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The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration

The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration

by Robin S. Rosenberg, Jennifer Canzoneri
The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration

The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration

by Robin S. Rosenberg, Jennifer Canzoneri

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Overview

This latest installment in the Psychology of Popular Culture series turns its focus to superheroes. Superheroes have survived and fascinated for more than 70 years in no small part due to their psychological depth.

In The Psychology of Superheroes, almost two dozen psychologists get into the heads of today's most popular and intriguing superheroes. Why do superheroes choose to be superheroes? Where does Spider-Man's altruism come from, and what does it mean? Why is there so much prejudice against the X-Men, and how could they have responded to it, other than the way they did? Why are super-villains so aggressive? The Psychology of Superheroes answers these questions, exploring the inner workings our heroes usually only share with their therapists.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935251361
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Publication date: 03/01/2008
Series: The Psychology of Popular Culture Series
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 758,129
File size: 870 KB

About the Author

Robin Rosenberg, PhDis a clinical psychologist and coauthor of Abnormal PsychologyFundamental of Psychology, and Psychology in Context. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park

THE POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUPERHEROES

Do superheroes live positive psychology's vision of a "good life"? Are superheroes happy? And if they're not happy, why should we want to be like them? In their essay, Peterson and Park examine whether superheroes have lives "well lived." Peterson and Park focus on the superhero character, on the hero in superhero, and how a superhero's morality makes him or her different from the villains. Peterson and Park also discuss the ways in which a superhero's character is not like that of us humans — through connections with other people.

IF COMIC BOOKS CAN BE EXAMINED from the vantage of literature, cultural history, and philosophy (Fingeroth, 2006; Morris & Morris, 2005; Wright, 2001), then they can also be looked at in terms of psychology. A psychological interpretation of comic books can provide the framework for understanding the characters as well as the readers.

Comic books have been extremely popular since their inception in the 1930s, and while comic book sales may have decreased in their absolute numbers, the popularity of superheroes is on the rise. Witness Hollywood films, television cartoons, lunch boxes, T-shirts, and U.S. postage stamps that feature familiar superheroes from Superman and Batman to Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. Why have superheroes appealed to so many people for so many years? Psychology may provide an answer. We propose that superheroes allow us to see ourselves in stark and entertaining ways and to dream of what we might be.

As self-identified positive psychologists, we are interested in people being well and doing well (Peterson, 2006). Part of our research program entails identifying what we call natural homes for positive psychology — settings in which excellence is recognized, celebrated, and nurtured (Park & Peterson, 2006). Studies of those who excel in these settings can teach the rest of us something about what makes life most worthwhile. Such natural homes include schools, businesses, the performing arts, sports, and the military.

Are comics an additional natural home for positive psychology? Never mind that the superheroes who live there are fictional. Our heroes and heroines have always resided in stories, from Biblical parables to the Harry Potter saga (Burrell, 1997). Those who attempt to teach about good character invariably use stories to make their points (Kilpatrick, Wolfe, & Wolfe, 1994). The stories may be real, apocryphal, or mythic. But we do not think it makes much difference if the point is to provide us with examples of a life well-lived.

Positive psychology has several topics of central concern: (a) positive subjective experiences (pleasure and happiness), (b) positive traits (values, talents, and good character), (c) rewarding social relationships (friendship and love), and (d) institutions that enable optimal functioning (the natural homes) (Peterson, 2006; Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). According to positive psychology, the good life results when these factors align themselves (Park & Peterson, 2003). In this essay, we examine comic book superheroes in terms of these concerns and assess whether superheroes are also "super" people in terms of positive psychology's vision of the good life.

THE HAPPINESS OF SUPERHEROES

Are superheroes happy? It certainly would seem fun to do what they can do. From decades ago, comic book ads hawked special devices that would allow purchasers to see through clothing or eavesdrop through walls. But Superman is not a voyeur, and one would be hard-pressed to find a superhero whose guiding orientation is hedonism. Indeed, a number of superheroes — the early and late Batman and many characters from the Marvel stable — were brooding and neurotic. Even the most affluent of superheroes were not materialistic in a Scrooge-like way, which is probably good for their own well-being (Kasser, 2002). One of the features of pleasure is that we adapt to it rather quickly, and superheroes appear no different from the rest of us except that they have figured this out. How many lumps of coal can be squeezed into diamonds before the experience becomes old hat (Csikszentmihali, 1999)?

In contrast, the villains with whom superheroes battle are always having fun. These archenemies are frequently mad scientists bent on world domination, immortality, and other goals that never seem to lose their appeal. Villains pursue their goals with obvious relish. The Joker not only looks like a clown but also enjoys killing for its own sake, playing whimsical pranks, and matching wits with Batman. According to one storyline, the Joker was a failed comedian (Moore, Bolland, & O'Neill, 1988)! Other villainous motivations include Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor's selfish desires to control the world while pretending to be a philanthropist. The enemy of Thor, his brother Loki, is the god of lies and mischief. The Black Manta (from Aquaman) seeks personal power. Captain Cold, one of the villains who battled the Flash, is motivated by money and — unusual for a comic book character — lechery. As Billy Joel sung, "the sinners are much more fun," but that does not mean we root for them. Good should triumph over evil, especially evil pleasure.

Positive psychology states that pleasure is but one ingredient of what happiness entails (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005). A second important ingredient is engaging in what one does and thereby experiencing the psychological state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Superheroes are highly involved in what they do, so much so that when they occasionally and temporarily walk away from their callings, this becomes a plot line of significance.

Yet another route to happiness entails a life of meaning, being connected to something larger than the self (Seligman, 2002). For many people, religion provides meaning to their lives (Peterson, Ruch, Beerman, Park, & Seligman, 2007), although there are secular equivalents, including deep relations with others or an abiding concern with nature or humanity writ large. Other than the handful who themselves are deities — Thor, Wonder Woman — few superheroes practice a conventional religion. Few are married, and fewer still have children. Superheroes have sidekicks and protégés, but rarely friends in the way that the term is usually used to describe a reciprocal relationship between peers. When superheroes occasionally band together, as in DC's Justice League or Marvel's Avengers, what we have is an all-star team of individuals. However, one of the defining features of a superhero is an over-riding mission to serve the larger world and to defend it. In this sense, superheroes have profoundly meaningful lives.

Our own research shows that engagement and meaning consistently trump pleasure in terms of their importance in leading a satisfied life (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005), which means that superheroes are probably happier than most everyday people. However, we have also learned that the happiest people are those who experience engagement, meaning, and pleasure — what we can call a full life. Superheroes do not have the fullest possible lives. They do not stop and smell the roses, eat a good meal, or savor a soothing shower. They do not have hobbies. They are connected to humanity but not to specific individuals.

THE CHARACTER STRENGTHS OF SUPERHEROES

Our particular research interest within positive psychology is moral character (Park 2004; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Our concern is with the "hero" component of superheroes and not with the "super" component. The extraordinary powers of superheroes are of course interesting and compelling to readers, but we believe that the real appeal of superheroes stems from their moral qualities as opposed to their talents. After all, not all superheroes have powers that transcend what is humanly possible — read: Batman — and many of the villains who figure prominently in comic books have their own super powers.

Virtually all superheroes have character strengths, usually to such a degree that we can describe them as paragons of one virtue or another. Iron Man is a fierce patriot. Wonder Woman is compassionate and empathic, as wise as Athena, and always able to discern what is true. Spider-Man has a self-deprecating sense of humor. And when Captain Marvel utters the magical acronym SHAZAM, he summons several virtues and abilities, those that are possessed by Solomon (wisdom), Hercules (physical strength), Atlas (stamina), Zeus (power), Achilles (courage), and Mercury (speed).

That superheroes have conspicuous strengths of character sets them apart from many other potential role models in today's society, even in the fictional realm where the anti-hero has ascended in recent decades (Bostic et al., 2003). Where have all the heroes and heroines gone? One explanation for their scarcity is that contemporary journalism has thoroughly undressed most potential candidates. Past sports heroes no doubt abused drugs and past government leaders no doubt cheated on their spouses, but the general public did not see their misdeeds unfold in real time on twenty-four-hour cable television like we do today. We have few heroes except in comic books because now everyone else has such well-documented feet of clay.

However, the general public, if not the media, is usually sophisticated enough to know that even very good people are not saints and no reasonable person expects them to be (cf. Wolfe, 1982). Good character is not a present-or-absent monolith that can be vetoed by a single error or fault. Rather, character is a family of positive traits, and our research consistently shows that no one consistently possesses all such traits (Park & Peterson, 2006). It is enough to possess one or two notable strengths of character — what we term signature strengths — to be morally praiseworthy (Walker & Pitts, 1998). Collectively, superheroes have all of the virtues that positive psychologists have identified and studied; although no given superhero has them all (cf. Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). Their character is most accurately described in terms of a profile of greater and lesser strengths. The same is true for the everyday people to whom we have administered our surveys (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006).

Consider the character flaws of superheroes. As we see them, Captain Marvel can be immature, and Spider-Man can be peevish. Batman, at least in his early days, was much more angry and self-righteous than we would want even our casual acquaintances to be, and of all the possible Superman spin-offs, one featuring the Man of Steel doing standup comedy is simply not going to happen. But there is a notable difference between the profiles of more versus less typical character strengths of superheroes and everyday people. With some exceptions, everyday people seem more likely than superheroes to have what we call strengths of the heart that connect them to specific other people: love, kindness, gratitude, and humor. Furthermore, everyday people seem less likely than superheroes to display strengths of temperance like self-regulation and persistence, less likely to be courageous and hopeful, and less likely to have a sense of purpose and zest for life.

So, most superheroes are not like most real people in terms of their specific character strengths. This is hardly surprising with respect to the strengths conspicuously possessed by superheroes. These strengths provide ample grounds for readers to admire superheroes. But less obvious, our positive psychology perspective additionally reveals some strengths of character to be conspicuously missing among most superheroes. The absence of these strengths may preclude envy and resentment on the part of readers.

Tradeoffs are inevitable among strengths of character (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006), and superheroes have struck a different moral bargain than real people. Superman can retreat to his Fortress of Solitude and be content, but if and when everyday people isolate themselves from others, they are simply miserable.

THE PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS OF SUPERHEROES

We have already noted the absence of personal relationships in the lives of superheroes and the scarcity of character strengths that focus on specific individuals. For real people, close relationships with friends and family are perhaps the single biggest contributor to a satisfied life (Reis & Gable, 2003). Superheroes are therefore anything but super in these terms.

The Fantastic Four are a notable exception to these generalizations. Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) is married to Susan Richards (The Invisible Woman), who is the sister of Johnny Storm (The Human Torch). Ben Grimm (The Thing) is the long-time friend and former college roommate of Reed Richards. However, these relationships were established before their acquisition of super powers, during an outer space mission, and the Fantastic Four differ in other ways from the superhero template, lacking secret identities and — at least in the beginning — special costumes.

Psychology provides two major perspectives on personal relationships. The first, equity theory, views relationships in economic terms and proposes that close relationships — friendships or romances — are established and persist to the degree that both people involved believe that what they are getting out of the relationship is proportional to what they are putting into it (Walster, Walster, & Berscheid, 1978). Given the talents and abilities of superheroes, with whom could they have an equitable relationship? Other superheroes are the obvious answer, but the field is narrow, especially for romance and marriage. Even a causal reader of comic books knows that superheroes are predominantly male and predominantly heterosexual.

The second psychological perspective in personal relationships is provided by attachment theory, which emphasizes the feelings that bind people together and traces them to the initial attachment between infant and mother (Bowlby, 1969). Securely attached infants become securely attached adults and capable of reciprocal relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987, 1994). Those without a history of secure attachment are socially challenged throughout life. In this area superheroes appear no different than real people. Consider how many superheroes were orphans — Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, Spider-Man, and Beast Boy — or victims of early neglect and abuse — Professor X, Blade, and Venom. Other superheroes did not even have human parents in the first place: Hell Boy and Wolverine.

Psychology often contrasts these two theories of relationships (Clark & Mills, 1979), but in the case of superheroes, each theory predicts what we actually find in the comics: a paucity of personal relationships. A common plot device in superhero sagas is the thwarting of romance ostensibly by the need of the superhero to keep his identity secret and protect the Lois Lanes of the world. (From what, we ask, given the powers of the superhero?) This is a noble rationale that may appeal to readers grappling with their own lack of close relationships, but the deeper psychological truth may be that superheroes (and their fans) are missing the point that real relationships are inherently imperfect yet infinitely rewarding.

SUPERHEROES AND SOCIETAL INSTITUTIONS

Unlike their cousins in fantasy and science fiction stories, superheroes live in a world that is familiar to readers. The same societal institutions — police departments, schools, and churches — are found in comic books as in real life, along with the same historical timeline and events — World War II, the Civil Rights movement, and space exploration. The chief difference between comic books and real life is of course the presence of one or more superheroes, which means that it is unsurprising that they are the focus. The larger world is simply the assumed and often unexamined backdrop. The focus on individual superheroes makes for a good comic book, which are not just stories but illustrated stories. People's attention — at least in the Western world — is immediately drawn to the people in pictures and not to the background (Chua, Boland, & Nisbett, 2005).

Nonetheless, this feature of comic books works against our goal of understanding the psychological good life. Real people — their happiness, their character, and their relationships — do not exist in a vacuum. Context is always critical, and one of the most important contexts in which people need to be placed and understood is provided by societal institutions like the family, the school, the workplace, the community, and the nation. Positive psychology holds that given institutions can make it more or less easy for someone to have the good life. The characterization of what we call enabling institutions can be difficult, in large part because institutions are complex and have all sorts of effects on what people feel and do, from very good to very bad. Consider organized religion, and the equally valid arguments for both its benefits and its costs throughout history.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Psychology of Superheroes"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Christopher Peterson and Nansook Park.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

OTHER TITLES IN THE PSYCHOLOGY OF POPULAR CULTURE SERIES,
Title Page,
Introduction,
THE POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUPERHEROES,
THE HAPPINESS OF SUPERHEROES,
THE CHARACTER STRENGTHS OF SUPERHEROES,
THE PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS OF SUPERHEROES,
SUPERHEROES AND SOCIETAL INSTITUTIONS,
CONCLUSIONS,
REFERENCES,
THE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA,
THE BENEFITS OF A GROUP,
MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES,
NOT ALL GROUPS ARE CREATED EQUAL,
CONCLUSION,
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,
REFERENCES,
SUPERMAN'S PERSONALITY: FROM KRYPTON, KANSAS, OR BOTH?,
TEMPERAMENT: BEHAVIORAL ACTIVATION AND INHIBITION SYSTEMS,
ATTACHMENT STYLE,
BIRTH ORDER,
GROWING UP INVULNERABLE,
GIFTED MORALITY,
YOU ARE WHERE YOU LIVE: CULTURE AND VALUES,
CONCLUSION,
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,
REFERENCES,
ANTI-HEROISM IN THE CONTINUUM OF GOOD AND EVIL,
THE ANTI-HERO CONCEPT,
THE ANTI-HEROES THEMSELVES,
THE ANTI-HERO SPACE,
BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL,
POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY OF PETER PARKER,
SPIDER STRENGTH AND STRENGTHS OF CHARACTER,
THE PROPORTIONAL HUMOR OF A SPIDER?,
SPIDEY'S OTHER SUPER-POWER: HOPE,
HAPPILY EVER AFTER?,
PREJUDICE LESSONS FROM THE XAVIER INSTITUTE,
PREJUDICE IN THE X-UNIVERSE,
AUTHORITARIAN PERSONALITY THEORY,
REALISTIC GROUP CONFLICT THEORY,
SOCIAL IDENTITY THEORY,
PARALLELS TO OTHER FORMS OF OPPRESSION,
CONCLUSION,
REFERENCES,
WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A SUPERHERO,
ALL ABOUT FIT: CAREER CHOICE,
ADAPTING TO CHANGE: CAREER DEVELOPMENT FOR THE LONG HAUL,
A SUPERHERO'S CALLING,
CONCLUSION,
REFERENCES,
IS THERE A SUPERHERO IN ALL OF US?,
IN THE BEGINNING,
UNDERSTANDING SUPER-PERCEPTION AND SUPER-ACTION,
SUFFICIENTLY ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY CONFERS SUPERPOWERS,
MORE OR LESS HUMAN,
SUPER RESPONSIBILITY,
THE SUPER HERO IN ALL OF US,
REFERENCES,
MIND-READING SUPERHEROES: FICTION AND FACT,
IS IT POSSIBLE TO MEASURE PEOPLE'S EVERYDAY MIND-READINGABILITY?,
DOES TELEPATHY PLAY A ROLE IN EVERYDAY MIND READING?,
IF TELEPATHY DOESN'T PLAY A ROLE IN OUR EVERYDAY MIND READING, WHAT DOES?,
WHAT IS THE UPPER LIMIT OF OUR EVERYDAY MIND-READING ABILITY? ARE THERE ANY ...,
ON AVERAGE, ARE WOMEN BETTER MIND READERS THAN MEN?,
CAN WE IMPROVE PEOPLE'S ABILITY TO "READ" OTHER PEOPLE'S MINDS?,
REFERENCES,
AN APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION: AGGRESSION AND THE BATMAN,
OUR CASE STUDY: THE BATMAN,
"HURTING CRIMINALS INCIDENTALLY HELPS THEIR VICTIMS": THE REAL MOTIVATION OF ...,
REFERENCES,
THE STEREOTYPICAL (WONDER) WOMAN,
WONDER WOMAN'S PSYCHE FROM A SOCIAL STRUCTURE ANALYSIS,
GENDER STEREOTYPES,
USE OF GENDER STEREOTYPES IN THE WONDER WOMAN SERIES (1941-1998),
DISCUSSION OF THE SERIES,
REFERENCES,
WHAT WOULD FREUD SAY? PSYCHOPATHOLOGY AND THE PUNISHER,
THE PUNISHER: A CASE OF ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY DISORDER, OR SOMETHING ELSE?,
DEFINING ABNORMAL BEHAVIOR,
DIAGNOSING FRANK CASTLE,
TREATING FRANK CASTLE,
REFERENCES,
COMING TO TERMS WITH BIZARRO,
CAPED CRUSADERS AND COSTUMED PERVERTS,
(BIZARRO) CULTURE AND (BIZARRO) IDENTITY,
ME AM BIZARRO,
REFERENCES,
COPING WITH STRESS ... THE SUPERHERO WAY,
STRESS,
COPING WITH STRESS,
1. PROBLEM-FOCUSED COPIN— SILVER BULLETS,
2. EMOTION-FOCUSED COPING— INVISIBLE SHIELDS,
3. PROACTIVE COPING— SPIDEY-SENSE, STOCKPILES, AND A SUPPORTING CAST,
YOU ARE HEROIC,
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,
ARKHAM ASYLUM: FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY AND GOTHAM'S (NOT SO) "SERIOUS HOUSE",
ARKHAM: A HISTORY,
ARKHAM ASYLUM VS. BLACKGATE PENITENTIARY,
MALINGERING AND FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY,
ARKHAM IN THE REAL WORLD,
INCOMPETENCY VS. INSANITY,
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,
REFERENCES,
THE INCREDIBLE HULK: ORIGINS OF RAGE,
BRUCE BANNER A.K.A. THE HULK: KEY STORY ELEMENTS,
ANGER AND AGGRESSION: BASIC UNDERLYING MECHANISMS,
INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN ANGER AND AGGRESSION,
ENVIRONMENTAL AND GENETIC CONTRIBUTIONS TO ANGRY/AGGRESSIVE TENDENCIES,
ROOTS OF RAGE: CONCLUDING THOUGHTS,
REFERENCES,
GENDER TYPICALITY AND EXTREMITY IN POPULAR CULTURE,
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SEX AND GENDER,
OUR STUDY,
BOB PARR ? MR. INCREDIBLE,
HELEN PARR ? ELASTIGIRL,
SUPER BEHAVIORS,
SUPER SUMMATION,
REFERENCES,
CRACKING THE SUPERHERO'S MORAL CODE,
SUPERMAN'S DILEMMA,
DO PEOPLE THINK LIKE SUPERMAN?,
WITHIN- VS. BETWEEN-GROUP CONFLICT,
RISE OF THE CRIME FIGHTER,
THIRD-PARTY MORAL JUDGMENT,
MORALISTIC PUNISHMENT,
MORAL IMPARTIALITY,
PULSE OF THE SUPERHERO,
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS,
REFERENCES,
Copyright Page,

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