February 16, 2009

When Your Gain is My Pain and Your Pain is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude

We often make social comparisons to evaluate others and ourselves.  In a recent study in Science, Takahashi and colleagues investigated the neurocognitive mechanisms of envy and schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortune) using fMRI.  The researchers found that envy and schadenfreude are associated with different parts of the brain.  Whereas envy was associated with the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, schadenfreude was associated with the ventral striatum. The dorsal anterior cingulate is involved in the processing of cognitive conflicts; envy-related activation in this region was greater when the envied person had superior and more self-relevant characteristics.  The ventral striatum is involved in processing reward and the schadenfreude-related activity in this region was stronger when misfortune befell an envied person more so than a neutral person.  Additionally, envy-related activity in the anterior cingulate predicted schadenfreude-related activity in the ventral striatum.  Takahashi and colleagues suggest that their findings document mechanisms of painful emotion, envy, and a rewarding reaction, schadenfreude.

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