Many blockbuster movies include dark heroes — fictional characters with a mix of positive and negative qualities. One interesting question about this phenomenon is whether people are attracted to such characters because they remind them of someone they know and admire—or of themselves? Research indicates the answer might be a bit of both.
Rebecca J Krause and Derek D Rucker examined this issue in an aptly named piece entitled ‘Can Bad Be Good? The Attraction of a Darker Self’ (2020). They note that in order to avoid self-threat, people often avoid comparisons with similar others if they are viewed as mentally unstable, immoral, or are otherwise portrayed in a negative light. But they pose the provocative question of whether people can be attracted to “darker versions” of themselves? Krause and Rucker proposed that if we could get past the feeling of self-threat, the perception of similarity would indicate “self-relevance,” drawing us to similar others despite their negative qualities.
To test their theory, Krause and Rucker used the relatively “safe” comparison option to guard against self-threat: fictional characters in stories. They found that people who have an affinity for villains they perceive as similar to themselves suggests that we are indeed attracted to these types of comparisons in everyday life. They conducted five subsequent experiments that demonstrated the manner in which similarity creates attraction for negative individuals.
What type of fictional villains did they examine? Using a CharacTour database containing 3,962 characters, featured villains included The Joker, Maleficent, and Darth Vader. Characters portrayed as nonvillains included Sherlock Holmes and Yoda. Although their results suggest users are more enamored by villains whom they perceive as similar, they did not express what traits they believed they had in common. Krause and Rucker noted that this is important, because although villains are usually showcased through their negative traits, such as being dishonest, rude, or manipulative, they can also be smart, funny, and charismatic. They speculate that perhaps people enjoy feeling similar to villains they perceive as sharing positive traits and shun those that share negative traits.
Krause and Rucker note that their results are contrary to prior research, which demonstrated that perceived similarity to a person thought to be “bad” can be threatening and cause avoidance. They found the opposite to be true, discovering that in everyday life, people were interested in fictional villains who were similar to themselves. They note that their research suggests a method of understanding human nature that is more contextual, recognising that people are not always put off by negative others who are similar, they can, in fact, be drawn to such dark figures when feelings of self-threat have been mitigated.
In discussing the insights offered by their research, Krause and Rucker offer one insight that may help us gauge the personality of those with whom we interact on social media. They note that they explored psychological reactions to fictional characters in stories, which could potentially explain how and why they choose avatars in virtual settings. Consider this when deciding whether you should accept a friend request from someone who chose an avatar of Catwoman instead of Wonder Woman. — Psychology Today
Wendy L. Patrick is a career trial attorney in the US, author, and media commentator.
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