Fictional villains may draw us towards darker versions of ourselves, study finds

Caroline Allen
Contributor
Binge watching is more popular than ever. (Getty Images)

Binge watching our favourite TV shows and films has become more popular than ever thanks to the vast array at our fingertips.

With the coronavirus lockdown and during a time when we’re physically distancing ourselves from others, some may find themselves drawn to darker characters.

From Voldemort to Moriarty, if you’re feeling a strange kinship to these TV villains, there may be a scientific explanation.

According to research published in Psychological Science people may find fictional villains likeable if they share characteristics with themselves, however small.

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It’s an interesting dynamic, because our affinity to these characters is purely down to their fictional status. In fact, we would be entirely put-off by the real-world versions of likeable villains.

Scientists think that because of the removal from reality, we’re able to identify with these characters in ways that would besmirch our reputation if the situation was transferred into real life.

Rebecca Krause, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University and lead author on explains: “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.”

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Previous studies have found that the opposite is true of real life.

If somebody sees something of themselves in somebody they don’t like, they’ll go out of their way to distance themselves from that person.

That’s because “finding similarities between oneself and a bad person can be uncomfortable” Krause explains.

But, in a fictional context that level of discomfort can evaporate, allowing the reader or the viewer to explore why they relate to the character in a guilt-free way.

“When you are no longer uncomfortable with the comparison, there seems to be something alluring and enticing about having similarities with a villain.” Krause’s coauthor and advisor Derek Rucker, added.

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“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.” He continued.

The theory was tested using CharacTour, an online, character-focused entertainment platform that had around 232,500 users during the researcher’s analysis period.

Part of the website allowed users to take a quiz to determine if they have villainous or non-villainous characteristics.

The anonymous data collected allowed researchers to determine that people who shared similar characteristics to certain villains would often relate to them - even if it was on a subconscious level.

“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 concluded.