Seeing Yourself in the Villain
How does it feel to look into the face of evil and see . . . yourself? If you see that evil face in a movie, it actually may feel pretty great.
You might expect that encountering an evil villain who seems similar to you would make you uncomfortable. After all, intuition and research both suggest we don’t like meeting people who seem unkind or unlikeable yet similar to us in some way. And this makes sense—learning that Hitler shared your favorite flavor of ice cream is not likely to give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Being similar to bad people in real life makes us squeamish because we start thinking “I am similar to this really bad person—does that mean I could go bad too?” That’s not something we want to consider.
However, it turns out that movies, books, and other fictional stories are a different beast. Fiction isn’t real, which makes it feel safe. Fiction puts a wall up around the villain that allows us to tell ourselves that his or her situation is not relevant to ours. For example, an online quiz once told me that, of all Disney villains, I am most similar to the sea witch, Ursula (in The Little Mermaid). Does that make me worry that someday I might feel the urge to start bewitching people and stealing their voices, as Ursula does in the movie? Of course not, because Ursula is fictional, and her evil propensities don’t apply to me in the same way that a real-life “villain’s” deeds might. In fact, my research shows that people expect that taking the quiz “Which Fictional Villain Are You?” will be much less uncomfortable than taking the quiz “Which Real-Life Villain Are You?”
In real life, people tend avoid “bad” people who seem similar to us. In fiction, they tend to do the opposite: people feel more interested in villains who resemble them than those who aren’t like them. As human beings, we can’t help paying special attention to information that seems relevant to our own goals and needs. Because a villain who is similar to me seems more relevant to my personal experience, I’m likely to be more interested in their story. So, now that I know I have similarities with Ursula, I may be more likely to be interested in watching The Little Mermaid than The Lion King.
My research supports the idea that people are especially drawn to villains who are similar to themselves. My collaborator, Derek Rucker, and I examined data from a company called CharacTour, which is a website that collects information about users’ personalities, users’ favorite fictional characters, and characters’ “personalities,” such as the fact that Lord Voldemort (from Harry Potter) is manipulative and solitary, while Joffrey Baratheon (from Game of Thrones) is cocky and selfish. Our analyses showed that villains listed on CharacTour tended to attract fans who were similar to them. For example, villains who were highly organized tended to have highly organized fans, crude villains had crude fans, and so on.
In another study, we found that, even for a brand-new movie for which people had no information about the character, people who were told the movie’s villain resembled them were more interested in watching the movie than people who did not resemble the villain.
The only time this did not occur was when people would be watching the movie in public, such as on a date. When they would have to watch the movie on a date, people were less interested in watching a movie about a killer if the killer resembled them than if he or she was not like them. This finding makes sense—research by Nicholas Epley and his colleagues suggests we do not trust other people to make excuses for us in the same way we would for ourselves. So, although I may personally feel comfortable knowing that I’m similar to Ursula the sea witch, I may wonder whether other people (such as the readers of this blog) will become just slightly more wary of singing in my presence for fear that I might bewitch them.
Fears about other people’s judgments notwithstanding, for the most part, people seem to feel drawn toward fictional villains who resemble them. Now, are you thinking about searching Google for the quiz, “Which Fictional Villain Are You?” If you feel intrigued and compelled to do so, at least you now understand why!
For Further Reading
Krause, R. J., & Rucker, D. D. (2020). Can Bad Be Good? The Attraction of a Darker Self. Psychological Science, 31(5), 518–530. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620909742
Epley, N., Savitsky, K., & Gilovich, T. (2002). Empathy neglect: Reconciling the spotlight effect and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 300–312. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060
Rebecca J. Krause-Galoni is a doctoral student in consumer psychology at Northwestern University.