I don’t think I am alone in saying that I often feel a little envy and schadenfreude towards my peers. Science is a particularly competitive business with few remunerative rewards, so a lot of my self-worth is tied to comparisons with my peer’s successes and failures. I won’t deny being envious when someone gets a Science paper. And while seeing the abject failure of my peers isn’t high on my list of priorities, I won’t deny the small satisfaction that I get when someone who breezed through their PhD gets taken down a peg.
These aren’t happy-joy-joy emotions. They don’t make me swell with pride for the future of humanity. They aren’t pleasant, but they are nonetheless humane in that — except for saints — they are general to the human species.
Takahashi et al. study the neurology of these darker emotions. The authors use fMRI to examine the activation in the human brain that comes when we feel envy and schadenfreude. The authors find that these abstract emotions activate very visceral systems in the brain — which says interesting things about how the brain is organized.
Takahashi et al. measured the activation in 19 healthy subjects brains using functional MRI while the subjects visualized a variety of scenarios.
The subjects were asks to visualize being the protagonist in scenarios that college students might face. For example, here is an envy-evoking scenario that the subject was asked to visualize with themselves as the protagonist (from the Supplemental material):
Student A did well in his final examinations, but the protagonist did not. Student A is talented in baseball but the protagonist is not. Student A is popular among girls and has a beautiful and intelligent girlfriend, but protagonist is not popular and does not have a steady girlfriend.
Student A is successful in the job interview and is getting along well at the company he wanted to join, but the protagonist is not. The salary of student A is good and he enjoys a metropolitan and western life style (living in a luxurious condominium downtown, owning a high-class European car, collecting watches, travelling overseas, going to a fancy French restaurant, and having many opportunities to meet girls), but the protagonist’s salary is not good and he is not able to enjoy a metropolitan life.
A comparable schadenfreude-evoking scenario might involve the protagonist doing much better than a comparably-situated student. The scenarios were varied to include the gender of the subject (other students might be assigned the same gender as the subject to help them relate), the degree of similarity between the subject and the other students, and how well they were doing in comparison. Analysis of the resulting brain scans compared activation in different brain regions under envy-evoking, schadenfreude-evoking, and neutral scenarios. The subjects were also asked to rate their relative feelings of envy and gloating in each scenario.
They were three key findings:
- When the subjects were asked to visualize scenarios where someone similar to them was doing better than they were — envy-evoking — they show greater activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The level of increased activation correlated with increased self-reported feelings of envy.
The ACC is associated with conflict or error detection — when the expected response or scenario is not what happened. It is also shows activation during pain, such as empathetic pain or the pain associated social exclusion.
Interestingly, the ACC activation in this task was only increased when the subject could relate to the object of their envy. The authors’ interpreted this finding that when a subject cannot relate to the other person — when they are not “self-relevant” — you don’t feel envy towards them: “That is, if the possession of the target person is superior and the comparison domain is self-relevant, we feel intense envy. When the comparison domain is not self-relevant, we do not feel strong envy, even if the possession is superior. When the comparison target is neither superior nor self-relevant, we are indifferent to the target.”
- When the subjects were asked to visualize scenarios where someone similar to them was doing worse than they were — schadenfreude-evoking — increased activation was shown in the ventral striatum, and increases were correlated with increased self-reports of schadenfreude. However, like the previous experiment, these correlations were only observed when the person was someone they related to — i.e. someone they could envy. Activation in the ventral striatum is typically associated with rewarding stimuli. Hence, the authors interpreted the activation with schadenfreude as a feeling of pleasure.
- Finally, the degree of activation in the ACC from envy and the degree of activation in the ventral striatum from schadenfreude were positively correlated. Likewise, the degree of self-reported envy and schadenfreude were positively correlated. Both results suggest that the two feelings may be related.
The authors use these findings to propose a neurological mechanism that relates both envy and schadenfreude. Our feelings about the relative states of people can be rewarding or painful. However, these feelings of pain and pleasure can be mediated in a variety of ways. One such way is how we relate to the other person. It is hard to get worked over someone that you don’t know or is nothing like you. How much you can empathize with a person determines how much you can envy them or feel schadenfreude about them. Likewise, these feelings are determined by your relative position — not your absolute position. You gauge whether an event gives you pain or pleasure not by how you did, but how you did in relationship to comparable others.
What do I take away from this study?
I think this study is interesting for two reasons.
For starters, this paper is cool is because the subjects really aren’t experiencing envy or schadenfreude. OK, scratch that. They are really experiencing it — their brains really are activating — but why are they activating? I mean, they are just being read scenarios. They are not the kid who didn’t get the job he wanted and watched someone else get it. Rather they were asked to visualize the experience, and the authors saw comparable activation. This study is cool because it reveals yet again the power of imagination in the human emotional experience. The mere act of imaging is sufficient to evoke true emotional experiences.
More importantly — and this is a point made in the Faculty of 1000 review of the article by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky — this is but one more in a series of studies that suggest that human beings experience abstract feelings using the same systems by which we experience concrete feelings. What do I mean by that? Say you are feeling the pain of social exclusion. We speak of that as “pain,” but that we mean more of an abstract, nebulous longing. However, the evidence suggests that the mechanisms by which we experience abstract pain are literally the same mechanisms by which we experience physical pain. The situation is similar for reward: you take pleasure at running or doing your job; therefore, you activate the same systems by which you experience ecstasy at a wonderful meal or sexual release.
Abstract emotions in the brain are implemented through the systems associated with concrete emotions. Or to repeat a neologism that Sapolsky uses in his review: the brain shows “onto-concreteness.”
Or to coin a totally new (and potentially useless) phrase: all emotion is reified.
This observation has fascinating evolutionary implications. It would appear that many of our sophisticated human emotions have evolved by “piggy-backing” (another of Sapolsky’s words) on relatively primal brain systems. We have developed complex emotions not by evolving new brain structures but by applying old ones to more complicated uses.
Hat-tip: Faculty of 1000
Takahashi, H., Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Suhara, T., & Okubo, Y. (2009). When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude Science, 323 (5916), 937-939 DOI: 10.1126/science.1165604