A Psychologist Explains Why We Are So Intrigued By The Game Of Thrones Series
We come for the fire-breathing dragons but stay for the ethically ambiguous characters.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 10, 2022
A new study published in the academic journal Psychology of Popular Media suggests that a big part of the appeal of the Game of Thrones series comes from the fact that we see ourselves in the imperfect and morally ambiguous characters in the show.
Despite the fact that the HBO series is full of gore, violet sexual imagery, conspiracy, and manipulation, people still projected their own personalities onto the GoT characters.
"In both the books and the show, nearly all the characters — both major and minor — are 'gray,' displaying both good and bad personality traits depending on the situation and whose interests they're serving," says psychologist Gregory Webster of the University of Florida. "This makes the characters diverse in how they are perceived by readers and viewers."
According to Webster, GoT has only a few one-sided or stereotypical characters and many of the major characters show change over time. This is a key reason why the show captures our imagination.
To better understand people's fascination with the Game of Thrones series, Webster and his research team designed an online study that involved two steps:
- First, people completed a standard "Big Five" personality questionnaire that assessed Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Negativity, and Openness. They also completed a "Dark Tetrad" personality questionnaire that assessed four socially-undesirable traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism (or Manipulativeness), Psychopathy (or Callousness), and Sadism.
- Second, after completing these measures, people also completed the same surveys for at least one (of 56) Game of Thrones characters (their choice), though many completed the same surveys for two or more characters (as many as they wanted).
The study used specialized statistics to correlate people's ratings of themselves with the ratings they gave to the characters they chose to rate. The resulting correlations served as a measure of projection or assumed similarity.
The researchers found that people rated characters in much the same way they rated themselves.
"In other words, if people viewed themselves as more extroverted, then they also tended to rate fictional characters as more extroverted," explains Webster. "In fact, people showed significant projections or assumed similarity effects for 7 of the 9 traits assessed (all but Conscientiousness and Openness)."
Another point highlighted by Webster's study was that people tended to show a remarkable amount of agreement about the personality traits of the GoT characters.
"People may disagree about, say, which character is the most manipulative or the least narcissistic, but there's substantial agreement when you ask people to rate a bunch of characters along a continuum," says Webster.
This consensus is a testament to the degree of detail and attention given to the creation of the characters, along with the fact that the study was not just an exercise in subjective interpretation.
One might question whether relating to the ever-devious GoT characters is in any way problematic. Webster doesn't think so.
"I believe that what many people consider to be good, interesting, or even critically acclaimed literature, television, theater, or film tend to feature one or more evil characters, groups, or entities, and typically involve one or more characters experiencing traumatic events or extremely difficult ethical dilemmas," he clarifies. "In short, darker characters make for better stories, books, and screenplays. Can you think of a popular example without at least one?"
Webster also offers a useful nugget of information for any writer looking for advice to create psychologically compelling characters:
"I think people are looking for stories that more closely mimic the real world, where most people are trying to navigate a morally complex world, where their duty to themselves or some group they belong to comes into conflict with another moral code or another group they also belong to," he says. "Or even in trickier situations where the moral choice now may prove to be an immoral choice in the not-too-distant future. How do people wrestle with and attempt to reconcile these moral dilemmas? This is what makes for better character development."
A full interview with psychologist Gregory Webster discussing his research can be found here: Ever wonder why you love Game Of Thrones so much?