Schadenfreude for undeserved misfortunes: The unexpected consequences of endorsing a strong belief in a just world

Shoko Watanabe, Drew S. Weiner, Sean M. Laurent

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4 Scopus citations


When witnessing misfortunes, people sometimes react with schadenfreude—malicious pleasure at another's suffering. Previous research suggests that schadenfreude is elicited for competitors and envied targets, or when misfortunes seem deserved. Six experiments (five pre-registered, Ntotal = 3324) support a novel hypothesis that perceivers feel greater schadenfreude for social targets who endorse a strong general belief in a just world (BJW), even when misfortunes occur outside of the typical conditions that elicit schadenfreude. Experiments 1–2 show that people feel schadenfreude at the accidental misfortune of a person who expresses strong BJW, based in part on their misfortune seeming more deserved. Experiment 3 demonstrates the same effect for a wealthy, strong-BJW target who suffers a life-changing misfortune. In Experiment 4, we demonstrate that perceivers infer stronger BJW from a wealthy (vs. poor) person and that these inferences lead to increased perceptions that the misfortune was deserved, resulting in greater schadenfreude. Finally, Experiments 5–6 show that the effect of target BJW on schadenfreude via perceived deservingness is moderated by a target's financial status, such that endorsing strong BJW is particularly consequential for wealthy and middle-income targets. We conclude that even when people are not responsible for their predicaments, perceivers believe the misfortunes of people with strong just-world beliefs are more fitting and therefore derive more pleasure at their expense. The current research builds on and extends both schadenfreude and just-world belief literatures by documenting a unique antecedent of schadenfreude based on perceivers' inferences or knowledge regarding how someone generally views their world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104336
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
StatePublished - Jul 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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