Dang, Your 2-Year-Old Is Mean

Dang, Your 2-Year-Old Is Mean

Why you should care

Because the children are our future.

Nothing sweetens victory quite like revenge. Seeing people suffer, especially after they’ve wronged us, can evoke a joy as exhilarating as it is twisted. Just ask the Bride in Kill Bill, Lorena Bobbitt, Hamlet — or the nearest toddler.

Don’t be fooled by the chubby cheeks and snuggly blankie. Researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel have found that

children as young as 2 years old find joy in others’ misfortunes.


Leave it to the Germans to bestow a complicated name on a complicated feeling. And schadenfreude is showing up earlier in life than previously thought. The study, published in PLOS ONE last July, bolsters the theory that the feeling developed early in our evolutionary history as a response to unfairness, possibly contributing to the evolution of cooperation, a key element in helping our species thrive.

Even dogs and capuchin monkeys have been shown to experience schadenfreude. So University of Haifa professor of psychology Simone Shamay-Tsoory made the obvious leap and began to investigate small children. A 2013 study had uncovered evidence of schadenfreude in kids as young as 4. But Shamay-Tsoory’s team — alums of the day care of hard knocks? — wondered whether children start grooving on others’ suffering at an even earlier age.

Kids in the unequal scenario ran, jumped and clapped their hands when the water spilled mid-storytime.

So they recruited 35 groups, each consisting of a mother, her child — ranging from 2 to 3 years old — and her child’s friend. The researchers then assigned each group to one of two scenarios. In the “equal” situation, the mother encouraged the kids to play with each other, ignored them for two minutes and spent two more minutes reading a book to herself. She then knocked over a glass of water on the book. But in the “unequal” scenario, she plopped her child’s friend on her lap and read the book aloud to him or her before spilling water on it.

Kids in the unequal scenario ran, jumped and clapped their hands when the water spilled mid-storytime. But the equal scenario didn’t trigger such a gleeful reaction, meaning schadenfreude likely evolved as a response to unfairness. The ability of even small children to experience schadenfreude “means it’s very basic and not something that society and culture affect,” Shamay-Tsoory told OZY.

To be sure, the study didn’t account for gender differences in emotion. Plus, “anything like this, you want to be replicated” to ensure it’s not just a fluke, says Richard Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. Next up, Shamay-Tsoory wants to use imaging techniques to examine the brain’s response to schadenfreude.

And while a 2-year-old clapping and jumping up and down at another’s suffering might seem disturbing (or if you’re OZY, amusing), Shamay-Tsoory assures us that schadenfreude fades in intensity with age. “It’s a normal and healthy part of development,” she says. Go, kids, go!

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