Rooting for the Bad Guy: Psychological Perspectives

Arden Henley
Friday 8 December 2023

Keen, Richard, McCoy, Monica L., and Powell, Elizabeth. Studies in Popular Culture volume 34, no. 2 (Spring2012), pp. 129-148.

This article examines from a psychological and literary perspective why, when we read and watch films, we sometimes root for the villains. Keen, McCoy, and Powell outline eight ways villains are humanized in literature and film, including an expressed desire for revenge, playing into the “bad boy” trope, and the psychological concept of the “fundamental attribution error”. They use examples from various media throughout, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Princess Bride to the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy. After outlining these attributes, they create two case studies which demonstrate them most clearly, using Michael Corleone in The Godfather and Han Solo in Star Wars.

A fundamental part of peacebuilding is reconciliation between former enemies. This is often the largest barrier in peacebuilding, as it involves significant amounts of empathy and the willingness to understand your former opponent. While not explicitly addressing real-life peacebuilding, through psychology and narrative this essay can tell us where precisely to look to understand and empathize with an enemy. Villains are often difficult to understand and empathize with, and narratives often rely on an audience’s unwillingness to do so. This article teaches us how to create empathy for a villain, through its numerous examples and thorough case studies demonstrating the love that can come of making that effort. Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23416402.pdf

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