Ever Wonder Why You Love Game Of Thrones So Much?
Psychologist Gregory Webster analyzes why we love the manipulative, unpredictable and complicated characters of the outrageously successful HBO series.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 3, 2022
A new study published in Psychology of Popular Media examines the similarities in how we rate our own personalities and that of our favorite GoT characters. Spoiler alert: it's pretty similar.
I recently spoke to psychologist Gregory Webster of the University of Florida to understand why problematic characters capture our imagination. Here is a summary of our conversation.
To begin with, why Game of Thrones? What about it made you pick this narrative and these characters out of all the other shows we have airing today?
- The first is a bit personal. I'm obsessed with the book series it's based on — A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. I've watched the series (or at least the first 4 seasons of it) multiple times, but I find the books far more interesting — and the character description far more compelling — than the show.
- The second reason is a bit related to the first. 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 (often, but not always, their own or those of their house).
This makes the characters diverse in how they can be perceived by others (i.e., readers, viewers).
In short, there are few one-sided or stereotypical characters, and many of the major characters show change over time.
For example, Jaime Lannister has somewhat of a redemptive character arc after starting off the first episode with "twincest" and attempted child homicide.
It was interesting to note that your participants were chosen from Reddit. What was the methodology of your study and what would you say was your most important finding?
Normally to get people to complete surveys — especially lengthy ones — personality psychologists must pay them; however, because the fan base is both broad and deep (in terms of their devotion to the series), I figured that many fans would consider providing their responses for free, especially if I agreed to share the results with them on Reddit at a later date, which I did.
Reddit is a great resource for researchers wishing to identify participants or survey respondents for studies of specific groups of people (e.g., fandoms, specific identities, or interest groups).
The methodology of my study involved three basic steps:
- First, people (Redditors) completed a standard "Big Five" personality questionnaire that assesses Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Negativity (also called Neuroticism), and Open-Mindedness (also called Openness). They also completed a "Dark Tetrad" personality questionnaire that assesses four socially-undesirable traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism (or Manipulativeness), Psychopathy (or Callousness), and Sadism.
- Second, after completing these measures to describe themselves, Redditors 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).
- Third, I used some fancy statistics that basically correlate people's ratings of themselves with the ratings they give to the characters they chose to rate. The resulting correlations are essentially a measure of projection or assumed similarity (described below).
In terms of the personality science guiding this project, I found that people showed significant evidence of projection or assumed similarity: People rated characters in much the same ways as they rated themselves.
In other words, if people viewed themselves as more Extroverted, then they also tended to rate fictional characters as more Extroverted. In fact, people showed significant projections or assumed similarity effects for 7 of the 9 traits assessed (all but Conscientiousness and Open-Mindedness).
What are some practical takeaways for the average GoT watcher/reader from your research?
Another thing we examined in people's character ratings was consensus, or the degree to which raters agree on their ratings of characters' personality traits.
Consensus was statistically significant across the board, suggesting that people — or at least the 300+ Redditors who chose to participate — tended to show a remarkable amount of agreement about the personality traits of the 50+ characters I asked them to rate.
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.
In your professional opinion, would you say that a person relating to a darker, problematic character from GoT is a cause for concern?
Not at all. 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.
In short, "darker" characters make for better stories, books, and screenplays. Can you think of a popular example without at least one?
Does your research have any potential takeaways for a screenwriter or writer who wants to create compelling and relatable characters?
Yes. I believe most people hunger for more "gray" characters. (But perhaps I'm projecting my own preferences onto others here.) Pure good versus pure evil is a common, overused, one-dimensional trope, albeit a powerful one.
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.
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.