If there’s one thing you can say about “The New” Daniel Bryan, he certainly isn’t fickle. Watch an episode of Total Bellas or talk to the guy for a second, and it’s clear he’s a staunch environmentalist with strong ideas of how an over-emphasis on consumerism harms the natural world. Now that his character is a full-blown heel on Smackdown LIVE, he’s taken the old Steve Austin adage to heart, and turned his own personality up to 11 for great effect as the newly-crowned, nefarious world champion.
But now his deeply-held beliefs are played for laughs, as he chides live audiences about their use of plastic water bottles and gas-guzzling SUVs. It’s perfectly fine bad guy stuff, if a little cheap, and Bryan’s clearly okay with it. It’s just a TV show, after all, right?
Well, maybe Bryan should think twice. There are real psychological phenomena that can connect us with the outlooks of fictional characters, aligning with the heroes and maybe even disagreeing with the views of the villains.
Culture isn’t born into us, it’s learned over time as we grow and develop. The technical term for the process is enculturation, and it usually occurs through familial and other social interaction. Think about when parents teach their kids the difference between right and wrong, or about the family’s religious beliefs, or the meaning of an honest day’s work. Of course kids also learn from their peers (deliberately or otherwise) how to conform to the norms of their society.
It’s also known as acculturation, though that term is starting to be more strictly identified with the process of learning the customs of a new culture, in adulthood. When someone moves to a country with different practices and social institutions, it’s natural that some of the old behavior will be modified to better fit in, or at least added to the person’s existing outlook. Even if that person doesn’t seek to change things, some level of acculturation is almost unavoidable.
A lot of that is due, at least in industrialized nations, to our near constant immersion in media, both social and mainstream entertainment. Researchers are learning more and more how much kids glean from watching the figures on their screens, and how immigrants use film and television to learn American views. In either case, what happens when the villain is seen espousing a certain set of beliefs? Is it so far-fetched to think such people will develop a hostile attitude toward those beliefs?
— WWE (@WWE) December 30, 2018
The flip side is the idea of perspective-taking, which is related to empathy. It’s a uniquely human ability to imagine how someone else might perceive the world, and how they might come to believe the things they do. The argument could be made that taking the perspective of the villain, and really understanding where they’re coming from, is better than not having access to that viewpoint at all.
A new, slightly more involved twist on that is experience-taking, a term proposed by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby in 2012, in which you not only get inside another person’s head, but really start to identify with or even as them. The pair showed through experiment that heterosexual readers can develop more favorable outlooks on homosexuality after reading the first person account of a homosexual protagonist (especially if that trait isn’t introduced until later), with similar outcomes for white readers and black protagonists. Reading is, of course, very well-suited to this kind of imagining, and the effects likely don’t extend as well to visual media.
So Daniel Bryan should probably be careful when letting his bad guy character channel his own thoughts (slightly skewed) on topical issues. But then again, in pro wrestling, the best heels always speak with a kernel of hard truth that the babyfaces don’t want to admit (like the reality of human-caused climate change). And letting people believe he’s wrong on GMOs probably isn’t the worst thing.
Special thanks to Brian Bagzis and Anna Drake for their assistance on this article.