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Schadenfreude follows from misfortunes happening to other individuals. It is therefore an essentially social emotion. However, previous research has mainly explored its intrapersonal functions. Complementing these findings, we propose a social-functional approach to schadenfreude. Seven studies (total N = 2,362) support that (a) schadenfreude is a reaction to a misfortune befalling an initially dominance-displaying individual and (b) the public expression of schadenfreude downregulates the dominance of the other person. Specifically, schadenfreude towards initially successful persons was intensified when they displayed dominance (i.e., hubristic pride or general dominance) instead of prestige (i.e., authentic pride or general prestige) or other displays (i.e., embarrassment) following their achievement (Studies 1 to 3). This effect was mediated via inferiors’ malicious envy (Study 4). The public expression of schadenfreude then reduced the perceived dominance of the initially successful person compared to private expressions of schadenfreude and awkward silence (Studies 5 and 6). This dominance reduction further had downstream consequences for the superior person (Study 7). The findings underline the social functioning of schadenfreude and provide avenues for research on schadenfreude at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intergroup level.
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