No one roots for the jocks in Revenge of the Nerds. If the bespectacled set, downtrodden by the brawny lettermen, didn't rise up to secure glory (and girls), it would be a terrible movie. Research suggests that not only are we drawn to stories of people getting their just desserts, but fictions following this satisfying arc may increase our faith in the fairness of real life.
Psychologists call this innate karmic sense "belief in a just world." Previous studies have shown that fiction persuades: Protagonists' attitudes about, say, seat belt use rub off on readers. But "if you could demonstrate that belief in a just world—which is part of a larger socialization process—is a media effect, that would be a bigger surprise," says Markus Appel of the University of Linz in Austria.
So Appel asked Germans and Austrians how often they watched various types of TV shows. He found that those who view more fiction believe more strongly in cosmic justice. He also found that the biggest TV watchers overall endorsed "mean-world" beliefs, fearing, say, walking alone in the dark. (Beliefs in fairness and meanness are uncorrelated.) Fans of tabloid shows had especially dire outlooks.