When watching a television show, the bad decisions that characters make are more likely to be forgiven if you think they have a good reason for their behavior, according to a study out of the University of Colorado.
The article, published in the March 2013 issue of Mass Communication and Society, analyzes why individuals still cheer for a character, even when that character has made a wrong decision. The authors found that people were more likely to morally disengage, which occurs when someone justifies the immoral actions of a character, if a character's motivation was seen as selfless rather than selfish.
"We want people to know that in many ways, we respond to entertainment characters as we would to individuals in real life," Dr. Maja K. Krakowiak, the article's author said. "That is, we judge characters and their actions based on the character's intentions, and to a lesser degree, on the outcomes that the character's actions produce. However, our tolerance for immorality is likely greater in entertainment than it is in real life."
Over 120 participants were surveyed after reading different stories containing the same characters. The stories varied on the choices one of the main characters made and the outcomes these decisions had. The research may help to explain why characters from shows such as Breaking Bad and Dexter may be breaking the law, but audiences still tune in every week. Viewers may be more likely to morally disengage from Breaking Bad's Walter White because he is making and selling drugs, but is doing so to ensure his family is taken care of after he passes away from his terminal illness.
"So many characters in entertainment content behave immorally yet people seem to love these characters and root for them to succeed," Krakowiak said. "We conducted this study to better understand how people are able to justify these immoral actions and how this may impact their perceptions of characters."
- K. Maja Krakowiak, Mina Tsay-Vogel. What Makes Characters’ Bad Behaviors Acceptable? The Effects of Character Motivation and Outcome on Perceptions, Character Liking, and Moral Disengagement. Mass Communication and Society, 2013; 16 (2): 179 DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2012.690926
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