Why are Evil Characters in Movies Loved?

3 mins read
Why are Evil Characters in Movies Loved?

Whether it’s on TV or in a movie, we love the villain…

No matter how selfish, power-hungry or greedy this person is, the dark side of the villain still appeals to many people. One of the reasons for this is that we think some of them may have a redeeming quality. According to a study conducted at the University of Michigan, more adults and children think that evil characters are good at heart and don’t show it on the outside than think that good characters are evil at heart.

Valerie Umscheid, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, said, “In other words, people think that there is a mismatch between the outward behavior of an evil character and their true inner personality. The size of the gap is larger for bad characters than for good characters.”

The evil characters are slightly less evil on the inside than they are on the outside, while the good protagonists are completely good people, both on the inside and on the outside.

Umscheid and his colleagues conducted three studies with 434 children and 277 adults aged between 4 and 12 to determine how individuals perceive antisocial behavior by villains. In this context, they focused on participants’ views of both familiar and new villains and good heroes, such as Ursula from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” cartoon and Woody from Pixar’s “Toy Story” animation.

In study 1, it was found that children mostly viewed the actions and emotions of villains in a negative way. This suggests that although children have a (well-known) tendency to see people as good, they are able to perceive extreme forms of evil.

Studies 2 and 3 assessed children’s and adults’ perceptions of the moral character and true personality of good heroes and villains through a number of evidences, such as how a character feels at the core, whether the character’s actions reflect his or her true personality, and whether the character’s true personality may change over time.

The findings of these measurements show that both children and adults consistently and mostly evaluate the true personalities of villains as bad, and evaluate them much more negatively than good heroes. But the researchers also discovered an asymmetry in these judgments. People think that villains often have a real personality that is different from their outward behavior, and that this trait is more common in villains.

Both children and adults believe that characters like Ursula have some good in them, despite their frequent evil/immoral activities.

The findings will be published in the April issue of Cognition.


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