Photo: A child looks at a Darth Vader mask at an exhibition in the Louvre, Paris, in 2015. Credit: Chesnot/Getty Images
By Emma Young
Watching Return of the Jedi with my kids the other night, I found myself quite liking Darth Vader. After all, he’s self-disciplined, determined, conscientious, and uncompromising — while also being (almost) entirely evil…
It’s no secret that we can find fictional villains fascinating. It’s been argued that that’s because we are evolutionarily drawn to understanding bad guys, as well, of course, to seeing the good guys prevail. But new research, published in Psychological Science, suggests that this is not the full story.
In real life, we do tend to like people who are similar to us in positive ways — who are also conscientious, say, or agreeable. But research has found that we recoil from others who are similar to us in positive ways but possess antisocial traits, too — they’re intelligent but deeply manipulative, for instance. This is thought to be because it’s uncomfortable for us to see any similarities between ourselves and “bad” people.
Rebecca Krause and Derek Rucker at Northwestern University wondered if the same was true when it came to fictional characters, who may not pose the same potential threat to our self-image.
To explore this, the pair first analysed data from a company called CharacTour, an entertainment website with more than 230,000 registered users at the time of the study. CharacTour staff had identified thousands of characters as villains (such as Maleficent and the Joker) and as heroes (such as Sherlock Holmes and Yoda) and sidekicks. They had also used scales to rate these characters on mini-spectrums for various traits — from chatty to reserved and highbrow to lowbrow, for example. Users could also rate themselves on these traits, using the same scale, and become “fans” of characters they were most drawn to.
Krause and Rucker found that characters with a higher score on any given trait tended to have a greater percentage of fans with that trait. Strikingly, the similarity effect was even stronger for villains than non-villains. The normal aversion that we feel towards similar, but bad, individuals had vanished.
The pair also found that villains and their fans didn’t share only positive traits. Compared with non-villains, villainous characters had a greater percentage of fans who rated themselves as dishonest, rude, manipulative and selfish. Fiction seemed, then, to free people to be drawn to the darker sides of our characters. (A finding that made me wonder which dark traits, exactly, I might share with Lord Vader…)
The pair then sought to firm up their findings, and dig into potential explanations, using a series of online studies.
The first, which involved 100 student participants, confirmed that it was more discomforting to be compared to a real-life villain than to a fictional one. Further work meanwhile supported the idea that fiction typically frees us from the threat of negative social comparisons — but not in all contexts. When a group of participants was told that they were “weirdly” similar to a “super-creepy” fictional villain in a new film, they reported being perfectly happy to watch the film while alone. But as an option for a first date, it became distinctly unappealing. First dates of course involve potentially important social judgements. The risk of being likened in any way to a “super-creepy” villain clearly represented a threat to those participants’ self-image.
But a first date is a special case. “Our research suggests that stories and fictional worlds can offer a ‘safe haven’ for comparison to a villainous character that reminds us of ourselves,” comments Krause. This can open us up to learning more about darker parts of the self that we don’t normally explore, the pair thinks.
Stories might not be the only way to mitigate threats to self-perceptions, they add. Having a secure attachment figure — someone who we know loves us — might also act to protect us from the discomfort caused by feeling at least partly similar to a morally undesirable person, perhaps. “Although stories were used in the present approach, our findings invite a more general exploration of other factors that might mitigate threat and thus attract people toward comparison with similar but negative others,” the researchers write.
But, as they warn in their paper, there could be dangers here. If, for example, a person were to see a reality-TV star, say, as a “fiction-esque” and appealing villain, “this could have potentially sinister implications for people’s choice of role models.”