Children as young as 24-months-old show signs of pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, according to new research published July 2 in PLoS One, an emotion that appears to be triggered by the end of an unequal situation.
“It has been suggested that negative reactions to an unequal reward distribution in regard to the effort invested may have been essential for the evolution of cooperation,” Israeli researchers Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, Dorin Ahronberg-Kirschenbaum, and Nirit Bauminger-Zviely wrote in their study.
“Indeed, negative reactions to inequalities have been reported not only in human adults but also in capuchin monkeys and domestic dog. Considering the evolutionary significance of negative reactions to disadvantageous distribution, it is possible that schadenfreude has evolved as a positive reaction to the termination of inequity.”
The researchers recruited 35 triads consisting of a mother, her young child, and a similar-aged peer for their study of schadenfreude — the pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune.
For each experiment, the mother read a book and then accidently spilled water on it. The researchers used this situation to manipulate the children’s sense of fairness and trigger schadenfreude.
During some sessions, the mother placed the peer on her lap while reading the story. During other sessions, the mother read the book aloud to herself with both children nearby but neither on her lap.
The researchers explained that “in the current study we manipulated jealousy to elicit schadenfreude. Jealousy is the emotion children experience in a triadic situation, when there is a potentially unequal situation which raises a concern about losing exclusivity in significant relationships to a third party.”
The researchers found that children experienced more jealousy and schadenfreude — emotions they assessed through the child’s verbalizations and actions — when the mother had another child on her lap. These children were more likely to say things like “good” or to clap or roll on the floor after the mother spilled the water.
“Collectively, the current study shows for the first time that children as early as 24 months show signs of schadenfreude following the termination of an unequal situation, indicating that inequity aversion can be observed earlier than reported before. These findings imply that social comparison and sensitivity to fairness develop early in life further highlighting the evolutionary significance of positive reactions to the termination of an unfair situation,” the researchers concluded.