Taking pleasure in the misfortune of others is a human trait (because we are all basically monsters) that may start earlier than you might think. A new study shows that children as young as two years old can take delight in watching something bad happen to someone else.
Parents might respond to this news the same way I did, which is to say, “Duh.” I would submit that schadenfreude can be seen in children even younger than two, but my limited sample size of one human baby laughing whenever I pretend to fall down is admittedly limited.
The actual scientific study was done by placing a child and their mother in a room with another child. In one instance the mother read a book out loud while the kids played, and was signaled to “accidentally” spill water on the book. In the other instance, the mother read the book out loud with the other child on her lap while her own child looked on. She again spilled water on the book.
In the instances where the mother’s child had to watch their mother read with the other child on her lap, the child showed signs that they enjoyed seeing the water spilled. The researchers speculate that it’s because the spill ends the experience of seeing the mother’s attention be placed on someone else.
I’d be willing to speculate that it’s also because it’s funny seeing people spill water on things, but the children only seemed to take pleasure in the spill when their mother was reading with another child on their lap. That could indicate that while young children are capable of schadenfreude, it takes a little bit more to get the reaction from them than from a cynical adult.
The study was published in PLOS ONE earlier this month.
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