Document Type



The current research investigated the psychological differences between protagonists and antagonists in literature and the impact of these differences on readers. It was hypothesized that protagonists would embody cooperative motives and behaviors that are valued by egalitarian hunter-gatherers groups, whereas antagonists would demonstrate status-seeking and dominance behaviors that are stigmatized in such groups. Thishypothesis was tested with an online questionnaire listing characters from 201 canonical British novels of the longer nineteenth century. 519 respondents generated 1470 protocols on 435 characters. Respondents identified the characters as protagonists, antagonists, or minor characters, judged the characters’ motives according to human life history theory, rated the characters’ traits according to the five-factor model of personality, and specified their own emotional responses to the characters on categories adapted from Ekman’s sevenbasic emotions. As expected, antagonists are motivated almost exclusively by the desire for social dominance, their personality traits correspond to this motive, and they elicit strongly negative emotional responses from readers. Protagonists are oriented to cooperative and affiliative behavior and elicit positive emotional responses from readers. Novels therefore apparently enable readers to participate vicariously in an egalitarian social dynamic like that found in hunter-gatherer societies. We infer that agonistic structure in novels simulates social behaviors that fulfill an adaptive social function and perhaps stimulates impulses toward these behaviors in real life.

Publication Date

January 2008

Publication Title

Evolutionary Psychology