Experiencing meaning in the misfortune of others: schadenfreude, just world beliefs, and meaning in life
Four studies tested the effects of the experience of schadenfreude on meaning in life, and the role of just world beliefs in this relationship. Study 1 (N = 967) was a correlational study that showed just world beliefs are positively related to meaning in life, laying the groundwork for this program of research. Study 2a (N = 208) was an experiment that tested the effects of schadenfreude on meaning in life, compared to the effects of a typical positive affect induction, a typical schadenfreude comparison condition (an undeserving target of misfortune), and a control condition. Study 2a showed that schadenfreude and a positive affect induction both led to higher meaning in life than comparison groups. Additionally, Study 2a showed that just world beliefs moderated the effects of schadenfreude on meaning in life. Specifically, after experiencing schadenfreude, those that did not endorse the idea of a just world showed similar meaning in life as those that did. These results suggested that the experience of schadenfreude may convey information about the extent to which the world is just, and thus enhance perceptions that life is coherent and meaningful. Study 2b (N = 274) was designed to replicate Study 2a in a different sample. We again showed a similar pattern of moderation of condition effects on meaning in life by just world beliefs, but results were marginally significant. Study 3 (N = 1,264) replicated and extended Study 2 findings by manipulating both just world beliefs, and schadenfreude. Study 3 showed, for individuals that were lower on just world beliefs after experiencing a just world threat, schadenfreude bolstered meaning in life in a manner consistent with the pattern uncovered in Study 2. Ultimately, this research demonstrated that just world beliefs help individuals make sense of the world, and thereby facilitate a sense that life is meaningful. When such beliefs are lacking, momentary experiences, such as schadenfreude, can foster a sense of meaning. Implications and future directions are discussed.