Study: Movie fans who identify with villains share similar dark characteristics

JOKER: Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Todd Phillips' "Joker." Nikos Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures/Tribune News Service

It takes one to know one.

Fiction fans who favor villainous characters appear to share a “Dark Triad” of characteristics with those shifty individuals.

Citing a report from the journal Poetics, the Academic Times reports that those who identify with antagonists frequently share those characters’ sense of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, the latter of which Psychology Today describes as “a personality type that does not choose to be, but simply is, a master manipulator.”

The study was based on a survey of more than 1,800 North Americans and asked participants to rank, on a scale of one to five, statements like, “I tend to want the villain to succeed in achieving his or her goals” and “I tend to find the villain more fascinating than the hero.”

Using that same scale, with the number one representing disagreement and five indicating affirmation, participants were asked to what extent they personally identified with statements including “I know that I am special because everyone keeps telling me so” and “You should wait for the right time to get back at people.”

The study reportedly found a “strong correlation” between being able to identify with Dark Triad traits and being more likely to like, relate to or empathize with villains.

One of the study’s authors, Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen from Denmark’s Aarhus University, said the report was meant to determine if audiences “liked” moral characters because of their morality and disliked antagonists because their ethical shortcomings.

The Danish researcher said while that’s often the case, “it can’t be the whole story” as complex movie characters like “Star Wars’”Darth Vader and “Batman” nemesis The Joker can be “liked” without being seen as role models.

“We wanted to explore how such villainous characters can be liked, enjoyed and otherwise responded positively to,” Kjeldgaard-Christiansen he said.

“We hypothesized that individuals with a conventionally immoral personality profile — a personality characterized by Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy — might be more likely to enjoy villainous fictional characters, who presumably embody such immoral traits,” Kjeldgaard-Christiansen said.

The study found “robust support for this hypothesis.”

Researchers did not examine whether respondent’s connections with villains were due to preexisting notions or inspired by the shady characters in their media diet, but it did conclude that those participants were themselves unlikely to behave a devious fashion.

“For example, despite sensationalistic claims to the contrary, you don’t generally become violent by playing violent video games,” Kjeldgaard-Christiansen said.

One popular villain cited in the report was Sephiroth from the video game “Final Fantasy.”

The study found its respondents’ connection with amoral characters were “mostly theoretical and conceptual.”


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