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Pain for Pleasure

jrieders's picture

Senior Seminar in Biology and Society

Is Pain a Pleasure, and Why?

September 29, 2009


How many of us were glued to the television weeks after 9/11? How many of us slow down when passing a car crash? How many of us have a favorite crime show?

This fascination is not new, thousands of years ago spectators gathered to watch gladiators fight to the death, and today people can still watch executions.

Why are we obsessed with murder, sexual abuse, violence and crime, both real and imagined?;contentAux

Why are we drawn to destruction and is this the same feeling?

Is it Schadenfreude?

Dictionary definition-satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's misfortune

Skim this:

Read pages 336-341

How do our emotions about crime effect projects such as this?



Paul Grobstein's picture

"violence and gore," schadenfreude and "culture as disability"

I'm intrigued by peoples' interest in "violence and gore," largely because I don't share it.  I wonder what brain variations account for this, and what I am not seeing/doing that others are.  But I'm even more intrigued by the conversation about schadenfreude and its implications for thinking about more general issues of brain and social organization.
My guess is that the phenomenon of enjoying the misfortune of others because it enhances one's own sense of well-being is missing in most living organisms (plants, frogs) and perhaps in many humans as well (autism?).  It seems to me that it depends on two characteristics.  One is a sense of personal identity that involves comparisons to other people, and the other is the notion of a zero sum game in interpersonal interactions: success for one person necessarily depends on lack of success for someone else.  Both are involved in quite normal/accepted human activities: team, political, institutional loyalties.  But neither is inevitable.  Humans might (as in team sports) take interpersonal interactions as non-zero sum games, and might conceive personal identity in ways that don't involve comparisons to other people.  In short my sense is that schadenfreude may be a peculiarity of particular cultural systems,  and is perhaps a hazard of cultural systems in general?  See Culture as Disability for the generalities and Paul Krugman's The Politics of Spite for a contemporary specific. 

ttruong's picture

By product of competition

I think that Schadenfreude is a by-product of our evolutionary development. When basic resources such food, water, and shelter were scarce we were in competition for survival rather than recognition or prestige. When a competitor failed at attaining a resource, it left us with the elating thought that resource is more available. These feelings result from the significant impact of the competitor's failure, rather than the failure itself. As our society evolved, our ideas about resources changed, but the competition aspect of attaining resources did not. Therefore, the result of Schadenfreude has carried over from a biological context to a societal context.

Lisa B.'s picture

Evolution as the organizing theme in teaching biology


Evolution by means of natural selection could supplement the scientific studies of Schadenfrede. The above student’s use of Social Darwinism, to explain Schadenfreude, is one example of the importance of evolution as the organizing theme in teaching biology.


Lisa B.'s picture

Alternative Therapy?


The BBC News article (2001), “Brain links pain with pleasure,” reported on research from Massachusetts General Hospital, where scientists carried out a study that found that feelings of pleasure also react to the sensation of pain. The conclusion was that these results are important for developing alternative pain remedies, which do not involve drugs. Dr. Irene Tracey, a British pain imaging expert, said “this research provides information which is critical for future studies that will pave the way for pain sufferers being given alternative therapies to combat their suffering.”
If alternative therapy had clinical research that documented it as safe and effective for pain management, would modern medicine accept alternative therapies (acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, yoga, hypnosis, herbal remedies) as medical treatment for pain?


jrlewis's picture

Is there a place for violence...

Despite being an animal lover and a pacifist, I have to admit that I probably haul off and hit my pony really hard about once a year.  Usually, it is the result of extremely rude behavior on her part.  The rest of the time I struggle to find alternative ways to convey to her, and my other horse, that their behavior is inappropriate.  Here is one strategy that I think is really cool…

Sometimes a horse behaves defiantly, instead of jumping over an obstacle they rear up (standing on their hind legs).  This is very aggressive body language for a horse.  It also has the effect of unseating the rider and possibly causing them to fall off.  The most common response of a rider or trainer is to hit the horse over the head with a crop.  The horse recognizes this as an act of violence from the rider directed at them.  A rather painful one.  The beating on the head is supposed to make the horse submissive to the rider.  However, some horses are further enraged by the rider’s aggression and the situation escalates.  A better way to address the horse’s defiance is to crack a raw egg over their head.  They won’t understand that the rider was responsible.  What the horse will think is that when they stood up, they hit their head.  The gooey egg yolk simulates the sensation of blood dripping from a head wound.  The horse will learn that if they stand on their hind legs they might hurt themselves.  A more meaningful and self-serving lesson than a fear of physical retribution from their rider.  Plus it’s really cool to watch!

So what I’m thinking about with this example is what is the point of violence?  When can it be avoided?  Could we eliminate it ever?

RachelBrady's picture


I put a lot of thought into what it is that attracts me to the violence and action in films, and the only conclusion I could come to was the enjoyment from the rush of adrenalin I get from indirectly experiencing a period of survival (or struggle then death). Another way to describe this is that the incidents of interest are phenomena, outside of a standard norm, which people are really attracted to; whether it is an autistic person who can instantly count the number of tooth picks as they fall to the floor, a magician that can saw a person in half, or a destructive explosion. No matter what their nature is, people tend to be fascinated by things and events that are statistically highly unlikely. These are things that you don't necessarily anticipate which are well beyond the norm. Also, Individuals can have different definitions of attractive or rare phenomena depending on their level of tolerance to specific events based on experience, which accounts for the observed variation.