Stephanie Morgan

There’s a fascinating psychological story behind why your favourite fictional baddies all have a truly evil laugh


By guest blogger David Robson

Towards the end of the Disney film Aladdin, our hero’s love rival, the evil Jafar, discovers Aladdin’s secret identity and steals his magic lamp. Jafar’s wish to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer is soon granted and he then uses his powers to banish Aladdin to the ends of the Earth. 

What follows next is a lingering, close-up of Jafar’s body. He leans forward, fists clenched, with an almost constipated look on his face. He then explodes in uncontrollable cackles that echo across the landscape. For many millennials growing up in the 1990s, it is an archetypical evil laugh.

Such overt displays of delight at others’ misfortune are found universally in kids’ films, and many adult thriller and horror films too. Just think of the rapturous guffaws of the alien in the first Predator film as it is about to self-detonate, taking Arnold Schwarzenegger with it. Or Jack Nicholson’s chilling snicker in The Shining. Or Wario’s manic crowing whenever Mario was defeated. 

A recent essay by Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen in the Journal of Popular Culture asks what the psychology behind this might be. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is well placed to provide an answer having previously used evolutionary psychology to explain the behaviours of heroes and villains in fiction more generally.

In that work, he argued that one of the core traits a villain should show is a low “welfare trade-off” ratio: they are free-riders who cheat and steal, taking from their community while contributing nothing. Such behaviour is undesirable for societies today, but it would have been even more of a disaster in prehistory when the group’s very survival depended on everyone pulling their weight. As a result, Kjeldgaard-Christiansen argues we are wired to be particularly disgusted by cheating free-riders – to the point that we may even feel justified in removing them from the group, or even killing them.

However, there are degrees of villainy and the most dangerous and despised people are those who are not only free riders and cheats, but psychopathic sadists, who perform callous acts for sheer pleasure. Sure enough, previous studies have shown that it is people matching this description whom we consider to be truly evil (since there is no other way to excuse or explain their immorality) and therefore deserving of the harshest punishments. Crucially, Kjeldgaard-Christiansen argues that a wicked laugh offers one of the clearest signs that a villain harbours such evil, gaining “open and candid enjoyment” from others’ suffering – moreover, fiction writers know this intuitively, time and again using the malevolent cackle to identify their darkest characters. 

Part of the power of the evil laugh comes from its salience, Kjeldgaard-Christiansen says: it is both highly visual and vocal (as the close up of Jafar beautifully demonstrates) and the staccato rhythm can be particularly piercing. What’s more, laughs are hard to fake: a genuine, involuntary laugh relies on the rapid oscillation of the “intrinsic laryngeal muscles”, movements that appear to be difficult to produce by our own volition without sounding artificial. As a result, it’s generally a reliable social signal of someone’s reaction to an event, meaning that we fully trust what we are hearing. Unlike dialog – even the kind found in a children’s film – a sadistic or malevolent laugh leaves little room for ambiguity, so there can be little doubt about the villain’s true motives. 

Such laughs are also particularly chilling because they run counter to the usual pro-social function of laughter – the way it arises spontaneously during friendly chats, for example, serving to cement social bonds. 

There are practical reasons too for the ubiquity of the evil laugh in children’s animations and early video games, Kjeldgaard-Christiansen explains. The crude graphics of the first Super Mario or Kung Fu games for Nintendo, say, meant it was very hard to evoke an emotional response in the player – but equipping the villain with an evil laugh helped to create some kind of moral conflict between good and evil that motivated the player to don their cape and beat the bad guys. “This is the only communicative gesture afforded to these vaguely anthropomorphic, pixelated opponents, and it does the job,” he notes. 

There are limits to the utility of the evil laugh in story-telling, though. Kjeldgaard-Christiansen admits that its crude power would be destructive in more complex story-telling, since the display of pleasure at others’ expense would prevent viewers from looking for more subtle motivations or the role of context and circumstance in a character’s behaviour. But for stories dealing with black and white morality, such as those aimed at younger viewers who have not yet developed a nuanced understanding of the world, its potential to thrill is second to none.

Kjeldgaard-Christiansen’s article is certainly one of the most entertaining papers I have read in a long time [get open access here], and his psychological theories continue to be thought provoking. It would be fun to see more experimental research on this subject – comparing the acoustic properties of laughs, for instance, to find out which sounds the most evil. But in my mind, it will always be Jafar’s.

Social Signals and Antisocial Essences: The Function of Evil Laughter in Popular Culture

Post written by David Robson (@d_a_robson) for the BPS Research Digest. His first book, The Intelligence Trap, will be published by Hodder Stoughton (UK)/WW Norton (USA) in 2019.

Similarity in shame and its repercussions across 15 world cultures points to the emotion’s survival function

Screenshot 2018-10-10 09.23.17.png
The 15 sites the researchers visited to study shame, from Sznycer et al 2018

By Emma Young

Shame feels so awful it’s hard to see how it could have an upside, especially when you consider specific triggers of the emotion – such as body-shaming, which involves criticising someone for how their body looks. But is shame always an ugly emotion that we should try to do away with? Or can it be helpful? 

The answer, according to a new study published in PNAS of 899 people from all over the world is that, as an emotion, shame can not only be useful but is fundamental to our ability to survive and thrive in a group. The essential job of shame, it seems, is to stop us from being too selfish for our own good. 

Daniel Sznycer at the University of Montreal, Canada, and his colleagues interviewed people living in 15 very different small-scale societies, including in the Andes in Ecuador, a remote region of Siberia, and the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. 

The researchers asked one group from each society for their thoughts on 12 hypothetical situations involving a person of the same sex as them, including how much shame this person should feel if he or she was ugly, or lazy, or stole from someone in the community, for example. Participants were also asked to indicate, using a four-point scale, how negatively they would view this person as a result (thus providing an indication of how much that person would be “devalued” by others). The researchers also asked members of a fresh group of participants in each society to indicate, again on a four-point scale, how much shame they would themselves feel in the various hypothetical situations. 

Overall, the researchers found very close agreement between the degree of felt shame that participants estimated being associated with a given act or state and how much they indicated a person would be de-valued as a result of committing that act/ being in that state. This was particularly true within a society, but it also held across societies. “The fact that the same pattern is encountered in such mutually remote communities suggests that shame’s match to audience devaluation is a design feature crafted by [natural] selection, and not a product of cultural contact or convergent cultural evolution,” the researchers write.

Our ancestors lived in small, close-knit bands, and they depended on each other for survival. In bad times, especially, they had to rely on each other to pull through. Always being selfless wouldn’t have been wise, as the individual would likely have been exploited. But for someone always to act contrary to the group’s ideas of what mattered, and what was important (that all members should contribute to the tasks important for survival, for example), would have been a bad move, too, as they could have found themselves shunned or even exiled. 

To thrive, the researchers argue, a person would have had to accurately weigh the payoff of an act (taking food without telling others, or pretending to be sick instead of foraging or hunting, for instance) against the cost if they were found out. The results of the study suggest that shame evolved to help us to make the right decision – to act in our own long-term interests by not seriously jeopardising our place in our social group. Shame, then, functions like pain – as a warning not to repeat a behaviour that threatens our own wellbeing. 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that shame is always good. If your group has badly skewed ideas about what really matters – if it places a high value on what clothes you wear, or what your body looks like, for example – then shame is skewed too, into something that isn’t helpful, but harmful. 

Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

“My-side bias” makes it difficult for us to see the logic in arguments we disagree with

Screenshot 2018-10-09 09.28.52By Christian Jarrett

In what feels like an increasingly polarised world, trying to convince the “other side” to see things differently often feels futile. Psychology has done a great job outlining some of the reasons why, including showing that, regardless of political leanings, most people are highly motivated to protect their existing views.

However a problem with some of this research is that it is very difficult to concoct opposing real-life arguments of equal validity, so as to make a fair comparison of people’s treatment of arguments they agree and disagree with.

To get around this problem, an elegant new paper in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology has tested people’s ability to assess the logic of formal arguments (syllogisms) structured in the exact same way, but that featured wording that either confirmed or contradicted their existing views on abortion. The results provide a striking demonstration of how our powers of reasoning are corrupted by our prior attitudes.

Vladimíra Čavojová at the Slovak Academy of Sciences and her colleagues recruited 387 participants in Slovakia and Poland, mostly university students. The researchers first assessed the students’ views on abortion (a highly topical and contentious issue in both countries), then they presented them with 36 syllogisms – these are formal logical arguments that come in the form of three statements (see examples, below).

Screenshot 2018-10-09 09.31.06.png

The participants’ challenge was to determine whether the third statement of each syllogism followed logically from the first two, always assuming that those initial two premises were true. This was a test of pure logical reasoning – to succeed at the task, one only needs to assess the logic, putting aside one’s prior knowledge or beliefs (to reinforce that this was a test of logic, the participants were instructed to always treat the first two premises of each syllogism as true).

Crucially, while some of the syllogisms were neutral, others featured a final statement germane to the abortion debate, either on the side of pro-life or pro-choice (but remember this was irrelevant to the logical consistency of the syllogisms).

Čavojová and her team found that the participants’ existing attitudes to abortion interfered with their powers of logical reasoning – the size of this effect was modest but statistically significant.

Mainly the participants had trouble accepting as logical those valid syllogisms that contradicted their existing beliefs, and similarly they found it difficult to reject as illogical those invalid syllogisms that conformed with their beliefs. This seemed to be particularly the case for participants with more pro-life attitudes. What’s more, this “my-side bias” was actually greater among participants with prior experience or training in logic (the researchers aren’t sure why, but perhaps prior training in logic gave participants even greater confidence to accept syllogisms that supported their current views – whatever the reason, it shows again what a challenge it is for people to think objectively).

“Our results show why debates about controversial issues often seem so futile,” the researchers said. “Our values can blind us to acknowledging the same logic in our opponent’s arguments if the values underlying these arguments offend our own.”

This is just the latest study that illustrates the difficulty we have in assessing evidence and arguments objectively. Related research that we’ve covered recently has also shown that: our brains treat opinions we agree with as facts; that many of us over-estimate our knowledge; how we’re biased to see our own theories as accurate; and that when the facts appear to contradict our beliefs, well then we turn to unfalsifiable arguments. These findings and others show that thinking objectively does not come easily to most people.

My point is valid, yours is not: myside bias in reasoning about abortion

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest