A thrown pie hitting a man's face, knocking off his glasses
June 20, 2024

When inflicting misfortune on others pays off

Insights provided on when ‘schadenfreude’ boosts charitable donations

Author: David Danelski
June 20, 2024

Oh, the joy of inflicting pain upon others. The Germans have a word for it: schadenfreude, meaning “malicious pleasure.” And tapping into its sentiment properly can, ironically, do a lot of good by raising money for charity.

Professor Thomas Kramer
Thomas Kramer

In a groundbreaking paper published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, UC Riverside School of Business marketing professor and associate dean Thomas Kramer and co-authors articulate and quantify the appeal of schadenfreude (pronounced Sha-den-froid-e) through the lens of marketing psychology.

Through a series of behavioral scenario studies, their paper provides insights for the highly competitive charitable fundraising industry, which gathers some $485 billion in the United States annually.

Firstly, those organizing fundraisers appealing to schadenfreude shouldn’t get too carried away. Schadenfreude is about inflicting mild misfortune that falls comfortably short of sadism on those seen as deserving of the misfortune. We’re talking about pies thrown into faces and plunges into water tanks – not anything too painful or damaging.

In fact, when participants of Kramer’s studies imagined celebrities they disliked getting shocked with a taser gun, the fundraising potential wasn’t as strong as seeing the same celebrities receive the milder misfortune of getting drenched with a bucket of ice water.

“If a disliked person gets more than their just desserts, and they’re severely punished, you no longer feel happy about that punishment, and donations go down,” explained Kramer, who applies his expertise in behavioral psychology to marketing science.

Kramer’s other key findings include:

Former BET executive Stephen Hill on a dunk tank seat.
Former BET executive Stephen Hill sits above a dunk tank for a fundraiser. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for City of Hope)

• To maximize donations, the donor can inflict or observe the mild misfortune, and those who inflict donate roughly the same as those who watch.

• The donors also must have disdain for the person receiving the misfortune, which elicits pleasure when they see that person get their punishment.

The study was conducted by having hundreds of participants at the University of Florida and those recruited through a crowdsourcing service called Amazon Mechanical Turk imagine various Schadenfreude scenarios.

In one example, they rated levels of dislike and deservingness of the person receiving the misfortune and how much they would donate (between zero and $10) to throw a pie into that person’s face. Higher levels of deservingness resulted in higher payments. In another scenario, more mild misfortune paid better than severe misfortune..

The paper’s title is “The Ironic Impact of Schadenfreude: When the Joy of Inflicting Pain Leads to Increased Prosocial Behavior.” Its co-authors are Yael Zemack-Rugar of University of Central Florida, Orlando, and Laura Boman of Kennesaw State University, Georgia.

Header photo by Getty Images

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