Academic Minute Podcast

Rebecca Krause-Galoni, University of Iowa – Can Bad Be Good? The Attraction of a Darker Self

How do we view our shadow self without worrying about what it shows us?

Rebecca Krause-Galoni, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Iowa, says fiction can play a helpful role.

Rebecca Krause-Galoni is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. Her research focuses mainly on the ways consumers interact with unreal environments and stimuli, such as stories, games, and fantasy. The research discussed here was conducted along with Professor Derek D. Rucker at Northwestern University.

Can Bad Be Good? The Attraction of a Darker Self

Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, a fact that likely makes others with the same birthdate uncomfortable. People do not enjoy associating with evil in any form, and this is especially true when we are forced to confront similarities between ourselves and a person we see as evil. Even sharing minor similarities such as a birthday with someone like Hitler can feel uncomfortable.

This distaste for similarity to reprehensible real-world others is well documented. We want to distance ourselves from them because we worry these minor similarities could imply the potential for more substantial similarities – in other words, it makes us confront the troubling possibility that we could be capable of such evil ourselves. So any parallel, no matter how small, between you and Adolf Hitler opens a can of worms about what you could do under the right circumstances (or rather, the wrong circumstances). These are implications we would rather not think about.

But in my research, I find something unusual occurs in the case of fictional characters. In fiction, instead of shying away from evil that shares similarities with ourselves, we are particularly drawn to it. Fiction, it seems, provides a sort of protective psychological barrier between our psyche and the similarities of the evil other. We know that fiction can include all kinds of situations and events that could never happen in real life – wielding magic, slaying a dragon, or from a more “evil” perspective, strangling someone to death using “The Force.” The fictional nature of the story insulates us from the threat of finding any similarities to ourselves because we can acknowledge the similarity while understanding the world that led the evil characters to their misdeeds is not real. Their actions don’t imply anything about how we might act in a real situation, so if, for example, we have a voice as deep as Darth Vader’s we can revel in the similarity rather than being troubled by it.

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