Let’s be honest: The Joker will always be cooler than Batman, Darth Vader is immeasurably more iconic than Luke Skywalker, and the Evil Queen has way more depth of character than Snow White.
If you often find yourself rooting for the baddies or feeling surprisingly sympathetic to the villain in a movie, you’re not alone. A new study by psychologists from Northwestern University has explored this phenomenon and sought to explain why people are often attracted to malevolent, immoral, and downright rude villains (as long as they are fictional).
Reported in the journal Psychological Science this week, the researchers argue that the "sympathy for the devil" in a fictional setting is perhaps a safe way for people to relate to darker aspects of their personality without threatening the fragile sense of self.
"Our research suggests that stories and fictional worlds can offer a 'safe haven' for comparison to our darker selves. When people feel safe, they are more interested in comparisons to negative characters that are similar to themselves in other respects," Rebecca Krause, lead study author and a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, explains in a statement.
“People want to see themselves in a positive light,” notes Krause. “Finding similarities between oneself and a bad person can be uncomfortable.” However, sympathizing with a fictional villain doesn't appear to threaten our own sense of self if we manage to separate it from reality.
To reach these conclusions, the researchers first analyzed data from around 232,500 registered anonymous users on the character-focused entertainment website CharacTour. The platform contains a personality quiz that lets people see their similarity to a range of different characters, both good and bad, including Maleficent, The Joker, Darth Vader, Sherlock Holmes, Joey Tribbiani from "Friends", Donkey from "Shrek", Groot, and Yoda. By looking at the results of this quiz, as well as users’ responses to their result, the researchers found that people tended to like both villains and nonvillains more as they realized they shared similarities with them.
In the next part of the research, they carried out five subsequent lab experiments on participants. In one such experiment, they looked to see whether people made a distinction between fictional and real villains, as well as fictional heroes and real-life heroes, by asking 100 participants a series of questions. In another experiment, they used psychological tests to see whether people felt different towards fictitious villains if their self-image was threatened or not. For example, whether the comparison to the villain was subtle or if that similarity to a bad person could cause real social judgment by others.
Although the researchers concede that further robust research needs to be carried out before we reach any solid conclusions, they say their findings suggest people are attracted to villains because they notice a similarity with an aspect of their personality. However, if these similarities become too “real” and start to manifest in reality, then people tend to be repulsed by the 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,” Krause added.