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Do Dark Personalities Prefer Dark Characters? A Personality Psychological Approach to Positive Engagement with Fictional Villainy

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Paradoxically, villainous characters in film, literature, and video games can be very popular. Previous research in the traditions of cognitive media theory and affective disposition theory has assumed that villainous characters can inspire positive engagement only when audiences discount the villains’ immorality by focusing on positive traits or mitigating circumstances. Challenging this assumption, we argue that audiences with a conventionally immoral personality profile may come to engage positively with villainous characters because they share the villains’ immoral outlook to some significant degree. We find robust support for this hypothesis in a North American sample (N = 1805) by comparing respondents’ survey scores on the Dark Triad of personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) with their professed degrees of villain sympathy, identification, fascination, empathy, and enjoyment. We reject a competing hypothesis that such positive forms of engagement with villainous characters will be best predicted by respondents’ agentic values, such as autonomy and competence. Our results support a need to consider personality as a basic determinant of character preferences.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101511
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021

    Research areas

  • Affective disposition theory, Agency, Cognitive media theory, Dark Triad, Fiction, Villain

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