We prefer fictional villains who remind us of ourselves (and that’s OK!)

WASHINGTON — People around the world are binge-watching their favorite shows during the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing scientists are noticing however is many people aren’t backing the good guy, they’re rooting for the bad guy. A recent study finds there’s a perfectly scientific explanation for why we’re drawn to evil characters like Darth Vader, the Joker, or Professor Moriarty — we relate to them more!

Researchers at the Association for Psychological Science reveal that when viewers share similarities with villains like Cersei Lannister, they often find the villains surprisingly likable, in spite of their dastardly deeds on screen. We have a natural attraction to potentially darker versions of ourselves in fictional stories. This holds true even if villainous actions by real people repulse you.

The fictional safety net

The study indicates that fictional stories act like a mental safety net. They allows viewers to identify with fictional villains without tainting their own 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,” says lead author Rebecca Krause of Northwestern University in a media release. “When people feel protected by the veil of fiction, they may show greater interest in learning about dark and sinister characters who resemble them.”

Past research also suggests people avoid others who are similar in personality to them, but also possess obvious negative aspects like obnoxiousness, instability, or treachery. The report finds these antisocial qualities can become a threat to a person’s self-image.

“People want to see themselves in a positive light,” Krause explains. “Finding similarities between oneself and a bad person can be uncomfortable.”

Krause and her co-author Derek Rucker find placing a bad person in a fictional context removes the normal discomfort people feel when they see similarities between themselves and a villain. They add fictionalizing evil characters who act similarly to ourselves reverses the natural preference for identifying with good people.

“When you are no longer uncomfortable with the comparison, there seems to be something alluring and enticing about having similarities with a villain,” Rucker says.

Everyone loves the bad guy

Krause uses two popular, fictional villains as examples. People who see themselves as chaotic may relate to The Joker. Others who see themselves as intelligent and ambitious may feel more like a villain such as Lord Voldemort.

The researchers analyzed data from the website CharacTour, a character-focused entertainment platform with over 230,000 users online. The site allows users to take a personality quiz to see which fictional villain or hero they most identify with. Villains include Maleficent, the Joker, and Darth Vader, while non-villains include Sherlock Holmes, Yoda, and even sitcom character Joey Tribbiani.

All the data from the quizzes is anonymous. This allows the researchers to test whether people are attracted or repulsed by similar villains, using non-villains as a baseline. The study reveals people relate to non-villains as their similarities with them increase, but the results also suggest users are identify most to villains who share similar character traits. The researchers conclude that relating with fictional villains is much different, and less threatening, than relating with real villains.

“Perhaps fiction provides a way to engage with the dark aspects of your personality without making you question whether you are a good person in general,” concludes Krause.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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