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Home » Discover Rackham » Sympathy for the Devil: How Children See Villains

Children’s fiction provides a wealth of iconic villains, from the wicked Maleficent of 1959’s Sleeping Beauty to the manipulative, deceptive Prince Hans of 2013’s Frozen. Their evil deeds and mischievous plots serve to build conflict and drive the action of the story, as well as to offset the virtue and nobility of its hero. Much analysis of these figures has been conducted over decades of literary, film, and psychological studies, examining the intricacies and complexities of their characterizations and what that might indicate about the themes of the work in question or even the human condition itself.

But how do children themselves see them? What do they make of their thoughts, words, and deeds? That’s a question Valerie Umscheid, a developmental psychology Ph.D. student in the U-M Department of Psychology, aimed to explore.

“We were interested in finding out how children were thinking about the heroes and villains they see in movies,” Umscheid says. “Previous research found children exhibit an underlying positivity bias—a tendency to attribute positive traits or motives to people, things, or actions—and we wanted to see if that carried over to really evil villains like Captain Hook and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula. We wanted to know if children saw good in them.”

Not Bad, Just Drawn That Way

Umscheid and her colleagues in the psychology department’s Conceptual Development Lab and Social Minds Lab conducted three studies, collectively interviewing 434 children between the ages of four and 12, focusing on their judgements of both familiar and novel fictional villains, as well as their heroic counterparts. The findings were recently published in Cognition.

The first two studies, which spoke with children across the entire age range, were conducted through Living Lab, a partnership between the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and the U-M Museum of Natural History. The first, which was conducted prior to Umscheid’s involvement, established that despite their documented positivity bias, children viewed the outward actions and emotions of villains—when they hurt people, when they lied, when they destroyed places or things in fits of rage—as evil, contrasted with a positive view of those of heroes.

The second and third studies went deeper, asking the participants to look at the moral character and true selves of heroes and villains.

“The true self is the idea of who someone really is deep inside,” Umscheid explains. “It’s more than just preferences or memories or actions, but their inner morality. It’s a very well-documented cross-cultural finding that people think there is a moral true self that is expressed not by what people like or dislike or remember, but by their capacity for morality, honesty, or generosity.”

While the second study was also conducted through Living Lab, the third, which formed the basis of Umscheid’s master’s thesis, was conducted via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This third study adopted a more narrow focus on children ages five to 10, as they were old enough to participate in a remote call while still spanning the full range of child development.

Umscheid began each call by getting to the know the child a bit and reminding them about the characters they were going to be asked about—which spanned villains like Aladdin’s Jafar and Ernesto de la Cruz of Coco and heroes like Spider-Man and the titular family of The Incredibles—before posing them a series of vignettes about each of them. These scenarios included how the children believed a character felt inside while engaged in various moral and immoral actions, whether their true selves could change over time, and how an impartial, omniscient machine—which Umscheid named the True Self Machine—would interpret each character’s true self. Throughout the study, the children used moral reasoning in 70 percent of their answers, and brought in prior knowledge from the movies to aid their analysis in over 20 percent.

Cartoon villains used in Umscheid's study.

Examples of slides Umscheid used in her research. Clockwise from top left: Captain Hook stealing a toy from a child on a playground, Maleficent under the “True Self Machine,” Cruella de Vil receiving medication, and Jafar uncharacteristically sharing a cookie on a playground.

Some of the results lined up almost perfectly with those of the first study: Children viewed the true selves of villains as generally worse than those of heroes. But as Umscheid surveyed more subjects, a new trend appeared in the findings.

“While they believed the chance of a hero being inwardly bad was very low, we noted a higher rate of mismatch between villains’ true selves and their outer behavior,” Umscheid says. “These are really powerful narratives, stories that kids watch over and over, that they play and act out. It would be hard to dismantle the evil of villains, but that children see even a little potential for good in them is impressive.”

How children view their fictional villains, Umscheid says, sheds light on how their minds develop, and may even contribute to how they handle real-world challenges.

“It’s important for us to understand how kids think about morally questionable people and situations,” she says. “They’re going to grow up, and their thinking as children influences to some extent their thinking as adults, as well as how they think about and handle everyday problems like bullies.

“It also highlights kids’ brilliance,” she continues. “I love talking to kids, asking them why they think and believe the way they do, because their answers are so often insightful. We don’t give kids enough credit for their amazing way of thinking about the world. We see here that even at five years old, they’re already thinking in morally complex ways and employing many forms of reasoning.”

How Rackham Helps

Umscheid participated in Rackham’s Institute for Social Change, a cohort-based program that allows students to explore the conceptual and practical dimensions of public scholarship. She is also considering a Rackham Doctoral Intern Fellowship to gain experience outside academia.