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Multiple versus single immoral acts: an immoral person evokes more schadenfreude than an immoral action

Abstract

A small body of research has investigated the relationship between an immoral disposition and schadenfreude. Less work has investigated the relationship between immoral behavior and schadenfreude. The aim of the present study was to separate out dispositional and behavioral attributions by both manipulation and measurement and thereby to investigate individual pathways to schadenfreude. Participants (Study 1: N = 281, Study 2: N = 271) were presented with a scenario that described a single immoral act or multiple immoral acts. The latter resulted in greater attributions to dispositional immorality. Importantly, dispositional immorality attributions were found to predict schadenfreude, but behavioral immorality attributions had no independent effect on schadenfreude. The pathways to schadenfreude were partly mediated by condemning emotions directed at the person but not by condemning emotions directed at the behavior. These findings expand our understanding of the psychological processes that underlie schadenfreude.

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Correspondence to Mariëtte Berndsen.

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Appendix

Appendix

Study 1

Single immoral act

John is a 48 year old American. This year John invested a large sum of money in a foreign bank. When depositing money in a foreign bank account, citizens have to pay United States tax on the interest received from the bank. John cheats for the first time on the tax-return form by omitting the interest received. He does not pay the $37,000 he should to the tax office. John is caught by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). John has to pay his $37,000 plus a fine (40% of $37,000) of $14,800.

Same immoral acts

John is a 48 year old American. Every year John invests a large sum of money in a foreign bank. When depositing money in a foreign bank account, citizens have to pay United States tax on the interest received from the bank. John cheats every year on the tax-return form by omitting the interest received. This year he should have paid $37,000 to the tax office. John is caught by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). John has to pay his $37,000 plus a fine (40% of $37,000) of $14,800.

Different immoral acts

John is a 48 year old American. He often engages in shoplifting and lying. This year John invested a large sum of money in a foreign bank. When depositing money in a foreign bank account, citizens have to pay United States tax on the interest received from the bank. This year John also cheats for the first time on the tax-return form by omitting the interest received. He does not pay the $37,000 he should to the tax office. John is caught by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). John has to pay his $37,000 plus a fine (40% of $37,000) of $14,800.

Single immoral act and moral act

John is a 48 year old American who has recently donated a considerable amount of money to charity. This year John invested a large sum of money in a foreign bank. When depositing money in a foreign bank account, citizens have to pay United States tax on the interest received from the bank. John cheats for the first time on the tax-return form by omitting the interest received. He does not pay the $37,000 he should to the tax office. John is caught by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). John has to pay his $37,000 plus a fine (40% of $37,000) of $14,800.

Same immoral acts and moral act

John is a 48 year old American who has recently donated a considerable amount of money to charity. Every year John invests a large sum of money in a foreign bank. When depositing money in a foreign bank account, citizens have to pay United States tax on the interest received from the bank. John cheats every year on the tax-return form by omitting the interest received. This year he should have paid $37,000 to the tax office. John is caught by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). John has to pay his $37,000 plus a fine (40% of $37,000) of $14,800.

Different immoral acts and moral act

John is a 48 year old American who has recently donated a considerable amount of money to charity. He often engages in shoplifting and lying. This year John invested a large sum of money in a foreign bank. When depositing money in a foreign bank account, citizens have to pay United States tax on the interest received from the bank. This year John also cheats for the first time on the tax-return form by omitting the interest received. He does not pay the $37,000 he should to the tax office. John is caught by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). John has to pay his $37,000 plus a fine (40% of $37,000) of $14,800.

Study 2

Single immoral act

John is a 48 year old American. He has been married to Fiona for 20 years.

John is on a conference in Europe and attends the dinner on the last day of the conference. After dinner, a band starts playing dancing music and John asks a young woman to dance. She introduces herself as Carol. Half an hour later they go to her hotel room. For the first time in his life, John has a one-night stand.

While they are asleep, a phone rings. Carol mistakenly picks up the phone, wrongly assuming that it is her mobile that rings, and answers with a groggy morning voice “Hello, Carol speaking …”. There is a silence at the other end of the phone, then Fiona yells “Who the hell are you!?” and slams her phone down. A little later, Fiona phones John and tells him not to come home for at least a month.

Same immoral acts

John is a 48 year old American. He has been married to Fiona for 20 years.

John is on a conference in Europe and attends the dinner on the last day of the conference. After dinner, a band starts playing dancing music and John asks a young woman to dance. She introduces herself as Carol. Half an hour later they go to her hotel room. John has a one-night stand. John has a long history of one-night stands.

While they are asleep, a phone rings. Carol mistakenly picks up the phone, wrongly assuming that it is her mobile that rings, and answers with a groggy morning voice “Hello, Carol speaking …”. There is a silence at the other end of the phone, then Fiona yells “Who the hell are you!?” and slams her phone down. A little later, Fiona phones John and tells him not to come home for at least a month.

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Berndsen, M., Tiggemann, M. Multiple versus single immoral acts: an immoral person evokes more schadenfreude than an immoral action. Motiv Emot 44, 738–754 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-020-09843-5

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Keywords

  • Schadenfreude
  • Behavioral and dispositional attributions
  • Fundamental attribution error
  • Other-condemning emotions