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Science Explains Why We Root for the Bad Guy

When we seek pleasure from media, our morals become flexible

Last June, Richard Matt and David Sweat captured America’s attention when they tunneled their way out of a maximum security prison in Dannemora, New York, and emerged from a manhole outside prison grounds.

These men were less-than ideal citizens. Matt was convicted in 2008 of beating his boss to death and dismembering the body. Shortly after the conviction he fled to Mexico, where he fatally stabbed another American man as part of an attempted robbery. Sweat, meanwhile, was serving a life sentence for killing police officer Kevin Tarsia, whom he shot 22 times before running over his lifeless body with a car.

And while I knew it was terrible and dangerous that two murderous psychopaths were suddenly on the lam in upstate New York, all I could think to myself was, I hope they get away with it, and, What’s wrong with me that I think this way?

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Intellectually, I knew these men posed legitimate dangers to society and deserved to be incarcerated. But emotionally, I couldn’t help myself from rooting for them to evade authorities. I wanted them to sneak across the Canadian border, learn French and pose as native Quebecois. I imagined them getting reconstructive facial surgery and new identities and furtively re-integrating into society. Or perhaps they’d hop a freighter and live the rest of their days touring the world as seamen.

Whatever the fantasy, I was actively rooting for these fugitives, and I wasn’t alone. When the chase ended just weeks later, 29-year-old New Yorker Courtney Lord told The New York Times: “I’m not glad it’s over. That’s the most excitement this town has seen! I wanted them to keep running.” And this was a woman who had a young daughter and lived just 30 miles from the prison.

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I have the same warped feelings whenever I hear about a cat burglar stealing a priceless piece of art or a bunch of crooks pulling off an elaborate diamond theft. There’s just something about men pulling off capers that makes my heart race. It’s sick and I can’t stop.

At first I blamed pop culture, as there were obvious parallels between the escapees’ story and classic jailbreak films. Matt and Sweat used dummies to dupe their guards (like in Escape from Alcatraz), and they burrowed their way to freedom (á la Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption). And there are countless other movies — Terrence Malick’s Badlands; Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers; every Quentin Tarantino flick — that portray runaway criminals as unshakeable folk heroes. Dane Cook is himself a punchline nowadays, but his old bit about how everyone wishes to be part of Heat-style heist was spot-on. My personal favorite in this genre is Cool Hand Luke, a character study in the undeniable allure of just not giving a fuck.

And science suggests I was kind of right: My perverse sympathy grew out of thinking about their escape as a source of entertainment. When people consume media in search of pleasure, they’re more likely to overlook a character’s moral shortcomings, according to a study published in Communication Research Reports earlier this year. Conducted by researchers at Boston University and University of Colorado, the study found that those looking for meaning in their entertainment (as opposed to just pleasure) are less tolerant of characters’ immoral action and derive less enjoyment from them:

The motivation to seek pleasure from media impacts the way viewers pardon antisocial character behaviors, suggesting that looser moral standards are employed if driven by hedonism. … This study also found that those who morally disengaged were more likely to enjoy the content, demonstrating that the process of moral disengagement is gratifying.

The escapees’ story was real-life, of course, but that doesn’t mean real-life can’t be a source of entertainment — cable news is based on that very notion.

Perhaps you find it troubling I could be so morally detached. Fair. But some men you just can’t reach.

John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about how a North Carolina couple managed to pay off $68,000 in debt over three years.