You might be familiar with the concept called schadenfreude — feeling pleasure from another person’s pain. Schadenfreude is not only felt between individuals, but also between social groups. For instance, ingroup members feel satisfied after witnessing a rival group’s misfortune1 and when retaliating against a threatening outgroup2. After successfully retaliating, ingroup members also report reductions in group-level anger toward the offenders3 and feel higher group esteem4. Simply put, harming a hated outgroup is emotionally rewarding.
One type of retaliation that has not yet been studied is painful retaliation. The real world offers many examples of ingroup members risking physical pain and injury to retaliate against a threatening outgroup. If you have ever seen a verbal insult spark a violent brawl between avid sports fans in a stadium, then you have witnessed the extreme motivation to defend one’s team at any cost. You might wonder if those retaliating even feel the punches they receive, or if the sweet feeling of retribution numbs their senses while they defend their team’s honor. In this situation, it could be possible that group members cognitively reappraise a painful confrontation as rewarding, down-regulating their physiological stress responses to pain. In other words, the satisfaction derived from outgroup retaliation may be powerful enough that group members actually experience less pain during the act. Our recent study entitled, “Taking one for the team: Physiological trajectories of painful intergroup retaliation,” published in Physiology & Behavior, put this idea to the test.
We recruited 74 Texas Tech University students and told them that they were participating in a competition against a rival university and that the goal was to take away as many points as possible from their rivals during the study. All participants read insulting comments about Texas Tech ostensibly written by the rival university students (to induce the motivation to retaliate) and were then randomly assigned into one of two experimental conditions. In the retaliation condition, participants subtracted points from the rival team’s score by completing a painful task (the cold-pressor5). In the non-retaliation condition, participants completed the painful task but knew that it would not subtract points from the rival team. To measure emotional responses to painful retaliation, participants reported their feelings of anger and their desire to approach (confront, oppose, attack) their rivals before and after the cold-pressor, and they reported their feelings of satisfaction after the cold-pressor. To measure physiological responses to pain, skin conductance was collected during the cold-pressor, and changes in salivary cortisol were measured in response to the cold-pressor.
Our findings revealed that the retaliation, although painful, felt emotionally rewarding. Retaliation participants felt significantly more satisfied with the painful task compared to non-retaliation participants. Additionally, after the cold-pressor, those who retaliated showed a significant reduction in anger towards their rivals, as well as a significant decrease in the desire to confront, oppose, and attack them. The non-retaliation condition, on the other hand, showed no change in anger or the desire to approach their rivals. These results are consistent with previous research showing that a benefit of successful retaliation is discharged group-level anger3.
More importantly, this study demonstrated that retaliating against a rival can numb the physiological stress responses to physical pain. Skin conductance data showed that retaliation participants displayed a pattern of lower skin conductance during the painful task compared to non-retaliation participants. Additionally, non-retaliation participants showed a significant increase in cortisol from pre- to post-task (which is the typical neuroendocrine response to pain), but retaliation participants showed no change in cortisol. In sum, group members who experienced physical pain while harming their rival showed a suppressed physiological response compared to what is considered a normal reaction to pain.
Altogether, this experiment demonstrates that even painful retaliation yields emotional rewards and that outgroup retaliation prevents painful task-induced stress at the physiological level. We predict that this effect is due to a cognitive reappraisal of pain, where ingroup members reinterpret painful confrontation as rewarding instead of aversive. This cognitive shift may be powerful enough to activate the brain’s mesocorticolimbic dopamine reward system, dampening the physiological stress response during retaliation. These findings may partially explain why group members willingly enter into dangerous situations to defend their group’s honor and exhibit self-sacrificing behavior during conflict. We hope that this experiment motivates future research that explores the consequences of schadenfreude, particularly if the symptoms are powerful enough to influence critical human behavior related to an individual’s health, safety, and risk-taking.
- C.E. Hoogland, D.R. Schurtz, C.M. Cooper, D.J. Combs, E.G. Brown, R.H. Smith, The joy of pain and the pain of joy: in-group identification predicts schadenfreude and gluckschmerz following rival groups’ fortunes, Motiv. Emot. 39 (2014) 1–22, http:// dx.doi.org/10.1080/10463283.2015.1111600.
- A.T. Maitner, D.M. Mackie, E.R. Smith, Antecedents and consequences of satisfaction and guilt following ingroup aggression, Group Process. Intergroup Relat. 10 (2007) 223–237, https://journals.sagepub.com/action/cookieAbsent.
- A.T. Maitner, D.M. Mackie, E.R. Smith, Evidence for the regulatory function of intergroup emotion: emotional consequences of implemented or impeded intergroup action tendencies, J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 42 (2006) 720–728, http://dx. doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2005.08.001.
- R.B. Cialdini, K.D. Richardson, Two indirect tactics of image management: basking and blasting, J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 39 (1980) 406–415, 0022-3522.214.171.1246.
- W. Lovallo, The cold pressor test and autonomic function: a review and integration, Psychophysiology 12 (1975) 268–282, . 1975.tb01289.x.