What is the Line Between Love and Hate? Archetypal Role, Social Behavior and Their Effects on Character Perception and Attraction

Student researchers

Meghan Sanders, Djung Tchoi, and Hope White
This paper is based on a project from a graduate research methods course.

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar

For a complete report of this research, see:

Sanders, M. S., Tchoi, D. J., & White, H. L. (2003, May). The line between love and hate: Archetypal role and behavior's effects on character perception and attraction. Paper presented to the Mass Communication Division at the 53rd annual convention of the International Communication Association, San Diego, CA.


Film characters are often the main targets for influencing audiences. Researchers have found that people tend to imitate characters they see, wish to be like them and even find solace in being third-party observers of their “day to day” actions and the events that take place in their lives. Screenwriters and producers of television and film tend to focus on what they call “character-driven” projects in an effort to draw viewers in, making them feel various emotions for the characters depicted. Attraction to characters may depend upon the character’s behavior, character’s perceived personality traits, character identification, or the desire to be in the character’s shoes. Certain images and characters have been found to have significantly greater influences than other types of images and characters. This has been evidenced in research examining advertisements, film, and literature. Therefore it is of interest to determine which characters (heroes or villains) have more influence on audiences than others and what in particular causes certain perceptions and attractions, behavior or the role itself.

Research Question and Hypotheses:

Specifically, we asked the following research question:

RQ: For college students, what is the relationship between character’s archetypal role and behavior and perception of character and type and degree of attraction to the character?


Given that attraction and the perceptions formed about characters can depend on behavior and the roles that are being portrayed and that other researchers have found the two to be intertwined we hypothesized that:

H1: Role and behavior will have unique effects for both character perception and attraction.

H2: Characters who are perceived prosocial heroes will be more liked by viewers than any other character.

H3: Viewers will like prosocial villains less than they will any other character.


To examine the effect of archetypal role and behavior on character perception and attraction, an experimental research design was developed. Using a 2 (Role) X2 (Behavior) between subjects fully crossed factorial design, four experimental conditions were established: hero prosocial, hero antisocial, villain prosocial and villain antisocial. A total of 84 Penn State students participated in the study and were randomly assigned to conditions. Since character roles and development are especially distinct in comic books, often emphasizing archetypal role and behavior, a comic book was created as a stimulus. Two female comic characters from the “Danger Girl” comic book series were chosen and biographies created for the characters. The biographies and dialogue were manipulated to fit the characteristics of the roles and behaviors. The second character was designed to be the control character not exhibiting characteristics of any archetypal role or behavior. The control character’s biography and dialogue was not changed for any of the conditions. A factor reduction of the personality traits measured yielded three factors: Gentility, Ability, Integrity.


H1: Supported. Participants thought prosocial characters and heroes to be more Gentile and have more Integrity than antisocial characters and villains. However, they thought villains had greater Ability than heroes; the characters’ behavior did not affect ratings of Ability. As seen in the graph below, behavior was an influencing factor on perceptions of Integrity for the hero, but the behavior did not matter in perceiving Integrity when the character was a villain.

H2 and H3: Not supported.

The results did not show role and behavior to have a combined effect on how much each of the manipulated characters were liked. However, behavior alone did influence how much the characters were liked and how much participants viewed them as being similar to themselves. Prosocial characters were liked more and were thought to be more similar to the participants. Role, as well as behavior, did determine how each participant wishfully identified with the characters (i. e., if they could be a character, which one would they wish to be). When the main character was a hero, more participants wished they could be the control character. However, when the main character was a villain, more participants wished they could be that villain. When the main character showed prosocial behaviors, more participants wished they could be that prosocial character, but when the main character was antisocial, more participants wished they could be the secondary character.





These results suggest that there may be a distinction between attraction to characters and how we evaluate them. Behavior may be what viewers deem as most important when determining how attracted they are to a character. Role, on the other hand, may be taken more into consideration when people are evaluating the characters being viewed. This may help explain why viewers can like characters but still evaluate them as being the "bad guys" (i.e. Hannibal Lecter, cheering of villains/bad guys in professional wrestling).

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at sss12@psu.edu or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University