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Sometimes we find ourselves falling for the cute vampire or German bank robber, and this might say a lot about how we think about ourselves.

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Everyone loves a good fictional villain. Wether it's the hero's sinister brother, primary foe or creepy not-mom. It seems like the worst characters in books, films, comics and games often inspire as much empathy as they do enmity. And that's a little confusing, because we tend to dislike real-life baddies. But psychologists think they figured out why so many of us cheer on fictional terrible people when we shun real ones, and the answer might help us better understand how everyone in our lives, real or fictional, shape how we think of ourselves and who we are.

To understand our love of villains, we first have to understand how we see ourselves. In general, we human beings want to perceive ourselves as competent, compassionate and, well, as good people. It's the reason we're likely to think that we'd always do what's right, even if others wouldn't. Like, we'd always leave a note if we'd hit a parked car, and we'd never hang the toilet paper in the under-position, because people in the under-toiletpaper-camp are agents of chaos.

Psychologists refer to the need to see ourselves as good as self-positivity bias. And it has a big impact on our actions and behaviors. For example: A team of American psychologists found that women whose first names are or resemble state names like Georgia, Virginia or even Florence, are 44% more likely to have lived in that state. They think that's because the women have positive personal associations with their first names. Basically, they subconsciously connected their identities to their namesake states. And because we would all like to think of ourselves as awesome, that made them more likely to think that that state was a good place to live. This phenomenon, where we just naturally gravitate towards things that resemble us in some way, is called implicit egotism, and it's essentially the flip-side of what happens when we're confronted with real-life villains.

When we encounter a bad person we share similarities with, like we read about a criminal who has the same name or job or whatever, our positive self image can become threatened. So we distance ourselves from those people. And psychologists have demonstrated this in controlled studies. For instance, researchers from Yale conducted an experiment, where test-objects were given personality tests and then partnered with an under-cover researcher. The participants were either told their personalities were similar or different from their partners.  Then, they were asked to give their impressions of them. The trick is that for some of the participants the undercover researcher behaved pleasantly, for others, they were totally obnoxious. And what was interesting was that the participants ratings of this researcher depended on whether they had been told they were similar to them. If so, then the researcher got higher scores for niceness when they acted nice, and worse scores for unpleasantness when they acted like a jerk. The team concluded this was because negative qualities can be perceived as a self threat, since they lead us to question our positive self-image. So if another person is obnoxious but also a lot like you, it makes you wonder if you're a little bit obnoxious, too. 

But fictional villains don't work this way. Take the results of a study published in Psychological Science in April 2020 for instance. Researchers from Northwestern University analyzed data from CharacTour, a website that allows hundreds of thousands of registered users to take goofy personality quizzes to see which fictional characters they most resemble. Users can then become a fan of those characters, which is a lot like "liking" something on Facebook. And each of these characters, whether heroic or villainous, is also assigned personality trait scores based on their fictional portrayals. So researchers could mathematically determine if characters and their fans share personality traits. The data revealed that people are actually drawn to villains that are similar to them, as they tended to share similar personality traits with the characters they were fans of. And this didn't just apply to good things, like intelligence or charisma. Fans of villains were twice as likely to identify as selfish than the fans of heroes, and were disproportionately dishonest, manipulative and rude. This is the opposite of what you'd expect if people were shying away from the bad characters that are similar to them, and much more like implicit egotism. The researchers think the fact that these villains are fictional makes all the difference. The idea is that, in a story world, we're free to explore the darker sides of our personalities without having to worry if we're actually bad people. Because if the villain isn't real, then in a way, we can't really be like them, so similarities aren't a threat to our self-positivity bias.

And this may extend beyond made up villains:  we also "storify" actual bad people, like in true crime television shows, documentaries, books and podcasts, or even through reality television. That can give them an air of fictionality, allowing others to empathize with them or even support them without harming their self-image. Even before the CharacTour-study, some psychologists thought the popularity of true crime shows stem from their ability to let us explore the dark side of human nature from a safe distance. Now, research has shown that our brains do make an exception of sorts when it comes to fictional people. 
So studying the edges of that exception could help us better understand how our self-images or even who we are can be shaped by the media we consume, real or not.

If that research can involve me kicking back and re-watching any of Playtone's decade-themed docu-series, then count me in! Because let's be honest: even if we don't fully understand how different kinds of media affect us, we're going to keep consuming them in the meantime.

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