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Saturday, February 4, 2023

What makes Voldemort tick? Children's and adults' reasoning about the nature of villains

V.A. Umscheid, C.E. Smith, et al.
Volume 233, April 2023, 105357


How do children make sense of antisocial acts committed by evil-doers? We addressed this question in three studies with 434 children (4–12 years) and 277 adults, focused on participants' judgments of both familiar and novel fictional villains and heroes. Study 1 established that children viewed villains' actions and emotions as overwhelmingly negative, suggesting that children's well-documented positivity bias does not prevent their appreciation of extreme forms of villainy. Studies 2 and 3 assessed children's and adults' beliefs regarding heroes' and villains' moral character and true selves, using an array of converging evidence, including: how a character felt inside, whether a character's actions reflected their true self, whether a character's true self could change over time, and how an omniscient machine would judge a character's true self. Across these measures, both children and adults consistently evaluated villains' true selves to be more negative than heroes'. Importantly, at the same time, we also detected an asymmetry in the judgments, wherein villains were more likely than heroes to have a true self that differed from their outward behavior. More specifically, across the ages studied participants more often reported that villains were inwardly good, than that heroes were inwardly bad. Implications, limitations, and directions for future research are discussed in light of our expanding understanding of the development of true self beliefs.

General discussion

What do young children understand about the nature of antisocial individuals, and how does this understanding change with development? We examined this question in three studies, asking children aged
4–10 to predict how villains—and in comparison, heroes—behave when given a chance to engage in a range of anti- and prosocial behaviors (in Study 1) and to think about their deeper underlying villainy in terms of characters’ moral character and true selves (in Studies 2 and 3). The present research is distinctive in its focus on what children understand about truly wicked familiar individuals, notably well-known villains in children’s films, and distinctive in asking about not only their behaviors, but also asking about their inner emotional responses and underlying goodness/badness. Moreover, we examined the limits of villains’ antisociality, via the scenarios involving the pets and ‘kindred spirits’ of villains in Study 1, and via scenarios involving omniscient true-self machines and magic pills in Study 3. The research also provides new, strong, and consistent evidence by examining a broad range of theoretically grounded evil behaviors and beliefs, and in charting these beliefs across early to middle childhood.

Taken together, findings from all three studies show that children ages 4–10 firmly understand that villainous individuals are prone to callous and antisocial behavior, have deeply mean personalities, and are
less likely than heroes to engage in prosocial behavior. At the same time, although they grasp the essential villainy of villains, children tend to be somewhat more positive about villains than adults. Three additional
findings are worthy of emphasis. First, children demonstrated a nuanced view of villains; many who consistently predicted cruel behavior in villains also expected that villains would treat those in their inner circle (pets and fellow villains) with less cruelty. Second, even young children went beyond noting behavioral tendencies, indicating that villains were deeply mean individuals in their underlying true selves and emotional responses, not just their behaviors. And third, there was an asymmetry in participants’ (both children’s and adults’) judgments regarding individuals’ true selves, wherein villains were more often viewed as having a good true self, than heroes were judged as having a bad true self. For children, villains’ true selves were less mean than might be expected from their mean behaviors and villainous identities, but rarely shaded into niceness itself. For adults this was also often true, but consistent with the literature on adults’ true self beliefs (De Freitas et al., 2017;Newman et al., 2014; Strohminger et al., 2017), adults often indicted a belief that even villains might be deep-down nice in certain circumstance.