A happy ending for ‘Game of Thrones’? No thanks

With the final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” commencing, I imagine most fans are harboring hopes that things will turn out well for the remaining heroes in Westeros.

A large part of me hopes for the same. But a different part of me – the part that researches the political effects of entertainment – is pulling for a final season that is as brutally unjust as the first five seasons of the series. It wants the White Walkers to overrun the North and kill Jon Snow and Daenerys, or Cersei to betray the heroes after they battle the army of the dead, leaving no opposition to her claim to the Iron Throne.

A study I recently conducted with some students on “Game of Thrones” colored my views on unhappy endings, revealing that perhaps television series and movies need more of them.

Do good things happen to good people?

People prefer stories with happy endings. For this reason, most stories developed for mass audiences – whether they’re books, films or TV shows – will conclude with the protagonist rewarded for doing the right thing.

All those happy endings, however, have political consequences – at least according to one researcher.

In a 2007 study, communication psychologist Markus Appel showed that the more fictional narratives people see, the more likely they are to believe in a just world.

What does this belief have to do with politics? Well, when you believe in a just world, you tend to think that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.

This worldview then influences support for certain policies. For example, if you believe in a just world, you would probably believe that poor people deserve to be poor. Not surprisingly, the worldview has been associated with lower support for antipoverty programs and affirmative action. It’s also been associated with negative feelings about the poor and authoritarianism.

The belief in a just world seems to be activated as a psychological response to experiencing the discomfort of witnessing victims of abuse, crime, economic catastrophe and war. Rather than force someone to grapple with the complex emotions evoked by these victims, this worldview operates like a shield – why devote emotional energy and resources to these people if they deserve what they got?

Can ‘Game of Thrones’ color your worldview?

When it debuted in 2011, “Game of Thrones” wasn’t like most other shows.