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Aligning with the agent of justice: Schadenfreude following punishment of trust violators

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Abstract

Four experiments used trust games to investigate schadenfreude’s effects on attitudes and behavior towards third parties who punish prior violations of participants’ trust. Across all studies, schadenfreude was stronger when trust violators received negative rather than positive outcomes, and participants’ perceptions that the violator deserved punishment positively predicted levels of schadenfreude. Further, participants had less favorable attitudes towards third parties who delivered more negative outcomes (Experiment 1), but attitudes and behavior were relatively more favorable when these negative outcomes were inflicted on trust violators (Experiment 2). Participants also had more favorable attitudes and behavior towards third parties who delivered punitive outcomes which did not themselves involve trust violations. Further, results were consistent with a statistical model where just world beliefs, deservingness, and schadenfreude serially mediated the effect of punishment on attitudes towards third-party punishers (Experiment 3). These results were replicated in the pre-registered Experiment 4 using a larger sample and more focused measures. Taken together, our findings are consistent with the view that schadenfreude following trust violations serves the social function of aligning relations with agents who administer retributive justice.

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Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Notes

  1. In Experiments 1–3, we also included self-report measures of a range of emotions (Angry, Regretful, Jealous, Contemptuous, Satisfied, Happy, Guilty, Sad, Proud), followed by measures of impressions of other players (e.g. liking) and outcomes of the games (e.g. deservingness). These variables were included after each game partly to disguise the research’s focus on schadenfreude and to avoid alerting participants to the fact that the outcomes for the players were pre-programmed, and partly to explore whether other emotions might influence the experience of schadenfreude after punishment. Findings that were both relevant to the research focus on Game 2 and were consistent across experiments were: firstly, anger having relatively consistent significant or near-significant positive associations with schadenfreude (Experiment 1: r(39) = .30, p = .061; Experiment 2: r(77) = .27, p = .016; Experiment 3: r(80) = .26, p = .019; Experiment 4: p > .10) and secondly, participants’ emotions tended to decrease across time. Exploratory analyses of these emotions are included in the Supplementary Materials.

  2. Only 9 participants sent fewer than 40 points without this prompt, and all of these participants sent 40 points following the prompt. Analyses conducted on samples excluding participants who saw this prompt yielded similar results to those based on the entire sample.

  3. In response to an anonymous reviewer’s comment, we performed an ANCOVA controlling for deservingness scores and rated satisfaction (from the emotion items described in footnote 1) to explore whether schadenfreude is simply a feeling of deservingness and satisfaction in response to justice concerns. Results found that the effect of punishment on schadenfreude remained significant, F(1, 74) = 9.28, p = .003, η2 = .11, suggesting that increased schadenfreude following punishment did not simply reflect increased deservingness and satisfaction, supporting a conceptual distinction between these constructs.

  4. Analyses including country as an IV revealed no significant effects of this variable. For the sake of clarity and economy, this IV was omitted from the analyses reported here.

  5. Nineteen participants reported suspicions about whether they were playing against other human players, 15 responded incorrectly to a memory check about the number of returned points, 1 transferred no points in game 1, and 4 used identification credentials that were identical to those of participants from a related previous study.

  6. As in Experiment 1, the effect of punishment on schadenfreude remained significant after controlling for deservingness and satisfaction, F(1, 161) = 5.84, p = .017, η.2 = .04.

  7. Sixty-five participants failed to answer at least one attention check question correctly, 52 failed to complete the questionnaire, 23 reported suspicions concerning whether other players were real human beings, and 2 failed to transfer points to the trustee in game 1. Our dropout rate (17.28%) was lower than those (30%—50%) reported in Zhou and Fishbach’s study (2016) while our exclusion rate (21.59%) was within the range (2%—52%) reported Thomas and Clifford’s (2017) review.

  8. As in Experiments 1 and 2, the effect of punishment on schadenfreude remained significant after controlling for deservingness and satisfaction, F(1, 153) = 15.05, p < .001.

  9. A principal axis factor analysis with oblimin rotation was performed on the BJW and schadenfreude items. Both the eigenvalues (> 1) and scree plot suggested a two-factor solution, explaining 62% of the variance. The first factor consisted of the seven BJW items and the second factor consisted of the four schadenfreude items. The two factors correlated at 0.49 and no item crossed-loaded onto the other factor above 0.30.

  10. Following Voorhees et al.’s (2016) recommendation, we used the overlapping confidence intervals approach (cf. Anderson & Gerbing, 1988) to show that the confidence intervals around the correlations did not include 1.0 (see Table 2), indicating the absence of serious discriminant validity issues.

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Funding

This article was funded by Economic and Social Research Council, RES-060-25-0044, Brian Parkinson, ES/L016486/1, Brian Parkinson, De Montfort University, Institute for Psychological Science Small Research Projects Fund, Paton Pak Chun Yam.

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Correspondence to Paton Pak Chun Yam.

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The authors have no conflict of interest to declare. The authors also confirm that the research reported in this paper adheres to ethical guidelines specified in the APA Code of Conduct as well as authors’ national ethics guidelines.

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These studies were conducted while the second author was a visiting student at Oxford University, UK. The final author’s contribution to this research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK, grant numbers: RES-060-25-0044 and ES/L016486/1). The first author’s contribution to this research was supported by the Institute for Psychological Science Small Research Projects Fund from De Montfort University

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Yam, P.P.C., Huang, F., Luo, X. et al. Aligning with the agent of justice: Schadenfreude following punishment of trust violators. Motiv Emot 47, 1095–1115 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-023-10041-2

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