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Gender and the Moral Psychology of Game of Thrones

Most of my published academic work is in the field of moral psychology, where we study the moral reasoning behind judgments of right and wrong.  As I have previously argued, such study does not belong solely in the realm of university psychology labs, but also should be extended to the realm of “big data”, where online behavior is examined for convergence with what we see in the lab.  Ranker collects millions of user opinions each month on all sorts of topics, and one of them, where users rank the most uncomfortable moments in Game of Thrones, is actually very similar to psychology studies where we ask participants to rate the rightness or wrongness of various situations.

Amongst the situations to be voted on are:

  • Graphic Violence (Khaleesi Eats a Horse Heart, Execution of Eddard Stark)
  • Incest (Lannister Family Values, Theon Makes a Pass at Sister)
  • Sexual Violence (Danerys And Viserys, Jamie Rapes His Sister)
  • Homosexuality (Loras and Renly Shave and Scheme)

Men and women were equally likely to vote on items on this list (each gender averaged six votes per user), but women were twice as likely to be affected by sexual violence toward women, including Viserys’ lude treatment of his sister Danerys or The Red Wedding, which included the stabbing of a pregnant woman, than were men.  In contrast, men were made most uncomfortable by hints of homosexuality (Loras and Renly shaving each other’s chests), being seven times more likely to find this scene uncomfortable.  These patterns are convergent with research on mirror neurons, which indicate that people are most likely to be made uncomfortable by situations that threaten their self-identity, as well as accounts of women being driven to stop watching the show, due to the prevalence of depictions of violence against women.

Other patterns on this list also converged with previous research.  Americans, who may be less sensitive to violence due to its prevalence in American culture, were less affected by scenes such as the execution of Eddard Stark and Khaleesi eating a horse heart.  Southerners, who are more likely to be sensitive to purity concerns, were more affected by Petyr Baelish and Lord Varys’ discussion of perversity.

None of these findings are carefully controlled trials, so these patterns could have many explanations.  However, all research methods have flaws, and I would argue that it is the convergence of real world behavior with academic research that leads to true understanding.  Given Ranker’s new emphasis on Game of Thrones related content (like our Ranker of Thrones Facebook page if you’re a fan), more analyses of the repeated moral ambiguity in Game of Thrones are forthcoming and I would welcome new hypotheses to test.  What would you expect men/women to agree or disagree on?  Older vs. Younger fans?  West coasters vs. East Coasters?

– Ravi Iyer