Why We Like to Think the Bad Boy Has a Heart of Gold
The appeal of the bad boy has long been debated, but new research says that it’s not his leather jacket, long, luscious locks or capacity for evil that provides the draw — it’s actually what’s on the inside that counts the most.
In three studies that included 434 children and 277 adults, researchers used the examples of Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Captain Hook from Peter Pan to gauge how those of all ages feel about villains. After in-person interviews, the first study echoed what past research has suggested: Kids are completely capable of discerning that villains behave in a negative way, but it didn’t make them any less interested in them.
The second and third studies dug a little deeper, and asked the participants more detailed questions about what they thought about the characters “true selves” — namely, whether or not they thought the characters’ actions reflected their true self and if this true self could change over time. The results revealed that both adults and kids thought that Ursula and Captain Hook were more evil than other characters on the outside, but more good than bad on the inside.
“In other words, people believe there is a mismatch between a villain’s outward behaviors and their inner, true self, and this is a bigger gap for villains than for heroes,” Valerie Umscheid, a University of Michigan psychology doctoral student and lead author of the study, explained in a press release.
Umscheid noted that this is consistent with other studies that show that across a variety of cultures, most adults believe that people are more inherently good than bad, even if they’re a squid monster lady who steals voices or a behooked pirate who kidnaps children. She suspects this stems from some sort of universal need to see the good in everyone, no matter the evil shit they might do.
And so, it’s not that we like the bad boy. It’s that we think deep down inside he’s not a bad boy at all.