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International Fans Feel Malicious Joy at Germany’s Football Misfortune

Psychological study reveals that schadenfreude fulfils important social functions – not only in football

Particularly among international football fans, there was a good deal of ridicule as Germany was eliminated early on from the Football World Cup currently underway in Russia. That is the central finding of a study the psychologist Lea Boecker recently conducted at the Social Cognition Center Cologne (SoCCCo) of the University of Cologne. In her survey, she focused on the emotional reactions of different groups of fans to the knock-out of the current world champion.

Within two days of the German team’s elimination from the competition, Boecker interviewed 131 international fans (mainly from England) and 102 German fans. The international fans felt more schadenfreude and less sympathy than the German fans. They claimed that the defeat was ‘satisfactory’ and that they ‘could not resist laughing’. Schadenfreude was proportionally more pronounced the less the test persons liked the German national team – both among German and international fans. Both groups also felt more intense malicious joy the more dominant they had perceived the German team to be, and the more they felt the failure to be deserved.

The study also shows that the German national team lost prestige and dominance after its elimination. Interestingly, this sentiment was more pronounced among the German than among the international fans. The German fans also felt more strongly that the team deserved the defeat.

These results also allow the psychologist to draw some general conclusions about human behaviour: ‘The public expression of schadenfreude that we saw last week in the international media occurs above all in the case of failures of persons or groups with a high status who are perceived as dominant’, says Lea Boecker. The expression of schadenfreude can serve to reduce this dominance. A series of recent experiments that Boecker conducted together with her colleague Jens Lange from the University of Amsterdam also supports this finding. The study will soon appear in the journal Emotion and is already available online in a preliminary version. In seven surveys with over 2,300 participants, they investigated how people reacted to the failures of people who have a higher status than themselves. The results indicate that people feel schadenfreude especially towards individuals who express dominance when they are successful. The public expression of gloating downregulates this dominance.

In another study, Boecker showed already in 2015 that German football fans also express happiness in response to the failure of competitors. In a laboratory experiment carried out during the 2012 European Football Championship, German football fans expressed strong schadenfreude when they were shown videos of missed Dutch penalty kicks. Their malicious laughter was even more intense than their joyous laughter for penalties taken by the German national team. True to the German proverb: ‘Schadenfreude is the most beautiful kind of joy’.

The Social Cognition Center Cologne (SoCCCo) is part of the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Human Sciences. It focuses on the psychological study of human social behaviour with an emphasis on underlying social cognitive processes. Ten research groups study a broad array of topics in social cognition, ranging from the dynamics of self-control to the ubiquity of social comparison and the intricacies of processing valenced information.

Lange, J., & Boecker, L. (in print). Schadenfreude as social-functional dominance regulator. Emotion. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000454
Online pre-publication and further materials:

Media Enquiries:
Lea Boecker
Social Cognition Center Cologne (SoCCCo)
+49 221 470 8346

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