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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Report on a Pre-registered Research Grant

15.06.2017, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

Schadenfreude about asylum seekers: a cross-cultural comparison
Mariette Berndsen, Adelaide, Australia

The goal of the project was to understand how national identification influenced schadenfreude (pleasure about someone else’s misfortune) about asylum seekers in detention centres. Research was conducted in Australia (Study 1) and Romania (Study 2). In both countries people who seek asylum are treated extremely punitively. A preregistered-research grant from the EASP made it possible to conduct the research in Australia so that we could reimburse participants for their participation.

Most research has focused one schadenfreude where the misfortune, or negative outcome, was minor. Moreover, the misfortune was deserved because the person was responsible for the negative outcome such as failing an exam due to lack of studying (e.g., Feather, 2014). Other researchers (e.g., Leach & Spears, 2008) showed that the ingroup’s pain caused by inferiority legitimized expressing schadenfreude at the outgroup’s misfortune. For example, in a sporting contest an ingroup felt inferior when an outgroup won the game. When that outgroup went on to lose a game to a third party, the pain of inferiority feelings gave rise to schadenfreude. In each case, such schadenfreude is considered as schadenfreude with a good conscience (Nietzsche, 1887/1967). However, Nietzsche also acknowledged the occurrence of schadenfreude with a bad conscience (S-BC) which was the focus in our (Emma Thomas, Craig McGarty, Ana-Maria Bliuc, Daniela Muntele Hendres, and me) research. S-BC arises from feeling superior over other people and reflects hostility towards the latter. Such analyses of laughter advanced by Plato, Aristotle and Hobbes, became known as the superiority theory (Hurley, Dennett, & Adams, 2011).

Perceived superiority of the ingroup is included in the measurement of national identification (Roccas, Klar, &Liviatan, 2006). The researchers distinguished between two qualitatively different modes of national identification: glorifying and attached identification. Glorifiers perceive the ingroup to be superior to other ethnic or national groups and often express prejudice and intolerance towards ethnic minorities. Glorifiers prohibit any form of ingroup criticism as they are devoted to the nation (their policies, leaders, symbols) and strongly opposed to people who act against the established rules. Attached identifiers are committed to all members within the nation, but they take a critical stance towards immoral behaviour emanating from the ingroup and they often try to help the victims of the immorality. We argued that people who express schadenfreude about asylum seekers’ situation in detention centres are those who glorify their nation, while people who feel sympathy for them and guilty about their adverse situation are those who feel attached to their nation. Second, we argued that schadenfreude about asylum seekers arises from blaming those people for their adverse situation, and this is due to judging seeking asylum to be illegal and to perceiving asylum seekers as a realistic threat to the nation.

We manipulated mode of identification following Roccas et al. (2006). The researchers induced attachment in their participants by asking them to think about the ideal image of the nation that would increase love for their nation. Emphasizing the ideal image should increase the salience of the nation’s shortcomings that promotes a critical attitude towards these shortcomings which is a characteristic of attached identifiers. Roccas et al. (2006) induced glorification in their participants by asking them to think why they love the nation as it currently is. This instruction undermines ingroup criticism and promotes devotion to the nation; both are characteristics of glorifying identifiers.

We predicted that, relative to attachment, glorification would reduce perceived entitlement to seek asylum, heighten realistic threat and attributions of blaming asylum seekers for their situation. Realistic threat and entitlement would predict blame that, in turn, would negatively predict sympathy and guilt, and would positively predict schadenfreude (S-BC). We found support for this path model in both Australia and Romania with the following predicted exception. As predicted, in the Romanian sample the paths from mode of identification to perceived entitlement, and from the latter to blame were not significant. This is because the (false) belief that asylum seekers violate international rules for seeking asylum (which is popular in Australia; Pedersen, Attwell, & Heveli, 2005) is less common in popular discourse in Romania that is perhaps due to the high levels of corruption in Romania at all levels of government (Marinas & Ilie, 2015). Thus, with the exception of entitlement, an almost similar psychological process model operated in both countries. Although there are many mean level differences between the countries, given the nature of the sample it would be a mistake to over-interpret these differences. Nevertheless, we found more prominent findings across some key variables (glorification, blameworthiness, and S-BC) in the Australian sample compared to the Romanian sample, with the exception of realistic threat which did not differ between the countries.
The observation of an almost identical process model in the two countries is important given the current scale of the global refugee crisis, but they are also specifically important in pointing to the emotional tone of glorifying identification. It makes sense that a strong element of glorification will involve positive self-focused emotions such as pride, and not surprisingly, the existing research showed the absence of links with the negative self-focused emotion of guilt. It gives us no comfort at all to report evidence of a links between glorification and an other-focused emotion through which people derive pleasure from adversity to others. Indeed, the positive pathways from attachment to guilt and sympathy suggest that there are other, more uplifting ways, to be a proud member of a group.

References

  • Feather, N. T. (2014). Deservingness and schadenfreude. In W.W. van Dijk, & J.W. Ouwerkerk (Eds.), Schadenfreude: Understanding pleasure at the misfortune of others (pp.29-57). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hurley, M.M., Dennett, D.C., & Adams, R.B. (2011). Inside jokes: Using humor to reverse-engineer the mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  • Leach, C. W., & Spears, R. (2008). ‘A vengefulness of the impotent’: The pain of in-group inferiority and schadenfreude toward successful out-groups’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1383-96.
  • Marinas, R-S., & Ilie, L. (2015). Romanian government meant to tackle corruption wins parliament’s backing. Retrieved November 27, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/17/us-romania-government-vote-idUSKCN0T61KF20151117#k8JzpOfvwYJHcGqK.97
  • Nietzsche, F. (1967 [1887]. On the genealogy of morals (translated by W. Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House.
  • Pedersen, A., Attwell, J., & Heveli, D. (2005). Prediction of negative attitudes toward Australian asylum seekers: False beliefs, nationalism, and self-esteem. Australian Journal of Psychology, 57, 148-160.
  • Roccas, S., Klar, Y., & Liviatan, I. (2006). The paradox of group-based guilt: Modes of national identification, conflict vehemence, and reactions to the in-group’s moral violations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 698–711.