Positive and Negative Feedback and Self-Esteem on Feelings of Schadenfreude

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Schadenfreude toward an individual may be affected by self-esteem and positive or negative feedback. Previous research by Brambilla and Riva (2017) suggests that individuals report being more satisfied when a someone else’s hindrance happened while performing a competitive task more so than while performing a noncompetitive task. Extending this research, the present study observes whether the failure of a successful undergraduate student will enhance participants’ feelings of schadenfreude.

Participants will perform a simple calculation task (Educational Testing Service, 1962), and then receive positive or negative feedback concerning the calculation task prior to taking the State Self-Esteem Scale (1991) and reading a resumé and interview that will show a successful undergraduate student being criticized about a recent exam performance. After reading the interview, participants will complete items related to schadenfreude (Brambilla, 2017). It is hypothesized that the level of schadenfreude toward another undergraduate student will be highest when the participant receives negative feedback and lowest when receiving positive feedback. The results will be discussed and future research instructions will be given.

People may feel many different things in spite of others’ suffering. They might relate to or express feelings of understanding towards those suffering or they experience schadenfreude — feeling happiness at others’ hardships (Heider, 1958). But why do people feel joy in spite of another’s misery? In his article, “The Laws of Emotion,” Frijda (1988) argues that “[…] Emotions arise in response to events that are important to the individual’s goals, motives, or concerns” (p. 349).

Previous studies commonly show the targets of schadenfreude as others that resemble oneself in an area of mutual curiosity (Watanabe, 2016). For example, for undergraduate students, objects of schadenfreude may include a successful peer failing an important exam, a competitor for the same scholarship suffering a bad performance in an interview, or a student with strong intellectual and leadership abilities suffering a setback (Feather & Sherman, 2002; Hareli & Weiner, 2002). The present research investigates the relationships between self-esteem, self-evaluation, and schadenfreude. Van Dijk, van Koningsbrugen, Ouwerkerk, and Wessling (2011) investigated the assumptions that misfortunes happening to others can provide people with self-protection or self-enhancement opportunities.

The researchers conducted two studies that examined self-protection and self-enhancement by investigating the relationships between self-esteem, self-affirmation, and schadenfreude. In Study 1, the researchers hypothesized that participants with low self-esteem would experience more schadenfreude mediated by the self-threat that the high achiever evoked in the low self-esteem participants. The participants included 70 undergraduate men and women who were told that they would take part in two unrelated studies. The first study assessed self-esteem with the State Self-Esteem Scale.

In the second study, the participants were read two interviews that introduced a high-achieving student who suffered a misfortune. Before the participants read the second interview, the participants assessed their feelings of self-threat evoked by the high-achieving student with three statements. After reading both interviews, the participants’ schadenfreude towards this misfortune was assessed with five statements and sympathy towards this misfortune was assessed with three statements.

In Study 2, the researchers hypothesized that the indirect relationship of self-esteem with schadenfreude would be moderated by the low self-esteem participants’ opportunity for self-affirmation. The participants included 42 undergraduate men and women who were told that they would take part in several unrelated studies. These studies identified the participants’ most and least important values through the Allport-Vernon-Lindzey Study of Values and the participants’ self-affirmation was assessed through one of the AVL-subscales.

The participants’ feelings of self-threat, schadenfreude, and sympathy were assessed using the same statements as in Study 1. The two studies demonstrated that self-esteem has a negative relationship with schadenfreude toward a high achiever and that this relationship was mediated by the self-threat evoked by this high achiever.

This indirect relationship was contingent on an opportunity to affirm the self. When no self-affirmation opportunity was available, participants with low self-esteem experienced a stronger self-threat when confronted with a high achiever. This feeling of self-threat increased the participants’ schadenfreude. However, the schadenfreude response was weakened when the participants were given an opportunity to self-affirm. These findings indicate that the misfortunes of others can induce schadenfreude because the findings provide people with an opportunity to protect or enhance their self-views.

Subscribing to the notion that self-esteem and schadenfreude are related, Watanabe (2016) investigated whether observing the failure of another individual and experiencing schadenfreude enhances self-esteem. The researcher hypothesized that the level of schadenfreude felt by the participants toward a stranger would be highest in the negative feedback group and lowest in the positive feedback group. Watanabe (2016) also predicted that participants in each feedback group would show stronger schadenfreude toward a stranger of the opposite sex.

The researcher conducted two studies. Study 1 consisted of 24 undergraduate men and women. Two video clips were taken from a DVD of the American Idol TV program. One clip featured a male target and the other clip featured a female target. Participants individually watched the first video clip showing the audition applicant’s misfortune (severe criticism by the judges) and then evaluated four schadenfreude-related items using a 5-point scale. Participants then watched the second clip and provided responses to the same questions as for the first clip. The results of a two-factor analysis of variance (ANOVA) concluded that the two video clips depicted criticism of the applicants and were equivalent other than the sex of the target.

Study 2, which used the video clips examined in Study 1, tested the effects of self-evaluation threat on schadenfreude experienced by participants with low self-esteem. The participants included 87 undergraduate men and women. Participants were randomly assigned either to the negative feedback group, the positive feedback group, or the control group, which received no feedback. First, participants performed a simple calculation task for 2 minutes.

During a 2-minute relaxation period, the experimenter went behind a screen to pretend to grade the task. The researcher then provided the negative feedback group with a low percentile ranking on the calculation task. Participants then completed the State Self-Esteem Scale. After completing the questionnaire, participants watched the first video clip and answered the schadenfreude-related questions. Participants then watched the second clip and provided responses to the same items as for the first clip. The findings indicated that neither self-evaluation threat nor positive feedback was related to the level of schadenfreude toward strangers.

Brambilla and Riva (2017) further investigated whether observing the failure of another individual and experiencing schadenfreude affects self-esteem. The researchers hypothesized that feeling joy at another’s suffering would increase participants’ self-esteem, control, belongingness, and meaningful existence. The researchers conducted four studies. Experiment 1 consisted of 68 undergraduates. Participants were asked to imagine being involved in a job interview. Next, participants were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions.

In the competitive condition, participants learned that a former university colleague with whom they had been in competition with had also been selected for the job interview. Moreover, the other candidate was described as having high potential for achievement and a strong likelihood of being offered the job. In the non-competitive condition, participants learned that a former university colleague had been selected for a job interview to fill a job position unrelated to the participant’s position. After reading this description, participants were asked to indicate how they might feel if they were in the situation described in the vignette.

In particular, participants indicated the extent to which they would experience schadenfreude. Participants provided all of their responses on 7-point scales, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely). Participants also indicated their levels of self-esteem, control, belongingness, and meaningful existence on 5-point scales, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). The results of a t-test and MANOVA indicated that participants reported more schadenfreude when a misfortune occurred in a competitive circumstance rather than in a non-competitive circumstance.

Experiment 2 was designed to replicate the findings of Experiment 1 by considering real situations. The researchers recruited 81 undergraduates for an experimental design subdivided into two groups. As a cover story, participants were asked to participant in a study aimed at defining the memory abilities to remember past events. In the competitive condition, participants were asked to type in a text box the description of an experience in which they were in competition with a peer who suffered a misfortune.

In the non-competitive condition, participants wrote about an experience in which a peer suffered a misfortune. Next, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they felt schadenfreude during the recalled circumstance. Participants provided all of their responses on the same 7-point scales as used in Experiment 1. Finally, participants indicated how they felt about the recalled episode in terms of self-esteem, control, belongingness, and meaningful existence using the 5-point scales employed in Experiment 1. The results indicated that the more the participants felt joy at another’s misfortune, the more he or she reported a high satisfaction of basic human needs.

Experiment 3 was designed to test the hypothesis by going beyond recalled events and involving a real online interaction. This experiment consisted of 43 undergraduates for an experimental design subdivided into two groups. Participants were told that they would play a game on reaction times with an opponent. The winner of each game would win money. In the competitive condition, a message appeared saying that the participant’s opponent could not be connected to the game due to a technical problem with the computer. The technical problem represented a clear misfortune because the opponent lost the chance to win the money.

In the non-competitive condition, a similar message reported that one of the two players of the other set of opponents could not be logged on. The experimenter informed the participants that they would have to stop until the issue is managed, as all players should be connected before proceeding. Participants were then asked to indicate how they felt in terms of self-esteem, control, belongingness, and meaningful existence using the same items and scales employed in Experiments 1 and 2. No measure of schadenfreude was included. The findings confirmed that a misfortune that occurred to a competitor in a real online interaction elicited schadenfreude and increased self-esteem, control, belongingness, and meaningful existence.

Lastly, Experiment 4 was designed to test whether the effects found in the previous experiments arise from a misfortune that benefits the observer. The researchers recruited 73 undergraduates for an experimental design that was subdivided into two groups. In the competitive condition, participants learned that a former university colleague, with whom they have had competition with, has been selected for a job interview. Differently from Experiment 1, the participant was not involved in the job interview and did not compete directly with the other individual to get the job.

In the non-competitive condition, participants learned that a former university colleague has been selected for a job interview to fill a job position. In this condition, the researchers did not mention that the participant and the target person have been in competition in the past. Next, the participants learned that the other person missed the job interview due to a car accident. Participants’ reactions to this misfortune were assessed in terms of schadenfreude, self-esteem, control, belongingness, and meaningful existence following the same procedure as the previous three experiments. The findings indicated that a misfortune that occurred to a competitor increased schadenfreude and the fulfillment of basic needs, even when the misfortune was not advantageous for the observer.

Abell and Brewer (2018) included another factor in their study on schadenfreude. This study investigated the relationship between Machiavellianism, envy, competition, and schadenfreude in women’s same-sex friendships. 133 women aged 18-30 years were recruited via online research websites and social networking sites. Participants responded to three vignettes measuring schadenfreude with a same-sex friend and completed scales related to Machiavellianism, envy, and competition. After reading the vignettes, participants rated on a 7-point scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), the extent to which they felt amused, satisfied, pleased, and sympathetic. Participants’ Machiavellianism was then measured using the Mach IV (Christie & Geis, 1970).

The measure contains 20 items rated on a 7-point scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), with higher scores indicating higher levels of Machiavellianism. Next, participants’ envy was measured using the Dispositional Envy Scale (Smith et al., 1999). The measure contains eight items rated on a 5-point scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), with higher scores indicating higher levels of envy. The items were adapted to reflect feelings of envy toward a friend.

Lastly, competition was measured using the Interpersonal Competition Index (Singleton & Vacca, 2007). The measure contains seven items assessing general completion and competition within specific domains. Participants responded on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Three of the statements were adapted from the Singleton and Vacca (2007) as the questionnaire was intended for college students and concentrated on school grades. Results indicated that Machiavellianism did not predict envy and competition, but schadenfreude did predict envy and competition.

People with low self-esteem often criticize themselves when they fail and are vulnerable to negative feedback (Brown & Dutton, 1995). Considering that schadenfreude is associated with the maintenance of self-evaluation or self-enhancement, it is predicted that the level of schadenfreude toward another undergraduate student will be highest when the participant receives negative feedback and lowest when receiving positive feedback. Furthermore, because there is evidence in studies on schadenfreude that is consistent with self-enhancement opportunities, schadenfreude should increase when people’s motivation to self-enhance becomes greater, whereas it should decrease when this motivation weakens.



A sample of male and female undergraduate students will be obtained from psychology classes at Xavier University. Participation will be voluntary and the study will be completed for course credit.


Participants will be randomly divided into two groups. Each group will complete a 60-item calculation task, adapted from the Educational Testing Service (1962). The calculation task is divided into two parts, each containing 30 simple addition problems (i.e., 12 + 5 + 67). Participants will have two minutes to complete Part 1 of the task and two minutes to complete Part 2 of the task. Upon completion of the calculation task, the test will be collected by the researcher. The researcher will grade the tests for accuracy.

The researcher will record the participants’ test scores on a slip of paper along with a percentile ranking relative to the other participants in the room. Regardless of participant scores, the participants will be assigned either an extremely high ranking (75th percentile) or an extremely low ranking (25th percentile). The participants will be handed the slips of paper showing their actual score on the test and their assigned ranking.

The participants will then complete the State Self-Esteem Scale (1991) in order to measure their self-esteem after receiving positive or negative feedback on the calculation task (i.e., I feel confident about my abilities; I feel frustrated or rattled about my performance; I feel self-conscious; I feel as smart as others; I feel displeased with myself). They will be asked to indicate the extent of their agreement with the listed 20 items on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Next, the participants will receive a resumé of an academically and socially successful student. They will also be given a written script showing a conversation between the student and the student’s professor.

In the script, the professor will be giving the student negative feedback regarding the student’s poor performance on a recent exam. After the participants read the resumé and the script, they will complete a questionnaire measuring their level of schadenfreude felt toward the student (Bramilla & Riva, 2017). They will be asked to indicate the extent to which they felt schadenfreude during the recalled circumstance (i.e., I enjoyed what happened to that person; I couldn’t resist a little smile; What happened to that person amused me; I was happy about what happened). Participants will provide all of their responses to the four items on a 7-point scale, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (extremely). After the completion of the study, the participants will be given a demographics form asking them to provide information about their sex, age, and class year.


A t-test will be conducted to evaluate the effect of participant self-esteem and positive or negative test feedback on schadenfreude felt towards a successful student.


In this study, it is expected that the level of schadenfreude toward another undergraduate student will be highest when the participant receives negative feedback and lowest when receiving positive feedback. The predicted main effect of schadenfreude in this study would further support previous research, emphasizing self-affirmation opportunity in relation to self-esteem and high achievers and self-evaluation threat among feedback groups (van Dijk, van Koningsbruggen, Ouwerkerk, & Wesseling, 2011; Watanabe, 2016).

Like prior studies, the predicted results of this study will emphasize the degree to which feelings of schadenfreude are present towards people who encounter misfortunes related to the reception of positive or negative feedback and self-esteem (Watanabe, 2016). Consistent with previous research, no study has examined schadenfreude and self-esteem among undergraduate peer groups when receiving positive or negative feedback.

A limitation of this study is the use of a written resumé and script of a student. The degree of receptivity that reading these items have on the participants may be lesser than if presented with a video clip. Second, schadenfreude may not be reported honestly because feeling joy as a result of others’ misfortunes is generally seen as socially undesirable. In order to address this issue, new ways to measure schadenfreude behaviorally (e.g., measuring participants’ behavioral reactions to observing the misfortune of others’ in a private experimental room) should be developed. Lastly, the importance of obtaining information from the surrounding environment before and after misfortunes are observed may be a neglected variable because the resumé and script will describe only a limited part of the background of the student and the interaction of the student with a professor.

Future research should further investigate the psychological consequences of schadenfreude by considering different human needs and a greater variety of responses. It would be beneficial to investigate the long-term effects of schadenfreude on self-image, even taking into consideration how positive and negative feedback affect an individual’s self-esteem and feelings of schadenfreude over time. Future research could also usefully consider the relationships among self-evaluation threat, characteristics of the targets of schadenfreude, and environmental information. Clearly, more research is needed to further investigate the influence of schadenfreude on peer relationships, and this data will likely be a step on that path.


  1. Abell, L., & Brewer, G. (2018). Machiavellianism and schadenfreude in women’s friendships. Psychological Reports, 121(5), 909-919.
  2. Brambilla, M., & Riva, P. (2017). Self‐image and schadenfreude: Pleasure at others’ misfortune enhances satisfaction of basic human needs. European Journal of Social Psychology, 47(4), 399-411.
  3. Christie, R., & Geis, F. L. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. London, England: Academic Press.
  4. Frijda, N. H. (2007). The laws of emotion. Mahwah, N.J. : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. Retrieved from http://libproxy.xu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01905a&AN=ohiolink.b25023115&site=eds-live&scope=site
  5. Heatherton, T.F. & Polivy, J. (1991). Development and validation of a scale for measuring state self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 895-910.
  6. Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York, Wiley [1958]. Retrieved from http://libproxy.xu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01903a&AN=xav.b1121514&site=eds-live&scope=site
  7. Singleton, R. A. Jr., & Vacca, J. (2007). Interpersonal competition in friendships. Sex Roles, 57, 617–627.
  8. Smith, R. H., Parrott, W. G., Diener, E. F., Hoyle, R. H., & Kim, S. H. (1999). Dispositional envy scale. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1070–1020.
  9. van Dijk, W. W., van Koningsbruggen, G. M., Ouwerkerk, J. W., & Wesseling, Y. M. (2011). Self-esteem, self-affirmation, and schadenfreude. Emotion, 11(6), 1445-1449. doi:10.1037/a0026331
  10. Watanabe, H. (2016). Effects of self-evaluation threat on schadenfreude toward strangers in a reality TV show. Psychological Reports, 118(3), 778-792.

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