Sunday, December 26, 2010

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark--A Review

Last night, I saw the preview of the musical Spider-Man: Turn Out the Dark. It's not really a musical; it's a spectacle. It succeeds as a spectacle, fails as a musical, and hangs itself as a Spider-Man origin story. It's easier to find good things to say about the spectacle aspect, so I'll start by reviewing that aspect of the play.

Spider-Man: The Spectacle

Director/writer Julie Taymor and co-writer Glen Berger wanted to create a spectacle-something that was more than a musical. They succeeded. The sets were a wonder to behold (especially in the first half of the show). Aerialists, dressed as Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and Arachne, flew about the stage and balcony, allowing viewers to feel a part of the production. In fact, because of the numerous injuries suffered by actors during rehearsals and previews, when the aerialists flew overhead it made me wonder-what if their cables broke and they fell on the audience? (And wouldn't that be analogous to what New York's pedestrians would wonder if an actual Spidey and actual Green Goblin were duking it out in the skies above Manhattan, without the cables?)

Even as a spectacle, though, the pacing of it didn't work for me. Most of the spectacular elements were in the first half of the show, so when the effects and wow elements were fewer (and repeating) in the second half, it was a let down. During the last hour of the play, I kept looking at my watch. If you see the play and leave at intermission, you'll see the best parts. Grade for spectacle (especially the first half): A.

Spider-Man: The Musical

In a good musical, the songs move the story forward. Unfortunately, the music in this play didn't do this very effectively. The actors often spoke a "recap" of the gist of the song in order to transition to the next scene or to move the story along. (If you see this play, bring along some tissues or napkins to stuff into your ears for some numbers: some songs were so loud that I had to cover my ears with my hands; I didn't enjoy those.)

As you may know, the songs were written by Bono and the Edge, and it showed. The songs didn't have the structure or feel of a "Broadway musical," which is okay in theory, but not in this execution. Sad so say, none of the songs were memorable-they didn't have a great "hook" as do many Broadway songs or even U2 songs. Plus the "feel" of the music didn't match up with Spider-Man's character or story. Grade for music: B- (I'm being generous here, taking effort into consideration in my grade)

Spider-Man: The Origin Story

I've read (or seen) most every Spider-Man origin story there is because I'm writing a book on origin stories that includes a chapter on Spider-Man's origins. I was looking forward to this musical to see how it compared with previous origin stories of the Webbed Wonder. I was disappointed. There isn't a whole lot of "character development" in this story, and there isn't much more of a plot; what plot there is focuses too much on Mary Jane in the beginning and not enough about Peter. Even though Peter/Spider-Man is a comic book character, his story is rich in the human drama of shouldering the burden of being talented and figuring what to do with those talents--how to put them to good use.

In Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, he's not even a two-dimensional character-he's one-dimensional. He's less real and nuanced than ever. 
I've read that that director Taymor et al. wanted to convey Peter's burden and sense of responsibility--which makes a great story and what makes Spider-Man an everyman hero--but their efforts fell short of the mark. Peter comes across as a whiney guy, overwhelmed with his newfound abilities and gifts and he never gets the hang of how to be a hero. Yes, he saves people; yes, he defeats the bad guys and offers to sacrifice himself, but he never slings to the heights of becoming a hero.

In fact, in this musical, Peter Parker does not actually appear to be a nice guy; we see him being thoughtless and selfish with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who are portrayed as nags rather than caring people clearly trying to do their best. Moreover, he's whiney and preoccupied when he's with Mary Jane; why she's attracted to this version of Peter Parker is a mystery.

Let me also say a word about why audiences might be leaving the theatre confused by the ending (at least as reported in the press). I can see why. At the start of the play, Taymor and Berger create a narrative structure of a play within a play: a group of high school comic book geeks discuss different Spider-Man storylines and characters-they argue what would happen if... These kids, in essence, frame the action of the story during the play. But Taymor and Berger break that frame by having these same teenagers in scenes with Peter Parker (which is confusing enough), and to top it off, the teens don't appear at the end of the play to close the story. As framing narrators, they should come back to "complete" their story. In the second half of the play, the lines of the character Arachne make that frame even more confusing. Grade for story: C-/D+.

Based on the version that I saw, if you've got money to burn and want to see a cool spectacle, then by all means, see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. If you want to see a good musical, see something else. If you're a Spider-Man fan, buy some Spidey comic books or graphic novels.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What Is a Superhero? Survey.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Megamind: On Being Blue

MegamindI got around to seeing Megamind this past weekend; I enjoyed the film and some of the implicit psychological "lessons" it conveyed, but was also uncomfortable with one of the take home messages.

Here's an overview (with no more spoilers than what's included in the film's trailers) to better understand the psychological points I'll make. Basic plot: Two different alien babies (from two different planets) land in the U.S. One baby is superpowered, is adopted by a wealthy family, and goes on to be a Superman-like character named Metro Man; the other baby (who happens to be bald, has a large cranium and blue skin), is supersmart, lands in a penitentiary and is raised by the inmates, and grows up to be a villain named Megamind.

Both children go to the same school for gifted youngsters; the child who will become Metro Man is the teacher's pet and is a popular kid, whereas the child who will become Megamind is ostracized by his peers. Megamind is physically different and intellectually different; he is clearly more intellectually gifted than his peers, which we can tell because we see him inventing various technologically-advanced devices while in elementary school. He is essentially shunned by his peers for being different, and because of the particular ways in which he is different his classmates expect him to be "bad." Their beliefs about him, in concert with his social isolation, led him to develop an "evil" self-image and to behave accordingly.

To me, the take home message from this early part of the film boils down to: how other people treat you affects your self-concept and behavior--in essence, who you become. If you're repeatedly treated as if you've done something wrong, pretty soon you might well start acting the part that people have cast you in, and come to believe it to boot.

This premise is not far-fetched. Megamind's experience was based in part, on evocative interaction, a type of interaction between genes and environment in which an individual's genetically influenced characteristics (in this case, his blue skin and baldness from birth, which were also characteristics of his parents) evoke responses from others. (Click here for an article describes evocative interaction in the first few pages.) In Megamind's case, such responses are mistrust, social distancing, and a predisposition to view Megamind's behavior in a negative light. People had stereotype of Megamind as "other" (in a not good way, in contrast to Metro Man's being a different "other") and treated him accordingly. Megamind was also subject to his microenvironment--the environment created by his very presence; people's characteristics create their own microenvironments (discussed in Kosslyn & Rosenberg, 2001 and in Adam & Marshall, 1996).

The child who becomes Metro Man, by virtue of his alien/genetic athletic superabilities and good looks, creates a microenvironment in which he is looked up to, is popular, and people's behavior toward him elicit his heroic actions. In contrast, the microenvironment of the child who becomes Megamind, by virtue of his own alien/genetic differentness, leads people to behave in ways that create a sense of alienation in him.

Over the course of the film, when Megamind is disguised as a normal looking human, he is treated differently: he's assumed to be a decent person and treated as such, and he is liked by a beautiful woman. Lo and behold, he starts to feel and act like a decent person, and his self-concept and identity transition from villain to hero. To me, the message is clear: if you treat people as villains without cause (as happened to the Megamind child), they'll come to act that way. Treat them with respect and dignity, and there's a better chance that they'll act that way than if you treat them as villains.

Which leads me to the (implicit) message of the film that I wasn't so enthusiastic about: nerds who are marginalized, ignored, or treated poorly may become villains because of such treatment. Implicit in this movie is that villains only = nerds gone bad. In this film, the two villains were nerds (and marginalized) before becoming villains, and they found their solace by becoming evil. Is the moral that people should treat nerds nicely, or to beware of nerds for what they might become (and so marginalize them even more?)

On a lighter note, the film pokes fun of various superhero tropes: the predictability of superhero stories, "destiny," the burden of being a superhero and the "fun" of being the villain. It even parodies the Austin Powers films--with the heroine subjected to the threat of alligator infested waters--and the Godfather!


Adams, G.R. & Marshall, S. (1996). A developmental social psychology of identity: Understanding the person in context. Journal of Adolescence, 19, 1-14.

Edwards, C. P., Tretasco de Guzman, M. R., Brown, J., & Kumru, A. (2006). In X. Chen, D. French, and B. Schneider (Eds.) PEER RELATIONSHIPS IN CULTURAL CONTEXT (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 23-51.

Kosslyn, S. M., & Rosenberg, R. S. (2011). Exploring Psychology (Fourth edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What Is a Superhero? Survey.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sports Heroes/World Series

Click here to link to an opinion piece I've written for AOL News on sports heroes, the World Series, and mental toughness.

Friday, October 1, 2010

New York Comic Convention

New York Comic Con

If you're going to be at New York Comic Convention next week, stop by at two events both on Friday, Oct 8:

2:00 pm - 3:00 pm
Join psychologist Robin Rosenberg (Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Want to Know) as she analyzes Tony Stark's transformation to Iron Man and why he continues to put himself on the line.

Note to Spider-Man IV Movie People: Be True to Your Parker!

5:30 pm - 6:30 pm
Past Spider-Man writers and editors Danny Fingeroth (Superman on the Couch), Tom DeFalco (POW! Entertainment), and Fred Van Lente (Marvel, Evil Twin Comics), and psychologist Robin Rosenberg (Psychology of Superheroes) discuss their wish lists of aspects of Peter Parker's character and origin story that they'd like to keep the same and things they'd change for the upcoming film reboot of Spider-Man.

I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Mental Toughness

Superheroes, or most any kind of persistent heroes, have to be tough in order to keep doing what they do, day after day. Lately, I've been reading about mental toughness, a term psychologists use to characterize a quality studied in athletes (particularly elite athletes of various types; Crust, 2008; Nicholls et al., 2009). Mental toughness has four components:

  1. Control: a sense of control of yourself and what happens to you; that is, a sense of being able to shape your destiny rather than passively accepting events as fated.
  2. Commitment: a strong sense of being committed to yourself and your work. That is, being fully involved in something, giving it your best shot.
  3. Challenge: a tendency to see life's downs and obstacles and challenges to be met rather than as threats.
  4. Confidence: A belief in yourself and your ability to meet your goals.

According to Peter Clough, a leading researcher on mental toughness,

Mentally tough individuals tend to be sociable and outgoing; as they are able to remain calm and relaxed, they are competitive in many situations and have lower anxiety levels than others. With a high sense of self-belief and an unshakeable faith that they control their own destiny, these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition or adversity (Clough et al., 2001, p. 38).

When I read this quote, I thought of superheroes (or action heroes like James Bond).

Although certain situations may elicit mental toughness more than other situations, research indicates that some people are generally more mentally tough than others (that's why it's considered a personality trait) and it arises from both genes and environment (particularly adversity). For athletes, such adversity includes an exposure to a tough sport environment (challenging competition) and early setbacks through which the person can learn from failure (Bull et al., 2005).

Reading about mental toughness led me to reflect (again) on the perceptiveness of superhero comic book writers--who probably derived the idea of mental toughness from observing the real world. The writers provided many superheroes with both the components related to mental toughness, and the environmental adversity to toughen up the heroes. For instance, pre-spider bite high school student Peter Parker (who becomes Spider-Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider) is characterized as someone who has the elements of mental toughness:

  1. Control: Peter certainly tries appears to have a sense of control; he tries to make things happens socially, and he exerts effort and his school, undoubtedly because he believes that the effort will make a difference.
  2. Commitment: He marches to his own drummer, partaking activities that he enjoys rather than simply going along with the group if he doesn't like the activity.
  3. Challenge: He enjoys challenging himself: He created the web fluid and web shooters (the fluid dispenser) just for fun, to challenge himself.
  4. Confidence: He has confidence in his intellectual abilities and, on some level, has social confidence because he asks his classmate Sally and invites his classmates to the Science Hall exhibit (in the very first Spider-Man story, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; see Amazing Fantasy #15). Moreover, once he has his powers, he decides to join the Fantastic Four-and he assumes that they'd want him.

And like many people with mental toughness, Peter has experienced adversity (Dienstbeirm 1989): (1) his parents died when he was young, (2) his aunt and uncle-his guardians--have limited financial means, and (3) Peter is socially marginalized, despite his best efforts. And of course Peter's guilt about his unintentional role in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben toughen Peter up.

Spider-Man is only one example, but mental toughness runs rampant in the superhero world: I'm thinking of Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The list goes on.

Since most of the research on mental toughness, though, I got to thinking. Is this personality trait (and it's similarity to qualities possessed by superheroes/heroes) the reason that great sports figures are considered heroes? Perhaps the term hero has become almost synonymous with the qualities of mental toughness.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What is a Superhero? Survey.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Comic-Con: Nerd and Geek Community

Imagine that you are a basketball fan in a community that wasn't generally into basketball (or, more realistically, imagine having been a soccer fan 20 years ago). You watched the game on TV last night and want to talk about it with someone who "gets" it. People at work don't understand your passion and you've learned to be quiet about it with them. The only people you can share with are online, but it's not quite the same. Now imagine yourself going to a basketball game: everyone is there because they enjoy basketball. Although the fans may be divided by their team loyalties (so there are two groups of fans), it's the one place where you can enjoy the physical company of others who enjoy the sport as much as you do.

That's what it was like for people at the San Diego Comic Convention a couple of weeks ago. There were at least 150,000 people there, and the convention center was swarming with attendees, a good number of whom were in costume. I interviewed some attendees, asking them why the came to the convention. Most folks I talked to cited the sense of community as a reason they came to the convention; that is, they wanted to be with other like-minded folks.

I was struck by the power of community--a power that brought attendees from far and wide. An ethnically diverse community (and almost equal numbers of men and women) composed of families, couples, singles, and groups of friends. The folks at the convention may use the Internet to create their own virtual communities of like-minded "friends" (I use the term friends loosely, in much the same way as Facebook does). But there is something about stepping into a convention center, an exhibit hall, and a hotel, knowing that you share an interest with almost everyone there. It's similar to feeling that some people get when they attend a sports event-except in that case there are two communities in the same location, one for each team. At the convention, though, there were no "teams" in competition with each other. Sure, there were different groups: the artists; the comic fans, eager to meet the writers and artists of their favorite strips; the gamers; the popular culture crowd-relative newcomers, there for the previews and panels about upcoming films and TV shows. The different factions accepted each other as part of a big, generally happy, family.

Research tells us that social connections are important: they buffer us from stress, boost our immune system, give us a sense of belonging, motivate us, bring us joy, and make us feel liked and loved. (Of course some social connections can have the opposite effect-they can cause us stress, lead us to be immune compromised, and leave us feeling dejected; but I'm not talking about that now.)

A large portion of the attendees at the convention--or any comic convention--are likely to be some form of nerds or geeks. (What's the difference between a nerd and geek? That depends on where you live and when you were born, but you can click here for an overview on the distinction.) Depending on where they grew up and went to school, people who are nerds or geeks may socially have had a hard time--they may have been victims of bullying or social ostracism--or had a perfectly fine time with a group a like-minded friends.

The stereotype of nerds and geeks are that they are socially obtuse folks with Asperger's; that is, they aren't socially aware and don't know how to be socially appropriate. Not so fast. It isn't necessarily that nerds or geeks don't get how to be "cool." Rather, at least some of them reject the trappings of cool. They intentionally eschew the noticeable markers of cool (certain styles of clothes, topics of conversation, ways of speaking) (click here for The Whiteness of Nerds by Mary Bucholtz, 2000.) They cultivate an identity and appearance of being different. As psychologist Mel Levine notes

"There are a lot of depressed cool kids, and it's better to be a happy nerd than a popular anorexic...Nerdiness isn't a pathology."

When lucky, there are enough nerds in school or neighborhood to form a community of like-minded folks.

It's that community aspect that's so visible at Comic-con and similar conventions. There is the sense of being among one's people. It isn't necessarily that nerds and geeks can't be social; instead, their social interactions don't conform to the traditional ones.

"Nerd subcultures like the ones surrounding comic books and science fiction can be safe places for nerds to learn to make friends outside the brutal social hierarchies of school and the office. (Comic-Con, the largest annual nerd gathering, draws 175,000 fans of Gandalf and Wonder Woman to San Diego every summer)." (Nugent, 2007; click here for the post the quote is taken from.)

Before the Internet, only the lucky few nerds and geeks had a critical mass similar people to develop a sense of community. With the rise of the Internet, geeks were among the first to create a vibrant virtual community-they led the way. Consider these quotes from an article by ANthony Faiola in the Washington Post:

"The Internet has taken its power one step further. It is transforming them from an alienated and virtual community into a thriving, real-world fraternity -- and, to a lesser extent, a sorority -- whose members are physically interacting as never before at concerts, comedy clubs, even ‘nerd expos'."

"A lot of people are coming out of their geek closet and proclaiming themselves a nerd, and they are joining together in doing it," said David Glanzer, Comic-Con marketing director.

It is at conventions such as this one that nerds and geeks can have the experience that sports fans routinely have when, the morning after a game, they chat about the game with fellow commuters or people at work and expect that other people will know about the game and feel similarly. To community!

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What is a Superhero? Survey.

Monday, July 12, 2010

San Diego Comic Convention 2010

If you're going to be at the San Diego Comic Convention on Saturday, July 24, stop by for this panel:

10:30-11:30 am Comics Arts Conference Session #9: Batman and the Empty Nest Syndrome — Does Batman become a different type of person when he has a sidekick? Join panelists Denny O’Neil (Batman writer and editor), Michael Uslan (Executive Producer, Batman Films), psychologists Travis Langley (Henderson State University) and Robin Rosenberg (The Psychology of Superheroes), Tommy Cash (The Workday Comic), and neuroscientist E. Paul Zehr (Becoming Batman) as they discuss who Batman is when he works alone versus who he becomes when he works with Bat-family members. Room 26AB

I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wonder Woman as Émigré

I read last week that DC Comics will be reimagining (sort of) Wonder Woman's origin story (and costume). For those of you unfamiliar with Wonder Woman's (Diana's) origin--the origin before this new one--here are the aspects of her story that germane to the rest of this blog post:

  • Wonder Woman is an Amazon--a nation of strong women (and only women)--who live sequestered on Paradise Island; on this island there is food aplenty, no war, and the women living there are immortal while on the island. Although Diana knew that men exist, she had never met one.
  • Diana wanted to leave Paradise Island in order to accompany to the United States a wounded solder whose plane crashed off Paradise Island (he couldn't stay on the island because it is for women only, and he wasn't able to return on his own. He was the first man Diana had ever seen.) Diana's mother, the Amazon's Queen, forbade Diana to leave Paradise Island.
  • The Queen decides to hold a tournament to determine who is the strongest, most able Amazon; the winner will take the soldier to the United States.
  • Diana disobeys her mother and enters the tournament, wearing a mask to disguise her identity; she wins the tournament, knowing that as the winner she must be prepared to leave Paradise Island forever.

My point here is that Diana is very motivated to leave, despite her apparently idyllic existence on Paradise Island. (For those interested in finding out more about Wonder Woman's history, I recommend that you click here and here.)

The new reimaging will change all that, which could be interesting because part of Wonder Woman's personality is reflected in her desire to emigrate. The classic origin story of Wonder Woman is the tale of a young woman desperate to emigrate to a new land--filled with men and different ways and customs. In fact, she so much wants to emigrate that she's prepared both to leave behind forever everyone she's love as well as to lose the Amazonian advantages of perfect health and immortality. Why might someone risk so much to emigrate?

Some people emigrate because their life in their native land is harsh: war, famine, oppression, poverty, or discrimination-with little possibility of significant improvement if they remain. In such cases, the specifics of the situation motivate people to leave who might otherwise remain in their native country in better circumstances. That's certainly not the case with the Princess.

The Princess's desire to move to America reflects constellations of personality traits--personality dimensions--that are typical of many people in our world who emigrate (Olson, 2007):

  • Extraversion: composed of enthusiasm, adventurousness, optimism, and a tendency to seek our excitement, thrills, and risk;
  • Openness to experience: composed of curiosity and a preference for variety and novelty.

People high in these personality dimensions are more likely to get bored in a culture that is closed and monotonous--like that of an island culture, particularly one in which there is not a lot of back and forth with other villages and other people (like Paradise Island). People who score high in extraversion are more likely to emigrate than people who score low on these dimensions (Chen et al., 1999). In contrast, people low on both of these dimensions will be more content--or at least more willing--to stay home, both literally in their home as well as culturally at home, not venturing into cultures too different than their own.

It's easy to imagine someone like Diana, someone who's bored with the monotony of village life--especially life in a village life in which food is plenty, health is guaranteed, and most tasks are easy for her. She must have been itching to leave. (And it's likely that Amazons who were similarly high in extraversion and openness to experience left Paradise Island long ago; the women left on the island are those who aren't likely to have much wanderlust (Olson, 2007).

In fact, research bears out this speculation about Diana's wanderlust and that of past Amazons. Italian psychologists Camperio Ciani and colleagues (2007) compared the personality traits among residents of three small island Italian villages with villagers from three mainland areas facing the islands. Each of the small islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea has a history of isolation; people do not frequently move between islands, or from the mainland to an island. (Researchers estimated that in every generation, around 30% islanders would have to leave because given the space limitations of each island, only a fixed number of residents could be sustained.) In fact, until recently, the islands were relatively isolated from the mainland.

As part of the study, the villagers completed questionnaires and also were interviewed. Consistent with the personality traits of people who emigrate, all three sets of islanders (each of whose grandparents were also islanders) were less extraverted and less open to new experiences than were the mainlanders. That is, people who were temperamentally suited to island life left so that those who remained did not have the personality traits characteristic of wanderlust. Those who were most willing to emigrate to other parts of Italy did so. And people born on the islands but then emigrated to the mainland had higher levels of extraversion and openness to experience than did people born on the islands but who remained. These personality dimensions have a genetic component (Angleitner & Ostendorf, 2000), and so the children of those who remain on the island are in turn more likely to feel comfortable with life on an isolated island. As the researchers note:

"In effect, extraverted individuals like novelty-seekers (Benjamin et al., 1996) are expected to be more emigration-prone, since they have a more outgoing attitude and are more curious about new environments; thus, their alleles fade away, since they leave no descendants on the island. Islanders also become less open to experience, due to the fact that life on small islands is more repetitive than on the mainland, and individuals with high levels of openness find less cultural, social or intellectual stimulation in such confined spaces. All these factors may induce extraverted and open individuals to leave the island." (p. 14).

Other studies found similar results. One study found that Finnish people high in extraversion were more likely to move from their native rural area to a more urban area--and were more likely to move longer distances--than their low extraversion counterparts. And in the United States, people high in extraversion and openness were more likely to move within a given period of time than were people lower in these personality dimensions (Jokela, 2008; Jokela et al., 2009).

Changing the emigration aspect of Wonder Women's origin changes who she is; I guess that's part of the plan.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What is a Superhero? Survey.


Angleitner, A., & Ostendorf, F. (2000, July). The FFM: A comparison of German speaking countries (Austria, former East and West Germany, and Switzerland). In J. Allik (Chair), Personality and culture: The five-factor theory perspective. Symposium conducted at the 27th International Congress of Psychology, Stockholm, Sweden.

Chen, C., Burton, M., Greenberger, E., & Dmitrieva, J. (1999). Population migration and the variation of dopamine D4 receptor (D4DR) allele frequencies around the globe. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 20, 309-324.

Ciani, A. S. C., Capiluppi, C., Veronese, A., & Sartori, G. (2007). The adaptive value of personality differences revealed by small island population dynamics. European Journal of Personality, 21(1), 3-22.

Olson, K. R. (2007). Why do geographic differences exist in the worldwide distribution of extraversion and openness to experience? The history of human emigration as an explanation. Individual Differences Research, 5(4), 275-288.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Helping Others, Helping Ourselves

Here's a true story: Star Wars fan Josh Weisleberg had polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary condition; his kidneys were failing, he was on dialysis, and the waiting list for a new kidney was-and is-long. Josh had exchanged emails with other Star Wars fan on an online forum for collectors; at one point he mentioned his condition. Subsequently, Barry Benecke II--another collector on the online forum, who knew Josh only by his screen name--offered to donate his own kidney to Josh. Barry was a match, and the operation was successful.

Why did Barry want to give one of his kidneys to a man he'd never met? Barry explains that he'd recently loss a number of people close to him, all from different types of cancer: his mother, the daughter of a friend, a good friend, his wife's uncle. "It was because of losing those folks that I was compelled to try to help someone else. The first person who I found that I might be able to help was Josh." Josh notes "Everybody likes the heroics and people trying to do good and make the galaxy safe. When you translate that to everyday life, you have folks trying to live that...Barry is a hero for sure...He's Luke Skywalker." (Click here for more information about their story. Selfless behavior wasn't new to either of these men; they both belong to the 501st Legion, an international organization of Star Wars fans who enjoy putting on Star Wars costumes and doing good works such as running in marathons for charities, and wearing their costumes to entertain children in hospitals.)

The same selflessness motivated another 501st Legion member, Eric Seeman, to donate one of his kidney's to fellow Legion member, Jeff Romanoff, who had kidney cancer (click here and here to find out more about that story). Romanoff wrote, "Eric is a true hero and emulates everything Star Wars is about. A wonderful, selfless friend, putting his life on the line, so I may see my son grow up."

Barry's and Eric's selfless behavior falls under the category of what psychologists call prosocial behavior, actions that are directed to help others. Common examples include sharing, cooperating, comforting, and giving assistance. Why do people behave in these ways? What light can psychological theories and research shed in helping us understand why Barry and Eric gave of themselves-literally?

Psychologists divide possible motives for helping others into two groups (click here for an article by Daniel Batson on the subject) :

  1. People help others because doing so allows them to attain some goal for themselves, referred to as egoism;
  2. People help others because they want to improve the welfare of others, referred to as altruism.

The first type of motive covers a wide ranges of situations and experiences. In addition to the more obvious ones (e.g., that the helper collects a "chit" so that the person helped may feel the need to "pay back" the helper at some later point, or that the helper's status increases in other people's eyes), people may also help to relieve their own negative emotions in a situation--such as distress, guilt, or sadness; helping relieves those feelings. Solicitations for donations to help children with cleft palates may motivate people to donate because seeing photographs of children with this problem leads the viewer to feel sad or distressed for the children; donating money lessens these uncomfortable feelings.

Among superheroes, Peter Parker's decision to help others as Spider-Man seems to stem from egoism; he became a superhero, at least in part, to relieve the terrible burden of guilt he felt about being (indirectly) responsible for his Uncle Ben's death. Although this type of motive may seem less "noble" than the second type, the helping behaviors that result from this motive are still helpful to others and shouldn't be thought of negatively simply because the helper had less altruistic reasons for helping.

The second type of motive can arise when we feel sympathy or compassion for others. For instance, some of us may respond to the photo of the child with a cleft palate with a deep sense of empathy and compassion for the child, and want to help-donate-simply to improve that child's lot in life. Among superheroes, Wonder Woman's reason for being a superhero fits this description-she helps others simply because their suffering--or potential suffering--touches a chord within her and she feels compelled to act on their behalf. Altruism was at work when Barry and Eric each decided to donate their kidney.

My reaction to hearing about Barry and Eric's generosity was probably similar to yours: I felt humbled and awed and wanted to perform some "good work." Psychologists refer to the feeling that I had--and that people have when they witness or hear about other's altruistic acts--as elevation, a term first used by Thomas Jefferson to describe the desire to do charitable acts in response to seeing an act of charity performed by another.

Psychologists are investigating the extent to which the feeling of elevation translates into actual helping behavior. We may feel great by hearing about or witnessing other people's good works, but does it change our behavior? The handful of studies investigating this question suggests that it does (click here for an overview of this topic. For research papers, click here and here).

Might superhero stories--in which the superhero clearly acts heroically--induce a sense of elevation in readers or viewers? If research found that they do, it would be interesting to see whether reading an appropriate comic book story induces more, less, or the same amount of elevation as does watching a superhero cartoon or movie. (Ideally, to minimize confounding factors, the storyline should be the same across the media portrayals.) Perhaps (some) superhero stories don't just teach moral behavior; maybe they also induce people to help others through elevation. Wouldn't that be super!

[Thanks for Stephen Sansweet of Lucasfilm for telling me about the remarkable story of Barry, Josh, Eric, and Jeff, and to Mary Franklin of Bantha Tracks for her reporting of them in Star Wars Insider.]

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What is a Superhero? Survey.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Iron Man 2: A-Rusted Development?

Like many people, I saw Iron Man 2 this past weekend. Below is a brief general review of the film, followed by a discussion of a couple of psychological issues that stuck in my mind after I saw the film. But first I have to make a confession: I really liked the first Iron Man film. I thought it was a brilliant, modern reboot of the character, something much more powerful than the original comic book Iron Man origin story. As a psychologist, I thought it did a lovely job of conveying some of the changes the trauma survivors undergo when they come out of the other side of their experience-specifically that they may develop a new philosophy about the meaning of life and their sense of purpose (this area of psychology is referred to as posttraumatic growth or stress-induced growth). I had high hopes for the sequel.

Okay, here's my general review (with minor spoilers): I thought that the film introduced too many new significant characters for its two-hour running time. The glut of new characters (plus the old ones) meant that all characters were portrayed as cartoons. (Yes, I understand the irony of my statement-the characters are based on comic book stories. BUT what was so neat about the first film was that it didn't feel as if it was based on a comic book. The characters-particularly Tony Stark-felt real.) There were so many new significant characters that each could only receive superficial treatment-we learn only just enough about the character to move the plot along to the next scene. If the film had been an hour longer, this would not have been a problem. (Pet peeve: The film version of Justin Hammer shares little with his comic book character beyond name and job title; the film's version is a buffoon and it's hard to see how he could attain and maintain the position of head of a large weapons manufacturing company. He was simply too two-dimensional.)

By analogy, this film reminded me of comic book stories from the 1960s and 1970s-fast paced, plenty of action, only enough exposition to advance the plot. In contrast, the first Iron Man movie reminded me of more recent comic book stories-the characters had more psychological depth, more angst, and their internal conflicts and struggles were relatively clear.

Just as The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars, Episode V) clearly was a vehicle to bring the viewer from Episode IV to Episode VI, part of the goal of Iron Man 2 seems to have been to bring viewers from the first Iron Man film to the upcoming Avengers film. I would have enjoyed seeing what director Jon Favreau could have done with this sequel if the story had been relieved of the burden of creating a bridge to the Avengers film. Still, Iron Man 2 was a good romp.

On to my "psychological" review of the film. While watching the film, two aspects stood out for me. [spoiler alert: if you haven't seen the film and don't want to know too much about the film, skip down a couple of paragraphs] One was Stark's episode of binge drinking (his drinking is likely to play an even bigger role in subsequent films if they model themselves after the Demon in a Bottle storyline by Doug Michelinie and Bob Layton). We can see that Stark is struggling with mortality issues (as he did in the first movie-only in that film it was about his heart and the threat of being killed by his captors). In Iron Man 2, he's confronting the possibility of his death through poisoning: The Palladium that powers his chest magnet is becoming toxic to his system. He keeps this bit of information to himself, and deals with it by drinking himself silly on his birthday, assuming it will be the last birthday he has. He did this drinking while wearing his Iron Man armor.

Tony's drinking got to the point where his blood alcohol level probably reached around 0.20 (plus or minus 0.05). As you can see in the table below, this is a frightening level for anyone to reach, let alone someone in Iron Man armor. Favreau and his crew did a nice job of conveying how impossible it is to reason with someone who's this far gone. Tony becomes irrational and-most importantly-incredibly irresponsible, putting his guests' lives at risk. He staggers, his motor functions are impaired, he doesn't understand what going on. The only way to "contain" him was for his buddy Rhodey to don some armor and try to corral Stark. Stark bucked like a drunk bronco. And even though Rhodey hadn't previously logged many hours in the armor, his inexperience was compensated for by the physical and mental effects of Tony's drunken state.

(Source for chart: click here.) [end of spoiler alert]

The other theme that I want to touch on here was Stark's age-or more accurately, Robert Downey Jr.'s age. Don't get me wrong-it's refreshing to see a middle aged actor playing a superhero. But in an early scene I noticed his age. So it got me thinking that of all superheroes to be portrayed by someone in middle age, Iron Man is the best possible choice. Here's why. As people get older:

  1. they typically lose muscle strength, but when wearing Iron Man armor, this muscle strength loss is irrelevant. Score one for an aging Stark.
  2. their speed of responding typically declines-they take a bit longer than they used to. Unfortunately, this would probably affect Iron Man's performance in some situations-those in which fast reflexes are essential. Stark loses a point on this one.
  3. they may develop increasing difficulty hearing high-frequency sounds, such as distinguishing certain words that differ by a single consonant-like kill and pill. This could be a problem for an Iron Man down the road.
  4. have a harder time multi-tasking, specifically with tasks that require the person to hold information in mind while also doing something else. This is a type of mental juggling that Iron Man must do frequently.

Now for some good news for an aging Iron Man: Even though middle-aged or older adults may experience these physical and mental changes, many of the changes are offset by the wisdom that comes with years and experience. For instance, older adults compensate for their slower reaction time by having better (e.g., more efficient or logical) strategies than their younger counterparts. Some other good news: as people get older, they become better at regulating their emotions (click here and here for articles on this topic). This would definitely be a plus for Stark, who can go off half-cocked and be too emotionally reactive.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is the Joker a Psychopath? You Decide!

Thanks to Mike Catron, comics historian and videographer, you can watch the San Diego Comic-Con 2009 panel, Is the Joker a Psychopath? You Decide!

Panelists include (in alphabetical order):
  • Steve Englehart (comic book writer ; by phone)
  • Travis Langley (psychologist)
  • Jerry Robinson (Joker co-creator)
  • Robin Rosenberg (psychologist)
  • Michael Uslan (executive producer, Batman films)
  • Adam West (actor, 1960s Batman TV show)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Superhero Origin Stories

If you're interested in superhero origin stories, you can hear highlights of the panel, "It All Began When...: Making Meaning of Superhero Origin Stories" with Steve Englehart, James Robinson, and me at WonderCon 2010.

Part one is below, and the other two parts can be accessed at my new YouTube channel, Psychablog.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Psychology Today: The Superheroes Blog

For those of you interested in superheroes, you can also find me blogging monthly about superheroes on Psychology Today's website (click here to go to that blog). Sometimes the post on this blog will overlap with my Psych Today blog, and sometimes the post here will be unique to this blog. When the post is the same on both blogs, I'll note that at the end of a post here. My post currently on the Psych Today website is NOT included in Psychablog.

Have a good week, and I'll post about WonderCon next week.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

April Is a Busy Superhero Month--Comic Conventions

April will be a busy Superhero month. In case you’re planning to attend either WonderCon in San Franscico or C2E2 in Chicago (Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo) stop by at these panels:

At WonderCon in San Francisco, Saturday, April 3rd, 3:00 P.M.

Panel: It All Began When…: Making Meaning of Superhero Origin Stories

Psychologist Robin Rosenberg (Psychology of Superheroes) and comic book writers Steve Englehart (DC, Marvel, Max August) and James Robinson (DC, Marvel) discuss why the origin story is important, ways that the origin story hems in a character, and why and how the origin story is tweaked (or rebooted) by subsequent writers. We’ll also discuss how both fans and writers make meaning of a superhero origin story.

At C2E2—Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo:

Panel #1: Are Supervillains Evil? Understanding Evil in the Superhero World; Friday, April 16, 4:15 P.M.

Psychologists Robin Rosenberg (Psychology of Superheroes) and Mikhail Lyubansky (University of Illinois), and attorney Amy Martin explore the nature of evil and how different supervillains’ life experiences and personal characteristics indicate various pathways to criminal behavior. The panel will also explore the implications that these various paths have for our notions of justice-- and therefore--how we think about the actions of the superheroes who fight the villains.

Panel #2: Forging Iron Man: The Psychological Construction of Iron Man's Origin Story; Saturday, April 17, 12:15 P.M.

Psychologist Robin Rosenberg (Psychology of Superheroes) and others examine Iron Man's various origin stories and reveal what they tell us about Tony Stark and his decision to become Iron Man.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Why Are Superheroes All the Rage?

When talking about superheroes, I sometimes get asked why I think that superheroes have become so popular and part of the mainstream culture. As part of my answer, I list the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche—and perhaps on the psyche of people in other countries: That 9/11 led Americans to feel acutely vulnerable—on our soil—in a way we hadn’t before.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I hypothesized, we began to yearn for larger-than-life protection from the ever-present concerns about threats to safety. Superhero stories fulfill that yearning, at least temporarily. (I include the television show 24 in this category, although Jack Bauer is neither from another planet nor a mutant—that we know of. He is a superhero in that: (1) he has the superabilities of being able to keep going in the face of inordinate amounts of pain, and without being a psychopath he is able to inflict pain on others without, apparently, much of an emotional cost; and (2) he is portrayed as acting heroically, against impossible odds, repeatedly making enormous personal sacrifices to save others. I could go on about this, but it’s a tangent to the topic of this blog post.)

To support my hypothesis, I point to the phenomenal success of (super)heroic shows and film that aired soon after 9/11:

  • 24 (first aired 11/6/2001),
  • Smallville (first aired 10/16/2001), and,
  • the first Spiderman film (released May, 2002).

My view is that our affinity for superheroes generalizes to all things super--even to the use of the adjective or prefix, super. I wanted to collect some data to support this hypothesis. I predicted that the use of the prefix super (e.g., Super Jumbo, super quiz, super transit) increased after 9/11. So, I did a Google News Archive Search for the term super* from 1937 to 2010. The results are below (and here in your browser).

This set of data doesn't seem to support my hypothesis. However, if you look at the data more closely (in your browser, looking at each decade in detail), you may notice, as I did, that there is always a huge spike in January of each year. I investigated further—turns out those were articles on the Super Bowl. Looking closely at the decade by decade data, there are also spikes related to Super Tuesday, super collider, and Super Mario. So, I tailored my search to omit results that included bowl, Tuesday, collider, and Mario. The results are below (and you can peruse them yourself in more detail by clicking here.)

Okay, looks good for my hypothesis. I then examined the decade 2000-2009 in more detail, as you can see below (and here in your browser). Sure enough, my hypothesis was correct, although the month-by-month bar graph suggests that it took about a year or two for the use of the term to increase reliably and persistently.

Unfortunately, this Google News Archive Search doesn’t provide numerical data, but it at least provide confirmation of a trend, and of my hypothesis. For more information about Google New Archives Search, click here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Avatar: The Virtual Reality Experience

Well, I finally saw the film Avatar. Throughout the movie, I kept reflecting about virtual reality (VR) and the many different ways that it manifested while I was watching. I'm using the definition of VR as described in the paper, "Virtual Reality: A Survival Guide for the Social Scientist" by Fox, Arena, and Bailensen (2009):

Virtual reality (VR) was originally conceived as a digitally created space that humans could access by donning sophisticated computer equipment (Lanier, 1992; Rheingold, 1991; Sutherland, 1968). Once inside that space, people could be transported to a different world, a substitute reality in which one could interact with objects, people, and environments, the appearance of which were bound only by the limits of the human imagination.

1. The most obvious example of VR was part of the film’s story: Jake, a paraplegic veteran, goes offworld to “link” with a specially grown alien life form (a Na’vi) that was based on his twin brother’s DNA. (His twin brother died and Jake has agreed to take his place; the “linking” is a form of virtual reality, where Jake’s thoughts animate the Na’vi. When Jake is hooked up to the extensive VR machine (see photo), his Na’vi literally embodies all of Jake’s thoughts, feelings and actions.) As Jake spends more time immersed in the life of his Na’vi host, that world feels more real to him than the one his “normal” body inhabits. (With this type of virtual reality, it is not the user's bodily movements that direct the avatar's movement; rather, from what I can tell of the film, it is the user's thoughts--as brain activity--that direct the avatar.)

2. Na’vis have long hair (often in braids) and at the end is a set of tendrils that can intertwine with the tendrils of certain other species on the planet. When the tendrils intertwine, the two life forms temporarily merge—experience what the other is experiencing. So, for instance, when Jake’s tendrils merge with an animal he’s trying to ride, Jake can experience the animal’s breathing, muscles, and other bodily functions, and that animal can experience Jake’s desire to turn left or right. It’s a kind of merged VR, where you experience another being’s reality while also experiencing your own. It's portrayed as an intimate experience. (This VR experience seems to arise through physical contact between the two entities, with the bodily "connectors"--the entwining of two organisms' tendrils--relaying information to create a merged virtual reality.)

3. Some of the film’s bad guys (ex-military personnel working or a corporation) also have VR experiences, but with technology (below), not with another species. Like the Star Wars AT-AT walkers on the ice planet Hoth, the Avatar company men are able to move their walkers by moving their own limbs. Their arm and finger movements are mimicked by their devices. (This method of VR is one that is more familiar in our world; the user's bodily movements lead the avatar--in this case the AT-AT-like device--to move.)

4. Finally there was my own VR experience: Just seeing the film was a virtual reality experience. I saw the film in 3-D (with glasses), and so what I saw on the screen felt more “real” and was a much more immersive experience than the normal experience of watching a film—even one that is very absorbing. And there were previews for three other 3-D films, so this is only the beginning. Okay, so it wasn't an interactive experience, but rather than watching a film, it felt as if I was witnessing the events on the screen--that I was in the environment on the screen. In that sense, I was not simply a passive viewer, but a silent participant. (This VR experience is, in fact, passive.)

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford has done and is doing a lot of research about how we experience virtual reality--how it is similar to and different from our experience of "reality." They've also done research on how VR can be used to change our behavior for the better (including exercise more, eat less, and plan for old age). You can peruse their publications here and I highly recommend this overview article by Jesse Fox, Dylan Area, and Jeremy Bailenson. (Note: Their definition of VR is somewhat different than the one I'm using here.)