one of the potential arguments for explaining why that is is not because you don't necessarily have to appeal to some broader idea about belief in a just world or everybody gets what they want. It's simply just last place aversion. So these policies, though they may be bad for me in some immediate sense, they're at least maintaining some hierarchical structure so that I don't end up at the very bottom.

SMITH: Any time someone's doing worse than us in any kind of way there is a potential, OK, that's good. I'm not as bad as they are. And especially if some reason we're needing a boost because we have some insecurities, whatever the case may be. And that down comparison is more of a potential boost.

VEDANTAM: There are studies to back this up, but Richard likes to use an example of the once-popular reality TV show "To Catch A Predator."

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STONE PHILLIPS: They're online and on the prowl - grown men targeting children on the Internet.

VEDANTAM: The show features undercover sting operations in which people pose as underage youth. When adult men contact the decoys over the Internet looking for sexual liaisons, they are lured to a meet-up spot and then confronted by journalists with cameras rolling.

SMITH: Those guys that were part of that sting, nobody could see themselves as a down comparison compared to them. I mean, they're sort of lowest of the low. So if you wanted to find someone who you could really say, what a lowlife - and I'm not certainly like that. I may not be doing well in all these kinds of ways. I may not be - I may be unemployed. I may be this. I may be that. But I am not showing up to see an underage person.

VEDANTAM: Our pleasure in seeing people fall below us allowed for behavior on the show that most of us would find unacceptable in other situations.

SMITH: So much so that the producers of that show could humiliate these men in a very extreme way, in a way that you couldn't imagine doing to somebody else and feel good about it, but it's almost no guilt of humiliation of another human being. And for quite the opposite, the viewer's probably getting a lot out of it.

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JAY REFFNER: I just wanted to talk. I swear to you. You know, she...

CHRIS HANSEN: How were you going to use the condoms in the conversation?

REFFNER: I wasn't going to use them at all.

HANSEN: Well, you got them in your pocket.

REFFNER: Well, yeah, I do have them...

HANSEN: You going to do balloon tricks with them or...

REFFNER: No.

VEDANTAM: When envy and schadenfreude play out among individual people, the outcomes tend to be limited - feelings are hurt, a friendship ends, a colleague turns away. But when it comes to group behavior and group identity, these emotions can be far more destructive. If Richard's theory of envy and schadenfreude in Hitler's Germany are true, these feelings may have contributed to the murder of millions. You see similar things on a smaller scale in the United States. Richard Smith says schadenfreude has become a powerful force in our politics, and it operates through the lens of partisanship.

SMITH: The increasing bottom line is whether one's party is gaining in some way.

VEDANTAM: In one study, Richard and some colleagues asked college students for their emotional reactions to a variety of news articles. The articles described misfortunes happening to others like stories of home foreclosures or economic woes. It turned out that the students with the strongest political party identification were also most likely to see the news through the prism of schadenfreude. Some partisans felt joy when American service members came home dead from the war in Iraq because it made the other party look bad.

SMITH: We also looked at reactions to troop deaths when it came to Democrats just before the run-up to the midterm elections. So it just - the fact remained that if you were wanting George Bush of the Republican Party to do poorly, more troop deaths in Iraq would be a good thing in the sense of swinging the election. So Democrats were more willing to sort of slightly feel or acknowledge that the bad news coming out of Iraq made them feel good to the extent they could see the political consequences.

VEDANTAM: In the same vein, a few decades ago, some Republicans felt pleasure knowing that President Jimmy Carter's Iran hostage rescue debacle would help their candidate in the presidential election, Ronald Reagan. This is terrible stuff. Mina Cikara believes that malicious envy and schadenfreude may in fact serve as a gateway to unspeakable acts.

CIKARA: You know, a couple of years ago when skirmishes in Israel started to heat up again - I think it was 2000 - summer of 2014 - people started sending me a link to a story about people in the Gaza Strip or people in Israel who were sitting on their couches watching bombs get lobbed at the other side and cheering. And you know, oftentimes, I hear things like, oh, the schadenfreude, this is just relegated to the domain of sports or celebrity gossip, you know, context in which it really doesn't matter. But actually, it turns out it's present in situation - in the most dire of human conflicts and situations.

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CIKARA: If I feel good every time I watch a bad thing happen, maybe next time I'll make a bad thing happen.

VEDANTAM: The research in this field is just beginning. It's still unclear how much the pleasure of schadenfreude can lead to actions that actually cause harm. If an angry young man feels pleasure watching white supremacists assault peace protesters, will he become a white supremacist himself? Will our affiliations as Democrats and Republicans cause us to turn a blind eye to moral transgressions if they benefit our party? How much can our pain prompt us to find pleasure, and how much can this pleasure prompt us to cause pain? If we can be led by schadenfreude down a path of destruction, where does it end?

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VEDANTAM: We began this episode with the story of Jessica. She was left behind on an island with dengue fever while her friend was airlifted to a modern hospital. Jessica's envy was so intense that it caused her physical pain. It might have led to the end of a long friendship. But that didn't happen. And the reason it didn't happen is that Jessica brought her ugly, festering envy into the light of day. She exposed it fully, talked about what she had been feeling. And that simple act, admitting to something we've all been taught to keep locked up inside, allowed her to triumph over this terrible emotion. Perhaps as a lesson in Jessica's story, the first step to fighting envy is to admit we have it.

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VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Jenny Schmidt and Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Renee Klahr and Matt Schwartz. Our unsung hero this week is Adam Zissman. Adam's a lawyer at NPR, and he's involved in many complex legal issues that come up when you run a journalism organization. I got to know Adam when he helped us set up the framework and business model for HIDDEN BRAIN. Adam and I have had many long conversations. And I mean this as one of my highest compliments - he enjoys a good argument nearly as much as I do. If you liked this episode, please tell a friend about it. We're always looking for new listeners for HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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