Schadenfreude: why people take pleasure in the downfall of others

Saturday April 03 2021
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President Samia Suluhu Hassan swears in the ministers she appointed on Wednesday, March 31, at State House Dodoma. PHOTO| EDWIN MUJWAHUZI

By Epiphania Kimaro

Between two eras lie a transition. The passing of President John Magufuli, 61, marked the end of an era, and the beginning of the President Samia Suluhu Hassan era. Some of the key events that marked the transitioning of leadership here involved reshuffling of the cabinet, where there were some ministerial changes. Each of these movements of course elicited both thrills and sadness among Tanzanians. But there was thrill that was tinged with Schadenfreude, a word coined from the two German words Schaden - meaning ‘harm’ and Freude, meaning ‘joy.’ All in all, it describes the pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

Many of the discussions that ensued in the social scene in Tanzania following the cabinet reshuffle was around the question: ‘Why do people seem to be happy about the downfall of some of those cabinet members?’ Different claims were made. Some claimed that Schadenfreude is something typical of the Tanzanian culture. Others claimed that people lack fear of God, and have poor understanding of what religion prescribes them to do as believers. Yet others blamed it on the ethics and leadership approaches of the leaders who were befell by demotion.

But the question is whether Schadenfreude is generally a bad thing, or can be justified by looking at how the person whose failure is unfortunately celebrated, related to people during their heyday.

As reality is showing, it is a myth that news about other people’s misfortune will always elicit concordant emotional reactions such as sadness or sympathy. But expression of Schadenfreude by the public says a lot not only about the public, but even more about the leader.

What are their ethical standards? What are their levels of respect for other people? What is their leadership style? And so on; and so forth.

Research has shown that negative emotions are evoked by events that are perceived to harm or threaten an individual’s concerns, and positive emotions are elicited by events that satisfy an individual’s concerns.


So, the concern of individuals is of course a determining factor of whether a person will be sad about the suffering of another or not.

Let us say for example, that the concern of most individuals who show Schadenfreude following the suffering or downfall of their leader was protection of their welfare - what does that say about the leader’s ability to protect the welfare of the people? This shows the importance of public Schadenfreude in assessing the leader’s credibility and/or acceptance. Because - as Swahili wisdom says: ‘Penye moshi, hapakosi moto.’ Indeed, where there is smoke, there is fire. Where there is more Schadenfreude towards a leader’s downfall than sadness and sympathy, there is something about the leader worth looking at.

All in all, knowledge is created by people. Therefore, a lot of the knowledge about how well leaders lead can come from the people being.

This is to say that the link between leadership and being led is bidirectional. Instead of simply judging the public for being insensitive or sadist, we must also look the other way – what do the public reactions say about the leader.

And, finally: if all else doesn’t make sense, we can fall back to the shortcut that “everything happens for a reason”. All upwards, downwards and lateral position movements happened for a reason. And, if the reason is good, then no one has a reason to worry or blame another for the changes.


Ms Kimaro writes about careers, leadership, personal development, and issues affecting youth and women