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Sympathy for the Devil: The Secret to Calling Fictional Villains Exposed in New Study

The study participants apparently espoused a belief in a difference between a villain’s true self and their outward actions.

A group of researchers from the University of Michigan have discovered a possible explanation for why some audience members may feel sympathy toward villainous characters in movies or cartoons.

In their work, the results of which were published in the journal Cognition, the researchers assessed how children and adults perceived the character and true selves of fictional heroes and villains.

While both children and adults viewed the real selves of villains as more negative than those of heroes, the researchers noted “an asymmetry in judgments, where villains were more likely than heroes to have a true self that differed from their outward behavior.

“In other words, people believe there’s a disconnect between a villain’s outward behaviors and their true inner self, and that’s a bigger gap for villains than for heroes,” said Valerie Umscheid, PhD student in psychology at the University of Michigan and leader. author of the study.

The research, however, noted that children also viewed the actions and emotions of villains as “extremely negative, suggesting that children’s well-documented positivity bias does not preclude their appreciation of extreme forms of meanness.”

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