The Psychology of Our Connection to Villains
By: Sai Srihaas Potu
The gradual development of psychology and social cognition research over the last decades may offer literary scholars and critics very interesting tools and insights which will make it possible to redefine and analyze aspects of villainy which, outside the domain of psychology, can only be vaguely addressed and described - such as a villain’s charming or repulsive properties, or the observer’s tendency to sympathize, etc. In light of this topic, many new research articles have been published to examine the potential of several psychological perspectives in defining, analyzing, and qualifying villainy in literary and film narratives. Understanding the cognitive processes by which readers/spectators construe certain characters as villains will lead to a better understanding of fictional villainy itself, and it will help us design adequate concepts, tools, and methods for its analysis and its academic discussion.
To build a psychological framework to understand the depth of our connection to villains in literature and mythology, we will take a look at a recent article published which reports that humans tend to prefer fictional villains who are darker versions of themselves. Villains relate to deeply personal experiences we often try to hide from the outside world. Our connection to a villain is usually deeper as we see reflections of ourselves we aren't necessarily pleased with. A villain’s origin story can often intersect our own in ways a hero origin cannot.
As people binge watch TV shows and films during this era of physical distancing, they'll find themselves eerily drawn to fictional villains, from Voldemort and Vader to Maleficent and Moriarty. Rather than being seduced by the so-called dark side, the allure of evil characters has a reassuringly scientific explanation.
According to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, people may find fictional villains surprisingly likable when they share similarities with the viewer or reader.
This attraction to potentially darker versions of ourselves in stories occurs even though we would be repulsed by real-world individuals who have similarly immoral or unstable behaviors. One reason for this shift, the research indicates, is that fiction acts as a cognitive safety net, allowing us to identify with villainous characters without tainting our self-image.
“Our research suggests that stories and fictional worlds can offer a ‘safe haven’ for comparison to a villainous character that reminds us of ourselves,” [RK1] says Rebecca Krause, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University and lead author on the paper. “When people feel protected by the veil of fiction, they may show greater interest in learning about dark and sinister characters who resemble them.”
Academics have long suggested people recoil from others who are in many ways similar to themselves yet possess negative features such as obnoxiousness, instability, and treachery. Antisocial features in someone with otherwise similar qualities, the thinking goes, maybe a threat to a person’s image of themselves.
“People want to see themselves in a positive light,” notes Krause. “Finding similarities between oneself and a bad person can be uncomfortable.” In contrast, Krause and her coauthor and advisor Derek Rucker find that putting the bad person in a fictional context can remove that discomfort and even reverse this preference. In essence, this separation from reality attenuates undesirable and uncomfortable feelings.
To test this idea, the researchers analyzed data from the website CharacTour, an online, character-focused entertainment platform that had approximately 232,500 registered users at the time of analysis. One of the site’s features allows users to take a personality quiz and see their similarity to different characters who had been coded as either villainous or not. Villains included characters such as Maleficent, The Joker, and Darth Vader. The other options included Sherlock Holmes, Joey Tribbiani, and Yoda.
The anonymous data from these quizzes allowed the researchers to test whether people were attracted to or repulsed by similar villains, using heroes as a baseline. Not surprisingly, people were drawn to heroes as their similarity increased. However, the results further suggested that users were most drawn to villains who share similarities with them.
The researchers believe that similarities to story villains do not threaten the self in the way real-life villains would.
The current data do not analyze which behaviors or characteristics the participants found attractive. Further research is needed to explore the psychological pull of villains and whether people are drawn toward similar villains in fiction because people look for chances to explore their dark side.
As long as there are superhero movies, the battle over the best version of a hero and villain will rage on. The conversation continues because our heroes inspire us and permit us to attach deeply with their struggles. As their life events represent the archetypal events we all experience, their villains will stand against them allowing us to connect with darker archetypes we all find within ourselves. We love our villains because they carry the opposite to our heroes' ideals and keep our heroes motivated and on their toes. However, we connect with our villains because they also represent a darker part of ourselves we frequently attempt to ignore. After all, aren’t we all ‘one bad day’ away from being a hero or a villain?
1. Celsi, R. L., Olson, J. C. The role of involvement in attention and comprehension processes. Journal of Consumer Research, 1988.
2. Konijn, E. A., Hoorn, J. F. (2005). Some like it bad: Testing a model for perceiving and experiencing fictional characters. Media Psychology, 2005.
3. Rebecca J. Krause, Derek D. Rucker. “Can Bad Be Good? The Attraction of a Darker Self”. Psychological Science, 2020.