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The Return of the Shadow Self

Darth Vader threatens the empire and the ego.

J. Krueger
Chaco & his shadow
Source: J. Krueger

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. ~ C. G. Jung, Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14

You don’t know the power of the dark side. ~ Darth Vader, fictional villain

All else being equal, similarity breeds liking. Many social psychological research studies corroborate this idea, and common sense is not offended. But why is it? To say that similarity is intrinsically rewarding is to beg the question. A simpler explanation is that most people like themselves and infer that others who are similar to them possess similarly likeable attributes (see Clement & Krueger, 1998, for more nuance on this argument). Things get more interesting when the pleasantness of the personal attributes is dissociated from the degree of interpersonal similarity. Taylor & Mettee (1971) manipulated the perceived similarity between respondents and their interactants and, separately, the interactants' attitude (obnoxious vs. pleasant). They found that the degree of similarity, as expressed by aligned or misaligned trait profiles, amplified the effect of the interactants' attitude. Pleasant and similar interactants were perceived as even more pleasant, and obnoxious and similar interactants were perceived as even more obnoxious, than their dissimilar counterparts. And this is where things stood for a while.

Science can progress by finding weird exceptions to standard phenomena, documenting them, and explaining them. So what if it were possible that obnoxious and similar interactants were liked more than obnoxious and dissimilar ones? Krause and Rucker (2020) show that this can happen in a context that takes the edge off the ego threat. Stories and other kinds of fiction provide such a context. Stories create psychological distance. They provide, as Krause and Rucker aptly put it, a “safe (psychological) haven.” Real-world villains (take your pick) are, well, more real; perceiving similarities between one’s own personality and theirs may well threaten the ego, and the Taylor-and-Mettee amplification effect returns. Real villains who are similar to the self are liked even less than otherwise comparable storybook villains. In contrast, fictional villains like Darth Vader pose no threat to the ego, thus allowing the basic similarity-to-liking effect to emerge.

Krause and Rucker work their way through observational and experimental studies, and the data cohere well. Of particular interest is study 6, where they directly manipulate the presence of ego threat. Here, the authors ask if respondents are willing to watch a movie that features a creepy character that does or does not bear some similarity to the respondents. Ego threat is high in the context of a first-date scenario, in which the prospective date might conceivably be creeped out. The striking result is that when there is no ego threat (no date that can go sour), respondents prefer to watch a movie featuring their dark alter ego.

After Krause and Rucker find and document the dark-self attraction effect, what theoretical explanation do they offer? None, really. They do consider various implications and applications of the phenomenon, but they say little about why it happens in the first place. They do show that respondents consider their similarities with others to be ‘relevant,’ but that does not say much conceptually. Ego threat is another matter. The authors show that their phenomenon of interest – the dark self – emerges when ego threat is removed. In other words, the default scenario is that when we encounter a negative (obnoxious) other who is otherwise similar to us, we find that state of affairs to be relevant and threatening. Interestingly, Krause & Rucker find a new phenomenon by subtracting a feature (ego threat) that is normally part of the arrangement. This is an interesting departure from standard practice and expectation, where we try to discover something new by adding a feature to the scene.

By removing ego threat we are back to the additive contributions of pleasantness and similarity to liking (Clement & Krueger, 1998). So this looks pretty straightforward. The Taylor & Mettee finding that – with ego threat – similarity and trait desirability combine in multiplicative fashion to predict liking is conceptually perhaps more intriguing.

There is an older, and admittedly less evidence-based, tradition of ideas about how people relate to unappetizing versions of themselves. A classic essay was published by Otto Rank in 1925 (I used an English edition published in 1971). Rank reviewed a lot of the anthropological material available at the time as well as a set of literary writings from the 19th Century. The theme he was interested in was The Double. Rank observed an ambivalent attitude to a duplication of the self. On the one hand, such a duplication can be regarded as the seat of one’s soul; on the other hand, it can raise the ultimate threat of ego annihilation. Though the attitude is ambivalent, fear predominates. Rank reviews Dostoevsky’s 1846 masterpiece, also titled The Double, at length, noting that Dostoevsky’s ‘hero,’ Golyadkin, traverses several stages of attraction and repulsion vis-à-vis his double. It does not end well. Golyadkin goes mad.

Krause & Rucker capture this dialectic in their studies 5 and 6, where they compare reactions to obnoxious and similar others under threatening and non-threatening conditions. These threats are induced experimentally and are thus incidental. Readers with a psychodynamic bent of mind, like Rank, will continue to ask if and when and how the double, when he or she appears, directly inspires love or fear. Much depends on it.


Clement, R. W., & Krueger, J. (1998). Liking persons versus liking groups: A dual-process hypothesis. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28, 457-469.

Krause, R. J., & Rucker, D. D. (2020). Can bad be good? The attraction of a darker self. Psychological Science. Online first. DOI:10.1177/095677209097427

Rank, O. (1971). The double. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. Originally published in German in 1925.

Taylor, S. E., & Mettee, D. R. (1971). When similarity breeds contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 20, 75–81.