Even though we are moving towards more ambiguous representation of characters and superheroes on screen and in literature (take Deadpool or Walter White for instance), it seems that deep down, at least when it comes to superheroes and villains people like fictional characters that have a strong sense of morality, a new study finds.
The research, published online in the Journal of Media Psychology, found that people best liked heroes they rated as most moral and least liked villains they thought of as immoral.
Thus, according to the researchers, antiheroes and morally ambiguous characters like Walter White from Breaking Bad were more complicated for people to rate on terms of likability.
Speaking about it, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University, said that across all of the character types, morality and likability were closely related to each other.
He added, “Character morality is intricately tied to how much people like them.
People still don’t like evil characters.”
According to Grizzard, it has been long believed that character morality is linked to how much people like them.
However, in the 90s antiheroes started becoming popular on television shows.
“Characters did bad things, but people still rooted for them,” he said, adding that it got them thinking, "Does character morality not matter anymore? Or does it matter and we’re just not seeing the whole picture?”
Grizzard and his colleagues thus asked 262 college students to think of characters they liked or characters they disliked. Students were given three character choices, heroes, villains and “morally ambiguous characters,” or antiheroes.
The researchers found that some of the ‘liked’ characters participants chose included Superman and Batman as heroes, Deadpool and Batman as morally ambiguous characters and The Joker and Voldemort as villains.
They also found that some of the ‘disliked’ characters also included Batman and Superman as heroes, Dexter Morgan (of the TV show Dexter) and Spiderman as morally ambiguous characters and the Joker and Voldemort as villains.
Participants were then asked to choose a villain they liked or a hero they disliked, Grizzard said, which put quite a few of them in an unnatural position.
Elaborating upon the same, Grizzard said, “If there is really no connection between morality and liking, we should clearly see it here. But that’s not what we found.”
What they found instead was that disliked heroes were rated as less moral than the liked heroes; liked villains were rated as more moral than the disliked villains and liked antiheroes were rated as more moral than the disliked antiheroes.
Thus, according to Grizzard, the more moral a character is, the more one likes them and the more one likes a character, the more moral do they perceive them to be, and it is nearly impossible to separate the factors.
However, when it came to antiheroes, though it was harder to predict, there still was some relationship between morality and liking. For example, according to Grizzard, while Walter White in Breaking Bad sells crystal meth, he does it to help secure his family’s financial future after he is diagnosed with cancer.
“It is a relative morality. Because all of the other characters are worse than he is, we have something to compare him to. We don’t exactly like him, but he is the best we can hope for in this show," he concludes.