We love the bad guy, whether it’s on TV or in a movie.
No matter how egotistical, power-hungry, or greedy the person may be, many of us are still drawn to their dark side – partly because we suspect that some may have a redemptive quality. In fact, according to a new University of Michigan study, both adults and children reported that the villains were intrinsically good more often than the heroes were intrinsically bad.
“In other words, people believe there is a mismatch between a villain’s external behavior and their inner, true selves, and that’s a bigger gap for villains than heroes,” said Valerie Umscheid, a UM psychology doctoral student and lead author of the study.
On the inside, the villains are a little less evil than they seem on the outside, while the heroes are all the good guys inside and out.
Umscheid and colleagues conducted three studies with 434 children (ages 4-12) and 277 adults to determine how individuals make sense of antisocial acts committed by malicious people. They focused on participants’ judgments about fictional villains and heroes, both familiar and new, such as Ursula from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and Pixar’s Woody from “Toy Story.”
Study 1 revealed that children viewed the actions and emotions of villains as overwhelmingly negative. This suggests that children’s well-documented tendencies to judge people as good do not prevent them from appreciating extreme forms of evil.
Studies 2 and 3 focus on how a character feels inside, whether a character’s actions reflect their true self, and how a character’s true self can change over time.
Among these criteria, the research showed that both children and adults consistently rate the true selves of villains overwhelmingly as much more negatively than villains and heroes. At the same time, the researchers detected an asymmetry in judgments; the villains here were more likely than the heroes to have a real self different from their outer behavior.
Umscheid said that both children and adults believe that characters like Ursula have an inner goodness despite the bad/immoral acts they regularly commit.
published work, cognitionco-authored by Craig Smith, senior associate librarian at the University Library; Felix Warneken and Susan Gelman, both UM professors of psychology; and Henry Wellman, UM emeritus professor of psychology.
materials provided by University of Michigan. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.