Do We Really Love Villains?

How dark personality traits make for engaging villains.

Posted Nov 17, 2019

Villains make for good TV and movie watching.

I'm not talking about movie monsters such as It or the predators in A Quiet Place, I mean those very unpleasant people who seem to populate many popular television and movie dramas. Remember Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) in the HBO political drama series, House of Cards? How about Gordon Gecko (played by Michael Douglas), in the hit movie, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps?   

And for those of you of an older generation, there was J.R. Ewing of Dallas (played by Larry Hagman) and Alexis Carrington of Dynasty (played by Joan Collins). Whether or not these characters ever received the comeuppance we felt they deserved, they were inevitably the reason most people kept watching.

Certainly, given the appeal these characters seem to have for viewers, it's hardly surprising that they crop up in so many television shows and movies. After all,  movies and television shows are a major part of American culture: More than eighty percent of American homes subscribe to video-on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu (with more services on the way).    While the kind of media content we enjoy changes from one generation to the next, characters that we love to hate always seem to exert a strange fascination.

What makes a villain villainous?  Most research looking at negative personality traits has focused on what has been termed the "Dark Triad" of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Though most people have at least some idea of what these terms mean, I'll go into a quick recap:

  • Narcissism - Named for the character from Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection, narcissism is typically characterized by excessive self-love, self-admiration, an overall sense of entitlement and superiority, as well as an excessive desire for admiration and attention.  
  • Psychopathy - One of the most well-researched personality traits, psychopathy is basically characterized by a passion for thrill-seeking behavior, highly impulsive behavior, emotional coldness, and a lack of remorse or conscience.   
  • Machiavellianism - Inspired by political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, this trait focuses on extreme cynicism,  manipulative behavior, and the frequent use of strategic thinking to accomplish a given end.

Some researchers have also proposed a fourth trait, Sadism, thus forming a Dark Tetrad, though I'll stick to the classic Triad, for now.

Though originally seen as separate traits, research has shown that the Dark Triad traits are often found together. People high in these three traits are often prone to self-destructive behaviors, emotional callousness, aggressiveness, and a strong need for self-promotion. Their relationships tend to be extremely shallow and often emotionally destructive for significant partners.   

The dark triad individuals (who are mostly men) often use their traits as a way of attaining leadership positions and dominating the people around them.  Interestingly enough, at least one research study looking at how women responded to descriptions of a Dark Triad man and a controlling man showed that women tended to view the Dark Triad man as being more attractive (but less agreeable) than the control.

So, is it all that surprising that Dark Triad characters have become a familiar staple in movies and television, as well? Though initially presented as villains, these characters frequently evolve into "antiheroes" who are often more compelling than the supposedly sympathetic heroes they oppose. For example, in The Godfather, which was released in 1972, featured numerous antiheroes in leading roles and managed to win nine Academy Awards out of twenty-eight nominations. Other familiar antiheroes include Gordon Gecko (mentioned above), Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, and Dexter Morgan, the homicidal star of the series that bears his name.  

Still, there also seems to be a considerable gender bias at work in terms of the kind of Dark Triad antiheroes people enjoy seeing. While Dark Triad males can be found in many of the top-grossing movies and television show around, Dark Triad women seem much scarcer. Movies such as Fatal Attraction, Gone Girl, and Basic Instinct feature villainous women who can be regarded as Dark Triad characters, they are primarily viewed as pure villains with none of the antihero appeal of their male counterparts.   

A new research study recently published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture explores gender differences in Dark Triad characters featured in recent movies and television shows. Beginning as an undergraduate thesis project by Timothy M. Davis under the supervision of C. Veronica Smith of the University of Mississippi, the study provides a unique take on why male and female Dark Triad characters have such a different viewer appeal.

The first phase of the study involved selecting YouTube clips of recent movie trailers to be used in the main study. A group of twenty-one university undergraduates examined numerous film trailers to identify male and female Dark Triad characters. Among the clips selected for the study were such recent films as Disclosure (1994), How to Get Away With Murder (2014), House of Cards (2013), Cruel Intentions (1988), Dangerous Liaisons (1999), and True Colors (1991). For each of the clips, participants were asked to compare two characters shown (identified only as "Character A" and "Character B" on Dark Triad traits using the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen Scale.

Made up of twelve items (hence the name), the Dirty Dozen Scale has three four-item subscales to measure Machiavellianism (with items such as ., “I tend to manipulate others to get my way.”), psychopathy (e.g., “I tend to lack remorse.”), and narcissism (e.g., “I tend to want others to admire me.”).  A seven-point scale ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly disagree" was used per item. For each YouTube clip presented, participants were asked to respond to each item "as if" they were either Character A or Character B (photographs of each actor were provided in the survey).

Thirteen clips were finally selected, featuring male and female Dark Triad leads with an additional six control clips featuring at least one of the actors from the thirteen trailers in a more neutral role. These clips were used in the main study involving eighty-six university undergraduates (twenty-four males and fifty-eight females) who also provided demographic information, their own self-appraisal of any Dark Triad traits they might possess (using the Dirty Dozen Scale)  as well as the type of movies they preferred.

After each trailer was shown, participants were asked to complete rankings on the male and female characters shown in the trailer.  Among the male Dark Triad characters used in the study was Gordon Gecko and Frank Underwood (mentioned above), as well as Connor Walsh (played by Jack Falahee) in How to Get Away With Murder and Sebastian Valmont (played by Ryan Philippe) in Cruel Intentions. Female Dark Triad characters included Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis) in How to Get Away With Murder,  Kathryn Merteuil ( played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) in Cruel Intentions, and Suzanne Stone (played by Nicole Kidman) in To Die For.  

Based on the questions provided in the questionnaire filled out by each participant, the characters in each trailer were ranked in terms of how likable, relatable, appealing, and troublesome participants regarding them as being.  Participants also rated each character in terms of how much they reminded participants of themselves and/or their friends. All of these questions used a 7-point scale.  

As expected, Dark Triad characters were seen as less likable, relatable, and appealing than non-Dark Triad characters. However, the presence of a Dark Triad character had no effect on whether participants wanted to see the movie or television show in which that character appeared. On the other hand, Dark Triad women were consistently viewed as less appealing and more troublesome than Dark Triad males. In looking at the control non-Dark Triad characters, female characters were consistently seen as more appealing, relatable, and likable than non-Dark Triad male characters.  

So, why are female Dark Triad characters so much less appealing than males?  In discussing their findings, Davis and his co-researchers suggest that Dark Triad traits tend to be seen as traditionally "masculine." For that reason, women high in these traits may come across as violating gender roles by not being "feminine" enough to appeal to audiences. 

Also, since Dark Triad traits tend to be less common in females than males, Dark Triad females may be viewed as less believable, especially by other women.  Unfortunately, the participants in this study were mostly female which may have skewed the results.  

Still, research studies like this one do seem fairly consistent in showing significant differences in how movie and television viewers view male and female characters showing Dark Triad traits. Not only do non-Dark Triad females tend to be viewed much more positively than equivalent male characters, but their Dark Triad counterparts are seen as much more negative than Dark Triad males. 

Even though much more research needs to be done, it may be intriguing to see how our views about male and female villains change over time. Maybe there's a future in being a "mean girl" after all...

References

Snyder, Grace K.,Smith, C. Veronica,Øverup, Camilla S.,Paul, Adam L.,Davis, Timothy M.

Snyder, G. K., Smith, C. V., Øverup, C. S., Paul, A. L., & Davis, T. M. (2019). Characters we love to hate: Perceptions of dark triad characters in media. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8(4), 420–428. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000200