Sometimes you want something so badly it hurts, usually something that someone else has. Now a report in the journal Science shows that the agony of envy really does ache, because envy activates a part of the brain that processes physical pain. What’s more, the brain registers pleasure when the person we envy has a bad day.
Scientists used fMRI scans to look at how the brain handles envy and its evil twin, schadenfreude, a German term for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. In the first set of studies, the scientists asked participants to read a story about themselves and their friends. In one scenario, subjects were told that they botched a job interview, which one of their classmates totally nailed.
Reading about this classmate’s subsequent successes, both financial and romantic, caused the participants’ brains to shout pain. But then came the schadenfreude. The subjects were told that something unfortunate happened to this friend, everything from car troubles to getting cheated on. That news was received with apparent delight as it lit up the brain’s reward circuits. Then again, what looks like delight could just be the relief of no longer having to deal with the painful feelings of envy. Like a Red Sox fan contemplating A-Rod.