Here’s why you got attached to your favorite fictional character
A new, first-of-its-kind study at the University of Florida has revealed people create emotional attachments with fictional characters by making similar judgments about their personalities as they do with real-life people.
The study also is the first to explore the concept of assumed similarity — a process by which a person assumes that someone else shares characteristics that are similar to their own — with fictional characters.
Focusing on 56 characters from the popular book and TV series “Game of Thrones,” the study allowed participants to rate each character based on commonly studied personality traits.
Authors Gregory Webster, an associate professor of psychology at UF, and Jessica T. Campbell, then-doctoral student who is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, chose the franchise because of the richness of the characters and their development.
“The characters in Game of Thrones are very human and relatable,” Webster said. “There are no perfect good guys or perfect bad guys, and fairly likable heroes. There are also a lot of characters that evolve over the series.”
Webster and Campbell recruited more than 300 users of the website Reddit, which is commonly used for its “subreddits,” online discussion forums dedicated to a particular subject – in this case, Game of Thrones.
They were asked to rate themselves on the Big Five traits, extraversion, agreeableness, open-mindedness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism; and all four “Dark Tetrad” traits, narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. Then, they were asked to rate the 56 characters from the series in the same way.
The study revealed that, in general, people were consistent in the traits they assigned. It also found that people were more likely to rate characters whose traits were similar to their own; on seven of the nine traits, there was “significant evidence” people were projecting their personality onto the characters, Webster said.
“It would suggest that people do form parasocial relationships with these characters, and it’s probably because they see more of their personality traits reflected in those characters,” Webster said. “Which means, if they like the character, it’s because of what they see of themselves.”
For example, those who see themselves as narcissistic are more likely to see more characters in Game of Thrones as more narcissistic, he added. People who freely admit to being narcissists tend to project their narcissism onto others, Webster said. It makes them feel less odd about it.
Webster said he was surprised by the level of participation of the subredditors. During the time of COVID-19 restrictions, it was difficult to collect data in-person, so collecting data on fictional characters from fans in online forums was an efficient workaround.
“Most prior studies that explored the same topic required a group of people to be in the same room together, and for each person to rate each other,” Webster said. “This was all done online. There was no strong incentive to lie, which made participants feel less odd about admitting certain traits they see in themselves.”
He cautioned there were some drawbacks to the findings, which were recently published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media. Among them was selection bias because people were allowed to choose which of the 56 characters they wished to rate.
As a result, the series’ most popular characters received more ratings than others. Also, the study's findings may not generalize beyond the Game of Thrones fandom, or even beyond active redditors who were enthusiastic enough to participate in the survey for free.
Two years after they took the survey, the ardent fan base was also enthusiastic about the study’s preliminary findings, which included a ranking of the highest and lowest five characters for each personality trait, Webster said.
“Some people were really excited,” he said. “Most of them thought it was really interesting. But there was some contention about the rankings that I showed in the end.”