Making It Personal: How Personality Affects Identification and Enjoyment
of Heroes and Villains
This paper is based on the author's Master's thesis.
Dr. S. Shyam Sundar
For a complete report of this research, see:
Sanders, M. (2003, July). Making it personal: How personality affects
identification and enjoyment of heroes and villains. Paper presented at
the Entertainment Interest Group at the annual convention of the Association
for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), Kansas City,
Past research has suggested that personality determines how and why people
respond emotionally to situations, media and messages as well as why people
enjoy various forms of media (e.g. violent media, graphic horror, sexually
graphic and explicit materials). In particular, personality has been found
to determine how and why people respond emotionally to situations, media,
and messages as well as why people enjoy various forms of media (e.g.
violent media, graphic horror, sexually graphic and explicit materials).
Furthermore, personality, has been found to be an important element, along
with cognitive styles, beliefs, and values, in understanding the gratifications
people receive from viewing, providing more information than what surveys
focused on demographic data normally provide. The viewer-character relationship
is a large part of media involvement. Understanding how people respond
to characters increases understanding of responses to entertainment. Further,
personal attributes of the viewer have a role in perception formations
The current study addressed the following research questions:
RQ1: What is the relationship between viewer personality (Extroversion,
Conscientiousness, Openness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) and character
valence (hero, villain, or ambiguous), independently and collectively,
RQ2: What is the relationship between viewer personality and character
valence, independently and collectively, on identification?
RQ3: Is enjoyment related to identification with media characters?
A total of 88 participants took part in a within-subjects repeated measures
experiment. They completed a personality questionnaire prior to the study
session and were asked to respond to scales measuring their identification
with and enjoyment of three types of characters (referred to in the results
as valence): heroes, villains, and ambiguous characters. Participants
provided ratings for each character. Each condition consisted of three
versions featuring three different actors and storylines such that the
same character and actor portrayed all three character valences. For example,
a participant in one session saw Michael Keaton portray a hero, Aidan
Quinn portray an ambiguously-valenced character, and David Duchovny portray
a villain. In a different session, a participant saw Aidan Quinn as the
hero, Michael Keaton as the villain, and David Duchovny as the ambiguously-valenced
character. The stimulus consisted of three phases to establish a stronger
manipulation: a movie synopsis (one paragraph), a clip of a movie (2 minutes
- 2 1/2 minutes), and an excerpt from a screenplay (4-5 pages). Thirty-five
(35) participants were recruited to participate in a pre-test of the stimulus
material. The results showed that characters manipulated to be heroes,
villains and ambiguous characters were perceived as being such.
RQ1: The results of this study showed that the valence of the media character
and the personality dimensions independently did not affect how the character
was enjoyed. Together, character valence and personality were shown to
affect enjoyment along the dimension of Neuroticism. As participants'
levels of Neuroticism increased so did their enjoyment of ambiguous characters.
However their enjoyment of heroes and villains decreased.
RQ2: According to these results, character valence did affect how people
identified with media characters. Heroes were identified with more than
were ambiguous and villainous characters. Villains were identified with
the least. The results also showed personality to be a factor in ratings
of identification. In particular, the more Extroverted the person the
higher the identification levels, but the more Conscientious the person,
the lower the identification levels. There was one interaction between
levels of Openness and character valence. As Openness increased, levels
of identification with ambiguous and heroic characters decreased to varying
degrees. Conversely, as Openness increased, identification levels with
RQ3: Enjoyment was found to be positively related to identification overall.
As enjoyment increased, so did identification.
Personality is made up of psychological components that point to behaviors
and patterns. It is possible that the dimensions studied did not strongly
predict enjoyment because enjoyment is a judgment made concerning the
value of the entertainment. Personality instead seems better suited for
predicting identification because the concept is a preconscious or subconscious
level of processing. The fact that enjoyment was positively correlated
to identification is of benefit to screenwriters and television and film
producers. If they are looking for a character that people enjoy, then
it may be a good idea to create a character which people can identify
with. However, it cannot be said from this study what precedes which,
an area which merits further research and explanation.