By Hannah Nam, Samuel Jens, and Yanna Krupnikov

New Jersey is one of the first states expected to adopt a “millionaires tax” that raises taxes on those who make over a million dollars a year. In announcing the new policy, the state’s governor, Phil Murphy, stated, “We do not hold any grudge at all against those who have been successful in life. But…now is the time to ensure that the wealthiest among us are also called to sacrifice.” We wondered if policy efforts to reduce economic inequality are indeed characterized by “no grudge at all” toward the wealthy and simply a preference to reduce existing inequality and help lower-income people. Research suggests that Americans’ support for redistributive policies are anchored in class group attitudes, namely sympathy for the poor and resentment of the rich (e.g., Piston 2018). We build on such recent work examining inequality through the lens of class attitudes and argue that preferences regarding inequality are motivated by affective preferences not only for supporting the poor but also for punishing the rich. We theorize that for many people it is the desire to punish the rich – as much as, or in some cases, greater than the desire to support the poor – that is at the heart of people’s preferences for policies aimed at addressing inequality. Specifically, we investigate whether an affective response of schadenfreude – that is, pleasure at another’s misfortune – about punishing the rich might motivate concerns about inequality (see e.g., Cikara and Fiske 2012; Leach and Spears 2008).

Across three preregistered experiments (on one MTurk and two national samples), we assess whether people would express happiness about a new tax policy targeting the rich, varying descriptions of how the tax funds would be used. In the first two studies, we tell participants that a new state policy has been proposed to tax rich people and employees of corporations, and that the tax revenue would be used to (1) help the poor, (2) monitor and punish the rich who try to evade the new tax plan, or (3) build and fix roads (this third “roads” treatment is added in Study 2). There is no description of how the tax funds would be used in the control condition. We find evidence that people are particularly happy about using tax funds to monitor and punish the rich, perhaps even more than about using tax funds to help the poor (see Figure 1 for Study 1 results).

Figure 1. Schadenfreude response as happiness about tax policy on the wealthy (Study 1).

In Study 2, we further observe that this effect is pronounced among Republicans, such that Republicans are happiest about using tax money to punish the rich over helping the poor or fixing roads (see Figure 2). This is noteworthy for two reasons: Republicans are typically against new taxes, and Republicans often endorse meritocratic beliefs that preclude resentment of the rich.

Figure 2. Partisan differences in schadenfreude response to tax policy on the wealthy (Study 2).

Finally, in a third study, we probe the reason that people may be exhibiting a schadenfreude response to taxing the rich. That is, we examine whether people (a) assume that taxes on the rich will be redistributed to the poor (i.e., a “Robin Hood” effect), and (b) are happy about punishing the rich due to an underlying sense of retributive justice (i.e., assuming that the rich are up to no good with respect to finances). Specifically, we clarify our rich treatments into two conditions: (1) stating that the tax revenue will only be used to monitor and punish the rich, but that no extra funds will be available for state use (i.e., no redistribution), and (2) stating that the wealthy will be monitored even if there is no evidence they have engaged in wrongdoing (i.e., no retributive justice). Our results provide some evidence for both possibilities (Figure 3). In particular, happiness is highest in the control and “help the poor” conditions, suggesting that indeed, people assume and prefer a “Robin Hood” style wealth tax. At the same time, people are only slightly – and not statistically significantly – less happy at the prospect of monitoring and punishing the rich when they have not done anything wrong. Our studies suggest that when wealth taxes are proposed (or implemented), people assume that the purpose is redistributive, but they are also quite happy when the purpose is, perhaps in some symbolic sense, retributive.

Figure 3. Schadenfreude response to tax policy on the wealthy (Study 3).

Overall, this research suggests that people’s motives may not be purely about redistribution and helping the poor when they say they would like to curb inequality. Rather, they may be just as, if not more, motivated by preferences to punish the rich, perhaps partly due to anticipated pleasure from such punishment. We expect that this work can help to inform how messages about redistributive policies may be framed to align with public sentiment, as well as to garner more widespread support in the public – perhaps even among both Democrats and Republicans – united by schadenfreude.


Cikara, Mina, and Susan T. Fiske. 2012. “Stereotypes and Schadenfreude: Affective and Physiological Markers of Pleasure at Outgroup Misfortune. Social Psychological and Personality Science 3(1): 63-71.

Leach, Colin Wayne, Russell Spears, Nyla R. Branscombe, and Bertjan Doosje. 2003. “Malicious pleasure: Schadenfreude at the suffering of another group.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(5): 932–943.

Piston, Spencer. 2018. Class Attitudes in America: Sympathy for the Poor, Resentment of the Rich, and Political Implications. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.