Rupert Murdoch (World Economic Forum, 2007)Until very recently, even Rupert Murdoch's sharpest critics might have admitted to envying the 80-year-old arch-conservative News Corporation CEO, who built a far-reaching media empire almost from scratch and made himself outstandingly rich even among billionaires. Now, though, amidst a phone hacking and corruption scandal that threatens to permanently damage his company, Murdoch is struggling to defend himself. Summoned to testify in front of a British Parliament committee investigating the scandal on Tuesday, he called it "the most humble day" of his career—and that was before a protester flung a shaving cream pie at his face.

Studies have shown that when powerful people fall from grace or experience adversity, envy can quickly turn into something else entirely: "The Schadenfreude," wrote the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal (a Murdoch-owned newspaper), "is so thick you can't cut it with a chainsaw."

Schadenfreude certainly helps to account for the popularity of America's Funniest Home Videos and celebrity bloopers, but it might also explain the rampant joy with which many news outlets, bloggers and liberals have pounced on the cringe-inducing story of the mighty News Corporation and its now-shamed executives. In a Scientific American Mind article, Emily Anthes defined schadenfreude as "that small, private rush of glee in response to someone else's misfortune."

Social psychologists have investigated the phenomenon, which seems to be a peculiar exception to human empathy. When the subject of misfortune is powerful, rich, famous or all three, normal feelings of pity and sympathy can be subsumed by a kind of smirking delight.

In a May 2011 paper in Social, Psychological, and Personality Science, Mina Cikara and Susan T. Fiske explain that "a potent predictor of Schadenfreude is envy." They cite an earlier study led by Wilco van Dijk, a Dutch psychologist who found that students experienced more schadenfreude when high-achieving—rather than average—classmates failed academically. (Like him or not, Murdoch, a billionaire media magnate, certainly qualifies as high-achieving.) Cikara and Fiske also note that when misfortune seems deserved or when there is already brewing resentment, anger or hate, others’ empathy can be further undermined.

But isn't schadenfreude a threat to the human need for cooperation? Not necessarily. "From an evolutionary standpoint," Anthes wrote, "schadenfreude makes a lot of sense. The world is a competitive place, and an individual benefits, for instance, when a sexual competitor breaks a leg or a hunting rival falls ill."

A 2009 paper in Science went even further, suggesting that schadenfreude might have developed specifically to ease the psychological pain of envy. "When misfortune occurs to an advantaged person," the authors wrote, "discomfort or pain is reduced, and a pleasant feeling is induced."

Schadenfreude certainly seems to have been a factor for Jonathan May-Bowles, the pie-thrower who wanted to humiliate Murdoch badly enough to risk arrest. "It is a far better thing that I do now," he tweeted, "than I have ever done before #splat."