New research suggests that people are attracted to negative versions of themselves, so long as their self-concept is not under threat. This finding comes from a study published in Psychological Science.
The social psychology literature posits that people are driven to frame themselves in a positive light and will, therefore, avoid being compared to people who are negatively viewed. This means that people will dissociate themselves from similar others who possess negative traits.
With this in mind, study authors Rebecca J. Krause and Derek D. Rucker proposed that there might be times when people are actually attracted to, as the authors call it, “darker versions of themselves.”
In a series of six studies, the researchers examined whether people might be more inclined to associate with negative others in the absence of threat to the self-concept. In order to eliminate threats to the self, the authors brought the discussion outside reality by focusing on villains who are fictitious characters.
A first study was conducted among users of an online character-based entertainment platform. The platform matches users to fictional characters from movies, books, TV shows, and video games, based on their responses to personality quizzes. Users also have the option of becoming ‘fans’ of characters. After analyzing data from the platform, researchers found that both villains and non-villains shared similar characteristics with their fans — suggesting that users were more attracted to characters who were similar to themselves, even if they were villains.
Next, a follow-up study found evidence that psychological discomfort might explain why people appear less willing to compare themselves to real-life villains. Subjects were shown quizzes that would match their personalities to either a real-life hero, a real-life villain, a fictional hero, or a fictional villain. Overall, subjects rated villain quizzes as more likely to make people uncomfortable than hero quizzes. Further, “for villainous individuals, the quiz to discover similarity to fictional villains was viewed as less uncomfortable than the quiz to discover similarity to real-life villains” — suggesting that when the villains were seen as fictional characters, subjects felt safer being compared to them.
A third study found that people showed more interest in watching a potential new television show when the show’s protagonist was similar to themselves, regardless of whether the character was portrayed as a villain or as a hero. A follow-up study further showed that people’s preference for tv shows with villains who are similar to themselves was mediated by subjects’ ratings of the self-relevance of the main character.
Finally, two more studies showed that when the participants’ self-concept was threatened with impression management — by having subjects read a statement that suggests that people tend to judge others based on their similarity to other people — participants lost interest in watching movies with villains who were similar to themselves.
Krause and Rucker share, “the present research suggests a more contextual understanding of human nature: People are not always repulsed by similar negative others; they can become drawn to such others when concerns of self-threat are mitigated.”
As the researchers express, the findings have interesting implications for future areas of study, including research concerning the self-concept, interpersonal attraction, and people’s reactions to story characters in virtual worlds.
The study, “Can Bad Be Good? The Attraction of a Darker Self”, was authored by Rebecca J. Krause and Derek D. Rucker.