Star Wars has brought us some of the most iconic villains of all time. It’s so much fun to watch Emperor Palpatine’s scheming and Darth Vader’s brutality. But why do we enjoy bad guys so much? Science says we like them because we resemble them.
There is a lot to like about Star Wars villains. First, there are the catchy personal theme songs of the big players. And unlike today’s gritty nuanced bad guys, Star Wars baddies seem to be having a lot of fun. Once they embrace the dark side of the force, the Sith and the imperial military commanders who serve them are gleeful. Their delight is palpable as they blow up planets and crush the resistance.
Psychological researchers are curious about why we like bad guys, and what that says about us. For instance, there is plenty of research to show that we actually don’t like the immorality of villains like the Emperor. One study showed that even with today’s sympathetic villains and flawed heroes, we still don’t like evil characters.
Darth Vader is certainly evil. The first time we meet him, he walks into a room and strangles an unarmed prisoner to death. He is both morally repugnant, and one of the most beloved characters of all time.
I asked a top Star Wars expert for his opinion on why Vader is so popular. “Darth Vader has a cool helmet. Plus he always gets what he wants,” said the 9-year-old.
Villains let us explore the dark side.
A recent study may help us reconcile the way we love evil Star Wars villains: it’s fiction. “In the Star Wars universe characters are told to beware the dark side,” study author Rebecca Krause-Galoni told me. “Interestingly, this work suggests that real life viewers- protected by the veil of fiction- might be drawn to villains when they reflect aspects of themselves.”
The researchers understood that our need to think well of ourselves means that we do not like it when we resemble someone with immoral traits. But fiction makes it safe to like someone who reminds us of ourselves, yet has traits that would repel us in a real person.
The study took data from CharacTour, an app that has users take a personality quiz and matches them with the fictional characters most like them. At the time of the study analysis, the platform had about 232,500 registered users. The data also allowed the researchers to see which characters people were attracted to. Whether good or bad guy, people preferred characters like themselves.
“This work suggests that what makes characters such as Darth Vader potentially attractive to people is not that they are the inverse of who we are, but that they actually might echo pieces of who we are,” said Krause-Galoni.
Fictional villains entice us because they give us an opportunity to explore our darker selves. They possess many of our traits, yet are uninhibited by morality.
Star Wars villains are strong leaders.
If Darth Vader is one of the most popular villains of all time, does that mean that most of us have his personality? Or could there be another factor at work? Maybe Vader’s popularity is less about how he resembles us than the way he shows up as a leader.
The top Star Wars villains show many of the key identifiers that lead us to recognize someone as a leader. Palpatine, Count Dooku and Vader are strategic thinkers, with a contingency plan for everything. Kylo Ren and General Grevious, like the Sith lords, have presence. When any of these Star Wars bad guys are in the room, everyone knows it.
Star Wars villains are consistent in their goals and clear in their communication. Sure, they do it in a fantastically evil way, but at least we know where they stand. There is no ambiguity in their employee policies: if a staff member fails they will be force choked to death and their subordinate will be promoted.
But possibly the most impressive aspect of Star Wars villains is their power. In a discussion of leadership, power refers to the leader’s belief in themself. Darth Vader’s greatest power is not in his ability to hurl heavy objects at Luke Skywalker with the force. His power lies in his unquestioning belief that he deserves to be the leader.
That kind of power inspires people to follow, and it is a big part of what makes Vader so irresistible to audiences. Or maybe audiences secretly longs to possess that power themselves.
Fiction gives us freedom to explore our dark side. Just don’t forget what Yoda says, “When you look at the dark side, careful you must be. For the dark side looks back.”
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.