Why People Hate Zachary Smith: A Study in the Psychology of Villains and American Morality

By Megaera Lorenz

Dr. Zachary Smith

(Picture from The Promised Planet)

    The guy in the above picture pisses people off. Of course, he's supposed to. He is the villain of the 1960s TV show, Lost in Space. When the show first started, he was a "classic" bad guy -- completely dark and evil, with no redeeming qualities. The actor portraying him, Jonathan Harris, was dissatisfied with this version of the character, because he feared that such a character was doomed to death within the first few episodes of the show. And so he set about changing Dr. Smith into a comic villain -- a tragic, bumbling, cowardly, lazy character with just enough good in him so that the producers of the show would not be justified in bumping him off. The resulting character was one of the most intriguing and unusual villains in the history of modern American entertainment.
    But there is something about Zachary Smith that rubs people the wrong way even more than your typical TV show bad guy does. What is it about this character that people find so irritating? After all, he's not all bad. He is lazy, cowardly, dishonest and nefarious, but he also shows a good deal of compassion at times. Perhaps it is because he is somewhere between good and bad that he makes the average TV viewer so uncomfortable.
    There are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. First, it seems that it is human nature to dislike ambiguity. People like to be able to classify things into distinct categories -- good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, black vs. white. This very aspect of human nature has led to countless problems throughout history. Because of this mentality, people want their bad guys to be bad and their good guys to be good, not to be left with the uneasy feeling of not knowing whether to like or dislike a given character. After all, if the bad guy is anything less than pure evil, how can we be justified in hating him? One of the most common tactics in wartime propaganda is to dehumanize the enemy. It makes it easier to kill them.
    Perhaps even more telling are the results of a poll recently conducted on The Promised Planet. The poll asked visitors to think about their own character traits and decide which Lost In Space character they most resemble. Of the 82 people who responded, 20.7% said that they were most similar to Dr. Smith, making him the 2nd most common choice after Will Robinson. Does this mean that Dr. Smith makes people uncomfortable because he hits a little too close to home?
    You might not like the idea that most people are more like Dr. Smith than they are like the saintly Robinsons. After all, Dr. Smith represents a collection of qualities that are most frowned upon by the traditional standards of our culture. But studies done by psychologists on the true face of American morality have revealed some frightening results. Apparently, the average American bases his/her moral standard on what he/she thinks he/she can get away with, both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our society and culture. (Psychologists call this the "conventional morality" stage in ethical development (Weiten, 1995; Kohlberg, 1969).) You might be shaking your head in outrage at this statement, but before you dismiss the idea, try the simple experiment that my introductory psychology professor likes to demonstrate to his classes. Take a large group of people and ask them what they would do if all legal and social inhibitions were removed. About 90% of my classmates responded (anonymously) that they would commit some sort of crime. While most of them only wanted to commit such relatively "innocuous" crimes as bank robbery, a large number reported that they would like to commit rape or murder.
    My American history professor performed a similar experiment, which revealed similarly frightening results. All but two students out of the class of approximately twenty said that, if a grocery store clerk were to accidentally give them too much change, they would take it and not give back the extra. The same number said that they would not report it if they moved into a new apartment and found that the cable was still connected and it was not supposed to be, etc. Their excuse? "It wasn't my mistake!"
    And yet, although most of us admit to frequent dishonesty, and the desire to commit various crimes, we also demand extremely high ethical standards from our cultural and political role models. The same people who admitted that they would happily carry out a bank robbery, provided they wouldn't get caught, were outraged and infuriated by President Clinton's philandering. We would all rather root for the Robinsons, who are so perfect that even their mistakes are all due to well-meaning misguidedness, than Dr. Smith, who is so uncomfortably close to the average American's lopsided ethical standard.

Dr. Smith with platinumized Penny from "All that Glitters."  Dr. Smith with Don in the pilot episode, "The Reluctant Stowaway."

The good side of Dr. Smith vs. the bad side: Right: The trapped Dr. Smith holds pilot Don West at gunpoint and orders him to return the ship to Earth (from the pilot episode, "The Reluctant Stowaway"). A frighteningly large number of people would probably resort to tactics like Dr. Smith's gunpoint threatening if they were in a position similar to his. Left: A weepy Dr. Smith kisses Penny, whom he has accidentally turned into platinum ("All that Glitters"). How many people would give up an opportunity like the one he had in "All that Glitters" to turn that danmed Major West into a hunk of metal?


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