What makes Voldemort tick? Children's and adults' reasoning about the nature of villains.Cognition. 2023 04; 233:105357.C
How do children make sense of antisocial acts committed by evil-doers? We addressed this question in three studies with 434 children (4-12 years) and 277 adults, focused on participants' judgments of both familiar and novel fictional villains and heroes. Study 1 established that children viewed villains' actions and emotions as overwhelmingly negative, suggesting that children's well-documented positivity bias does not prevent their appreciation of extreme forms of villainy. Studies 2 and 3 assessed children's and adults' beliefs regarding heroes' and villains' moral character and true selves, using an array of converging evidence, including: how a character felt inside, whether a character's actions reflected their true self, whether a character's true self could change over time, and how an omniscient machine would judge a character's true self. Across these measures, both children and adults consistently evaluated villains' true selves to be more negative than heroes'. Importantly, at the same time, we also detected an asymmetry in the judgments, wherein villains were more likely than heroes to have a true self that differed from their outward behavior. More specifically, across the ages studied participants more often reported that villains were inwardly good, than that heroes were inwardly bad. Implications, limitations, and directions for future research are discussed in light of our expanding understanding of the development of true self beliefs.