According to research, the reason why we love villains is very simple: we can dig their motives, but from a safe distance.
The period of social isolation has undoubtedly thrust many into binge-watching TV shows and movies, and some may find themselves strangely drawn to fictional villains such as Voldemort or Darth Vader. It isn’t that these people have been seduced by the “dark side” so to speak, rather, the allure of evil characters has a reassuringly scientific explanation.
New research published in the journal Psychological Science claims that people find villains likable when they share similarities with the observer, despite the fact that they would more than likely be repulsed by real-world individuals who share the immoral and unstable behaviors and traits of these villains.
One explanation, as the research indicates, is that fiction can stand as a cognitive safety net, allowing us to identify with villainous characters without any real danger of 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,” said Rebecca Krause, a PhD 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.”
Scholars have long theorized that we recoil from others who are in many ways like us yet possess negative personality traits. One brandishing these antisocial features but coupled with otherwise similar qualities to us exist as a threat to our own self-image, or so the prevailing thought goes.
“People want to see themselves in a positive light,” noted Krause. “Finding similarities between oneself and a bad person can be uncomfortable.”
Fiction can stand as a cognitive safety net, allowing us to identify with villainous characters without any real danger of tainting our self-image.
In contrast to this, however, Krause and Derek Rucker, her co-author and advisor, found that a fictional context surrounding the bad person removes the discomfort the viewer or reader might experience and, in some cases, even reverse this preference.
“When you are no longer uncomfortable with the comparison, there seems to be something alluring and enticing about having similarities with a villain,” explained Rucker.
“For example, people who see themselves as tricky and chaotic may feel especially drawn to the character of The Joker in the Batman movies, while a person who shares Lord Voldemort’s intellect and ambition may feel more drawn to that character in the Harry Potter series,” said Krause.
To put the idea to the test, the researchers analyzed data from an online, character-focused entertainment platform called CharacTour which had approximately 232,500 registered users at the time of analysis. A main feature of the site lets users take a personality quiz to determine their similarity to different characters who have been coded either as villainous or not.
The anonymous data allowed the researchers to test whether people were attracted toward or repulsed by similar villains, using non-villains as a baseline. People were, not surprisingly, drawn to non-villains as their similarity increased with them, though the results also suggested that users were most drawn to villains who share similarities with them.
“Given the common finding that people are uncomfortable with and tend to avoid people who are similar to them and bad in some way, the fact that people actually prefer similar villains over dissimilar villains was surprising to us,” noted Rucker. “Honestly, going into the research, we both were aware of the possibility that we might find the opposite.”
“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,” concluded Krause.