Thursday, December 15, 2011

Salander/Secret Lives of Men

For those of you interested in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, here are links to my interview with Dr. Chris Blazina for his radio show The Secret Life of Men. We discuss the psychology of the character of Lisbeth Salander and raise some of the issues addressed in the book The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

To download and/or share the show, please visit In addition, each show is also available at Apple Store, available for free download as an iTune. This link is

Friday, December 9, 2011

Salander as Superhero

This blog post is an excerpt from a chapter in the anthology titled The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, published by BenBella Books.

Lisbeth Salander is a captivating protagonist. Her appearance and demeanor lead us-and the characters in her world-to make assumptions about her, to pigeonhole her as a goth, a slacker, a rebel. Over the course of the first novel and the trilogy, Stieg Larsson upends our analysis of her character as he reveals her inner life, her outward behavior, and the choices she's made. We can't help but admire her grit and persistence, her inner strength and commitment, her strong moral code, and her adherence to it.

There's a sense in which Salander is an action hero, even though the action isn't generally hitting, punching, or kicking (though she engages in some of those actions, too). Rather, she engages in hacking, researching, and other uses of her substantial intellect and emotional strengths. Her heroism is demonstrated mentally as well as physically. I'll go one step further: I think that Salander is a superhero. She has the three most important characteristics typical of a superhero: a mission, (super)powers, and a superheroidentity. The fact that she's not explicitly labeled as a superhero-and that we only subliminally come to understand her as one-adds to her appeal. Let's explore her mission in more detail.

The Mission

Every superhero has a mission. Batman seeks to avenge his parents' deaths by "spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.". Spider-Man's mission is to use his spider-like powers to help others. Superman fights for truth, justice, and-until recently-the American way. Most superheroes don't begin with those missions, though. Their missions arise as a response to events in their lives-most frequently traumatic events. These events steer the protagonist to dedicate him or herself to a (superheroic) cause. The murders of Bruce Wayne's parents steer him to train and study for years and then don the Batsuit in order to reduce crime in Gotham City. The murder of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben leads the newly spider-powered adolescent to dedicate his life and powers to protecting others rather than pursuing fame and glory as an enhanced being. Clark Kent's questions about his place in the world steer him toward his mission as Superman.

Salander, too, has life events that steer her toward a mission. At the beginning of Larsson's trilogy, Salander's work as a private investigator is a job: she does the work she's hired to do and doesn't get involved in her investigations beyond what is required. She doesn't yet have a mission in the heroic sense, but when investigating Mikael Blomkvist for Dirch Frode (Henrik Vanger's attorney), the pieces don't all add up and she's intrigued. Mikael Blomkvist plans to go willingly go to jail without disclosing the sources for his inaccurate reporting on Wennerström. Salander welcomes the opportunity to be paid to find out more about Blomkvist.

During this same general time period that Blomkvist begins looking to Harriet's disappearance, Salander undergoes a new traumatic experience of her own that involves secrets, surviving injustice, and being disempowered: She is coerced into performing oral sex on her new guardian, Nils Bjurman-a man in a position to destroy her life and autonomy. Salander is not willing to remain subjected to Bjurman's torture, so she sets out to entrap him by filming him when he next demands oral sex. He demands more than that, though, and he brutally rapes her.

After being taunted by others and witnessing abuse in her home as a child, as an adult Lisbeth places a high value on being in control of her life-and Bjurman's brutal assault made her feel out of control. Although she gains a hold over him by filming the rape and thereby securing evidence of his crime, this hold came at a great personal cost. Salander is not someone who likes feeling powerless. (As we learn in the second novel, when she was strapped down in the seclusion room as a child, she'd calm herself by imagining being in control-by being able to act on her own behalf.)

It is in the aftermath of her experience with Bjurman that she discovers Blomkvist's new project: to find out what happened to a young woman, Harriet Vanger, who went missing decades ago. When Blomkvist asks Salander to research the case and track down old murders that might correspond to selected biblical passages, Salander is intrigued.

It is while hunting for the details of that first murder case-in which the woman was bound and tortured-that Salander seems to develop the stirring of purpose that Blomkvist already possesses. For her, the investigation shifts from an interesting puzzle that slakes her intellectual curiosity to one of a mission-to uncover the truth and see justice done. Blomkvist's mission becomes her mission, though they have different ideas of what justice might ultimately mean. Salander turns up additional murders that were not on Harriet's list. And when the job for which she was hired is over (but the killer not yet discovered), she wants to continue. Blomkvist says he'll pay her but she would have done so for free.

As she and Blomkvist find and put together the pieces, she also sees Blomkvist's burning passion to discover the person who sadistically murdered young women. Based on her own experience with Bjurman (and as we find out in the subsequent stories, her experiences with child psychiatrist, Teleborian), she can identify with these dead women-these victims-and no doubt views Blomkvist's goal and efforts to solve their murders as heroic. She is transformed by watching him and by taking part in the cause for truth and justice, just as sidekicks are transformed by their mentors (as Robin was by Batman, for instance). We see her channel her sense of agency and self-efficacy (her belief that she can do what she sets out to do), into a desire to fight for justice as she interprets it.

Transformation can also arise in response to trauma. In my formulation, Salander's experience of being raped was the turning point that steered her to her mission. Like other survivors of trauma, Salander found a way to make personal meaning of her traumatic experience. Salander's transformation as a result of her traumatic experience is consistent with the findings of an area of psychological research referred to as posttraumatic growth, in which the stress of trauma challenges people's beliefs-about themselves, the world, and their place in it-and induces them to grow in positive, meaningful ways. (A minority-about 20 percent--of people who experience a trauma go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]; they may not experience posttraumatic growth while their PTSD symptoms are prominent and chronic.) Trauma can leave the survivor wondering "why did this happen?" and when the trauma has a personal element, such as with rape and assault, the survivor may wonder "why did this happen to me?"

As survivors struggle to answer that question, over time most report feeling stronger for having come through their traumatic experience. They make sense of their (senseless) traumatic experience and newly discovered strength by committing themselves to helping others. Sometimes survivors work to prevent what happened to them from happening to others. Candy Lightner and Sue LeBrun-Green, who lit the fire of awareness about drunk driving when they started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), are perfect examples of this. The seeds of MADD were planted in 1980 after Lightner's thirteen-year-old daughter, Cari, who was walking to a church carnival, was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Another person who made meaning of family trauma is William Minniefield, an African-American man whose brother died waiting for a kidney transplant and whose other brother is waiting for one still. Organ donation by minorities is less common among and leads to even longer wait times for organs that are the best match for African-Americans. Minniefield founded the Minority Organ Donation Education Program to educate minority populations about organ donation, and to try to prevent what happened in his family from happening to others.

Other survivors may develop missions to help people like themselves-survivors after the fact. After David Schury's recovery from the burns that covered over 30 percent of his body, he and his wife Michele started the From Tragedy to Triumph Foundation, which provides support to burn victims and their families.

In a sense, Salander develops a mission after her experience with Bjurman: to use her talents and abilities to figure out who abused, tortured, and murdered young women. Her answer: Gottfried and then Martin Vanger. Like other trauma survivors, Salander acts to prevent further victims. She prevents Blomkvist from being another of Martin's victims, then injures Martin and chases him on her motorcycle at which point Vanger decides to kill himself, steering his car directly into an oncoming truck. Martin Vanger isn't able to harm any more women because of her intervention.

It is during the period of Blomkvist's helplessness-when Martin Vanger holds Blomkvist hostage in the basement room and is about to kill him-that Salander transforms from Blomkvist's sidekick to a (super)hero in her own right. Like any superhero, she saves him at risk to her own life. She's dedicated. Her sense of purpose is so great, in fact, that she becomes a moral leader with a clear vision of the correct path ahead. When she later explains to Henrik Vanger's attorney, Dirch Frode, what was really going on with Martin Vanger, Frode-temporarily unable to decide among untenable moral choices about what to do about Martin's basement torture chamber, how much to tell the police, and what to reveal about Martin's misdeeds-realizes that "here he was taking orders from a child [Lisbeth]."

Salander even espouses to Blomkvist the superhero's credo-that people have a choice in how to behave, even if they had a bad childhood. She challenges him by stating, "So you're assuming that Martin had no will of his own and that people become whatever they've been brought up to be" and "Gottfried isn't the only kid who was ever mistreated. That doesn't give him the right to murder women. He made that choice himself. And the same is true of Martin" (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

As with other superheroes, part of Salander's mission is to see that justice is served for others-in this case, the dead women-at least as much as it can be. She wants Frode and Henrik Vanger to do their best to identify the victims and provide their families with "suitable compensation." She also wants them to donate two million kroner each year, in perpetuity, to the National Organization for Women's Crisis Centres and Girls' Crisis Centres in Sweden. Her transformation to hero/moral arbiter is complete. She has made meaning of her own traumatic history and seeks to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.

The first novel is Lisbeth's "origin story," a story that explains who she was "before" (before the events that began her transformation) and who she becomes; superhero origin stories document transformations of personal growth, typically in response to some type of trauma or crisis. This transformation, reflected in her attire and behavior, is clear at the beginning of the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire. She no longer dresses to give off an angry attitude, and during the beginning of the Caribbean hurricane she put her own life at significant risk to find her young lover George Bland and bring him to safety. On their way back to the hotel, Salander again puts herself at risk to prevent Richard Forbes from killing his wife. Deviating from her normal snarky or defensive attitude, she is polite to the local police investigating Richard Forbes' disappearance, answering their questions without malice. She even allows strangers to touch her without giving them a look or biting their heads off! This is a different Salander than we are introduced to at the start of the first book. She is no longer someone who wants to be left alone and who interferes in other people's lives only through her computer, and only when paid or for her own personal ends. She has become a protector and avenger.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg

Her most recent book is the edited anthology, The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Limitless: Some Thoughts About the Film

I didn't get a chance to see to see the film Limitless when it was in theatres, but I recently saw it on the small screen. Before I talk about it, though if you haven't seen it, here's an overview, from IMDB:

An action-thriller about a writer who takes an experimental drug that allows him to use 100 percent of his mind. As one man evolves into the perfect version of himself, forces more corrupt than he can imagine mark him for assassination. Out-of-work writer Eddie Morra's (Cooper) rejection by girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) confirms his belief that he has zero future. That all vanishes the day an old friend introduces Eddie to NZT, a designer pharmaceutical that makes him laser focused and more confident than any man alive. Now on an NZT-fueled odyssey, everything Eddie's read, heard or seen is instantly organized and available to him. As the former nobody rises to the top of the financial world, he draws the attention of business mogul Carl Van Loon (De Niro), who sees this enhanced version of Eddie as the tool to make billions. But brutal side effects jeopardize his meteoric ascent... Written by Relativity Media

Note that the concept that we normally only "use a small percentage of our brains" isn't accurate, so a drug that enables us to use "100%" doesn't make sense. Below is thissummary from Wikipedia about this myth and its inaccuracy (and yes, I know that Wikipedia isn't always correct, but in this case it's close enough. Here's a link to a Scientific Americanarticle about the topic):

Scientific accuracy

At the start of the film a marijuana dealer says that we can only access 20% of our brain (and that NZT lets a person access all of it), referring to a common myth. The mechanism of how the drug actually works is never scientifically explained in the film. Neurologist Barry Gordona describes the myth as laughably false, adding, "we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time",[9] and neuroscientist Barry Beyerstein has set out seven kinds of evidence refuting the ten percent myth.[10]

Physics professor James Kakalios said it was plausible that medical science could improve intelligence, but that neurochemistry is not advanced enough for it to be achieved currently. Kakalios also said the notion used in the film that human beings can only access 10% of their brains is a myth: 100% of it is used at different times. Kakalios said if such a pill existed, a person running out of the supply could actually experience a rebound effect.[11] This is alluded to in the movie, as the protagonist's ex-wife explains that she can't concentrate for more than 10 minutes at a time after coming off the drug.

But that's not what I want to address. I was fascinated by several aspects of the film, particularly the idea of being able to obtain enhanced mental abilities-in essence, a superpower-and its consequences. Medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are sometimes referred to as cognitive enhancers or neuroenhancers because of their ability to help people focus their attention. To "enhance" their baseline level of attention.

If each person could have his or her mental abilities enhanced with medication, what might that mean for society? If all of us could obtain the same superpower, would it be a superpower? To paraphrase Dash from the film The Incredibles, if everyone is special, then in a way, no one is. Of course if such an enhancement pill or procedure were available, the likely reality is that it wouldn't be available to all of us.

If it's only available to some of us, though, then it's not playing "fair" for those special recipients to use it for an advantage. Yet if it were possible to do mental exercises to enhance mental ability (such as reading, attending classes, doing special logic puzzles), that would probably seem fair to most people, as long as these mental exercises were available to all who wanted them (and cost wasn't a barrier-there could be scholarships). Doing such exercises means earning the enhanced abilities. Putting in time and effort. It's analogous to the practice involved to play an instrument at a high level or to be an elite athlete. Such folks may start out with a certain level of talent, but they earn their way into high level so achievement.

What can rankle about the enhanced ability of the protagonist in Limitless is that he didn't earn the ability. He took a mental "steroid" to boost his performance and took advantage of it. He played dirty.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is and she also blogs on Huffington Post. Her most recent book is The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Flea Market Smarts

Recently, I went to the monthly Treasure Island Flea Market for the first time. I was amazed at the ingenuity and creativity behind some of the items for sale there, some of which were made by the people selling the items. For instance, one woman was selling recycled decorated wine bottles that she heated and reformed as small cheese plates or as bowls for dip, complete with spreader. At another stall the vender sold purses in the shape and appearance of the body of an electric guitar. Still another vender sold pendants in the shape of mah-jong and Scrabble tiles, but each pendant had different artwork on it. I was struck by how clever some of the items were, how they seemed to fill a niche that most of us didn't even realize existed.

For the rest of the post, click here at Huffington Post (or cut and paste the URL below).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Discussion about Eating Disorders

Here's some information about eating disorders (the beginning of an interview with Click here for the full interview about eating disorders.

Rebecca Aponte:When you think about eating disorders, do you think of both anorexia and bulimia? Is there a lot of overlap in people who engage in these behaviors?
Robin Rosenberg:There are people who engage in both types of behaviors. In DSM-IV, individuals who exhibit all the criteria for anorexia but who also binge and purge would be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa binge/purge type. So diagnostically, anorexia trumps bulimia, if you will. But that is just the DSM-IV; who knows what will happen in DSM-V?
RA:Are they related?
RR:They appear to be, at least for a significant subset of people. So in terms of the research, when you look at people who have bulimia versus people who have anorexia, that is not necessarily a helpful distinction. Anorexia has, in DSM-IV, two subtypes. There is the traditional restricting type, which is the people who eat minimally, and then there is the form of anorexia where people are significantly underweight and may be amenorrheic [they have stopped menstruating], but they may also binge or eat without restricting, but then purge in some way, or use other compensatory behaviors. Those people are classified as anorexia binge/purge type, but in studies, those people have more in common with people who have bulimia than they do with anorexia restrictive type. Some of this is a bit of a diagnostic artifact, because it's the way that it has been defined in DSM-IV.

The most interesting thing about eating disorders in terms of classification issues is that it is not uncommon for people to move from one eating disorder to another over time.

... Continue Reading Interview >>

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Forging Steel, Part 2: Soldiers, Superheroes, and Resilience

In a previous post, I talked about military training, the ways that it "forges" soldiers, and what might be relevant to superheroes. Part of what the training does is it causes reappraisal--the (re)interpretation of stimuli. For instance, boot camp causes the cadet to reappraise what he or she can withstand, and what he or she is capable of. Similarly, the intense physical and psychological challenges that are built in to the Special Forces courses lead the soldiers to re-evaluate how they see themselves, and thus how they see what would otherwise be over-the-top experiences in adversity.

The training process also provides an opportunity for soldiers to do what elite athletes do: direct their attention away from pain (Ochsner & Gross, 2005; Troy & Mauss, 2011). You’ve probably had this experience: You can feel a headache coming on. If you pay attention to the pain, the headache will feel worse. If you try to ignore the headache, it doesn’t seem quite so bad. Athletes learn to direct their attention away from pain and so do soldiers (and superheroes). As former Army officer Craig Mullaney recounts in his memoir The Unforgiving Minute, he learned from his instructors at West Point that pain “is just weakness leaving the body.”

Pain can be emotional as well as physical. For instance, for a moment, think about some life event that upsets you. A breakup, a loss, an experience with failure. If you continue to direct your attention to that upsetting experience, you’ll likely get upset. Of course thinking about an upsetting experience can be an opportunity for learning, but you have to think about it in a specific way, asking yourself “what lessons are there to be learned form this situation?” Just dwelling on the experience, letting it rattle around and around in your mind, fills up the mental space with emotional turmoil. It does the opposite of regulate your emotions—it makes them more likely to feel out of control.

So soldiers, particularly elite soldiers, must learn to control their attention and direct it accordingly—to what is relevant for survival (Abele & Gendolla, 2007; Aspinwall & Brunhart, 1996). If they’re preoccupied with thoughts of missing family, they may not notice that tripwire or mine in the road. It’s the same with superheroes. They are amazingly able to focus their attention to the problem at hand, regardless of what is happening in their personal lives. Mullaney notes that if you aren’t paying attention to the relevant details, people under your command can die.

Controlling your attention also allows you to direct your attention to stimuli that may be less likely to induce counterproductive emotions. In a scary movie, if you find yourself being too scared, you may start to notice the actor’s makeup onscreen, or the temperature of the room, or in some other way direct your attention so that you can be less frightened. That’s adaptive. Soldiers must do this too, since being very scared on a mission isn’t adaptive. Their intensive training can become an anchor point to calm emotions that might get out of control; they might direct their attention to aspects of the current situation that are similar to ones during their training, thus providing a sense of mastery (“I handled a similar situation then, so I can now”) and momentarily diminishing the threat of the situation so that negative emotions don’t spiral out of control and interfere with the mission.

Batman’s years of training likely gave him the experience he needs both to direct his attention and to reappraise threatening situations as less threatening. For instance, when yet again facing off against the Joker, Batman can say to himself “this is just another in the Joker’s long string of plots, and in the end he always loses. That’ll happen again in this situation, one way or another.” Saying something like this makes the situation less scary.

Soldiers, police officers, fire fighters (and yes, superheroes) need either to have the ability to distract themselves from “negative” stimuli and thoughts—things that could induce too much fear, anxiety, or sadness—or develop it very quickly. Psychologists are studying ways to train these abilities associated with resilience in people who don’t naturally come by them. One type of training is called cognitive control training, and occurs as part of mindfulness training as well as cognitive therapy. (Click here for an article about this.)

Resilience doesn’t mean that folks should never focus on negative stimuli, or should never feel afraid. Au contraire! Resilience involves the ability to figure out relevant from irrelevant negative stimuli. If you hear whistling that might be coming from a grenade, you want to pay attention to that sound, not distract yourself from it—even if you get scared in the process. Being scared isn’t a bad thing because it can give you an adrenaline rush that in turn enables you to fight the enemy or flee the scene. Too much anxiety, fear, sadness, though, can paralyze. (Click here for an article that reviews this literature; Troy & Mauss, 2011.)

And with experience, soldiers, and superheroes can develop their own kind of “spider-sense”—a mental tingling sensation when a military situation isn’t quite right. That something is off. You may not know what that something is right away, but time and experience lead you to trust it. (Note, though, that the spider-sense isn’t right 100% of the time, and sometimes relying on previous experience can give way to overconfidence in the spider-sense.)


Abele , A. E. & Gendolla , G. H. E. ( 2007 ). Individual differences in optimism predict the recall of personally relevant information . Personality and Individual Differences, 43 , 1125 –1135.

Aspinwall, L. G. & Brunhart , S. M. (1996). Distinguishing optimism from denial: Optimistic beliefs predict attention to health threats . Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 22 , 993 –1003.

Ochsner , K. N. Ray , R. D. Cooper , J. C. , et al. ( 2004 ). For better or for worse: Neural systems supporting the cognitive down and up-regulation of negative emotion. Neuroimage , 23 , 483 –499.

Troy, A. S., & Mauss, I. B. (2011). Resilience in the face of stress: Emotion regulation as a protective factor. In S. Southwick, D. Charney, M. Friedman, & B. Litz (Eds.), Resilience in psychiatric clinical practice. Cambridge University Press.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Can You Stay Off Fat Talk--For a Week?

It's not uncommon for women (or even men) to bond with each other over the travails of their appearance: their hair, their clothes, their weight, their fat. Sound familiar? If so, take note. The week of Oct. 16-22 isFat Talk Free Week. It's a week in which people are encouraged to stop their "fat talk." What is fat talk? It's comments like" I feel so fat in these clothes," or "do I look fat?" It can also be saying to someone else, "You look great, did you lose weight?" This implies that lost weight is the metric of looking good.

Although some women say that such talk makes them feel better, research suggests that in fact the opposite is true. Do you engage in fat talk? If so, here's a challenge: Try not doing it -- for a day, then for a string of days, then for a week. And what better time then during Fat Talk Free week.

If you partake in fat talk, it's in part because our culture encourages it. Through various media (including TV, film, magazine ads and articles), we're all encouraged to think that our bodies should approximate a thin "ideal." And if we don't have that type of body (which the vast majority of us don't), then we shouldn't feel okay about our bodies. Unfortunately, most of us go along with this premise and we dislike our bodies. Fight back against this premise and the way it makes you feel. To help you in this endeavor, Oct. 19 is Love Your Body Day.

Do you love what you see when you look in the mirror? Hollywood and the fashion, cosmetics and diet industries work hard to make each of us believe that our bodies are unacceptable and need constant improvement. Print ads and television commercials reduce us to body parts -- lips, legs, breasts -- airbrushed and touched up to meet impossible standards. TV shows tell women and teenage girls that cosmetic surgery is good for self-esteem. Is it any wonder that 80 percent of U.S. women are dissatisfied with their appearance?

Women and girls spend billions of dollars every year on cosmetics, fashion, magazines and diet aids. These industries can't use negative images to sell their products without our assistance. Together, we can fight back.

While we're on the subject of fat, here's one more thought. Too often in our culture, fat is equated with bad, with being out of shape. But people who are average weight or less aren't necessarily in shape, and people who are heavier aren't necessarily out of shape. For the group Heath at Every Size, the goal is for each person to be healthy and fit, regardless of weight, and to accept their bodies. (Click here to see one overweight woman who is both fit and graceful.)

In fact, a recent study found that overweight adolescent girls who were content with their bodies were less likely to go on to develop binge eating disorder. They were also less likely to gain weight over the 11 years of the followup period. Take home message: Become cynical about the "ideal" body size and shape promoted in our culture and stop your fat talk.

Copyright Robin S. Rosenberg, 2011; first published in The Huffington Post.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Stanford, Calif. Rosenberg specializes in treating people with eating disorders, depression and anxiety. She often writes about the psychology of superheroes and has co-authored several psychology textbooks, including "Abnormal Psychology" and "Introducing Psychology: Brain, Person, Group." To find out more about Dr. Rosenberg and her work, read her Psychology Today blog and visit her on Red Room. For Dr. Rosenberg's brief, easy-to-read guide Improving Your Relationships with Your Body, click here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Forging Steel, Part 1: Forging Superheroes Versus Forging Soldiers

I had the opportunity to speak with some former and current Special Forces soldiers about their training and experience; these are real-life heroes (though they wouldn't necessarily use that term to describe themselves). Their missions and actions rival those of fully human superheroes such as Batman, Black Canary, Batgirl, Oracle, Robin/Nightwing, and Avengers Iron Man, Hawkey, some versions of Black Widow, and Nick Fury, among others. But unlike these characters, our real-life military folks are mortal and may not survive a given battle. When killed in action they, and police officers and fire fighters, can't be brought back to life, unlike human superheroes. (One of the soldiers I spoke with, Fernando Lujan, noted that it doesn't take the same type of courage to go into battle if you know that you can't die, as is the case for relatively invulnerable superheroes such as Superman and Wolverine. For more about Special Forces Officer Lujan, click here.)

The soldiers that I spoke with shared some (nonclassified) information about their training. To get a sense of what a soldier must undergo to be picked to be in elite units, click here for an overview; for more detailed information, watch this video (it is the first of six parts; if you are at all interested, I highly recommend that you watch all six parts). In addition to the grueling physical demands of the training, psychological training is a big part of what the soldiers experience.

For instance, the military psychologists who are part of the evaluatingteam help identify each soldier's psychological vulnerabilities. Not as a rationale to send the soldiers home, but to increase each soldier's self-awareness. So that they can know when they are nearing the limit (of pain tolerance, hopelessness, fear, shame, cockiness, to name several dimensions) of being able to maintain and function adequately. In learning where the limit is, they can then learn how to push through that barrier or mentally regroup to be able to go forward and complete the mission. How to withstand interrogation. Not just the physical aspects of interrogation. The mental aspects. How to become stronger and moreresilient. How to regulate their emotions when their buttons get pushed.

Most superheroes do not undergo this type of training. (There is a sense of which it seems ridiculous to compare soldiers and superheroes. I do so here to emphasize the ways in which superheroes are different and arefictional. Nonetheless, we can learn from those differences.) Christopher Nolan's brilliant film, Batman Begins, showed us the ways that Bruce Wayne received some military-like training from Henri Ducard (Ra's al Ghul) and the League of Shadows. It is through this training that Wayne becomes a master at self-control and emotional self-regulation. By self-control, I mean the ability to control one's actions. To act in planned, intentional ways, not impulsively. By emotional self-regulation, I mean the ability to shift one's emotional states. (For more on the definition of self-regulation in general, click here.

From descriptions of the first step of any military training, the discipline and control for some soldiers may come from-and are enforced by-external forces, such as the challenging training schedule imposed on the soldiers, the rigid rules they must follow, the drill sergeant's enforcement of those rules.

Over time and with field experience, the discipline and control of behavior become internal, to a degree that wasn't true before. Self-discipline. Self-control. Moreover, soldiers don't want to put their team members' lives at risk. Self-discipline benefits not just the individual soldier, but the entire unit. They must all depend on one another.As part of the training process, soldiers face their fears, learn to put aside their grief when they need to, to bite their tongue when angry (because it is counterproductive to the mission). Like Batman, then, soldiers acquire the "superpower" of emotional regulation.

More about emotional regulation and resilience in the next post.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Captain America

Captain AmericaPerhaps you, like me, enjoyed the two Christopher Nolan Batman films out thus far. One of the reasons that I liked the films was for their sense of psychological realism: I got a vivid sense of what it might be like to live in Batman's world (or have him live in mine). Moreover,Batman Begins provided a very psychologically rich and compelling version of Batman's origin story. It got to the heart of the question of why Bruce Wayne would become the Batman. The portrayal felt psychologically accurate. (As I psychologist, I feel that I can say that authoritatively.)

Although it took me a few weeks to get around to seeing Captain America (something I did this weekend), I was looking forward to seeing it. The movie addresses a part of Cap's history that-to my knowledge-hasn't been explored in comic books. Specifically, it addressed the details of his life from before he takes the serum to when he becomes the Captain America with which-or should I say "with whom"--we are familiar.

As an origin story, then, it must make a compelling case for why the physically slight and asthmatic Steve Rogers volunteers for a radical experimental procedure (and the risk of death) in the hope of becoming a super soldier. In my opinion, the film fails in this regard. Let me explain why.

In the beginning of the film, we learn several things about Steve Rogers:

  • He's short and slight
  • He's been rejected by the U.S. Military five times on medical grounds (he was 4F)
  • He's doesn't like bullies and he believes in standing up to them
  • He wants to help the war effort

With these tidbits, the film allows us to connect the dots: Rogers is so desperate to join the military because he wants to stand up to the bullies of the Axis forces.

But here's the thing. During World War II, those who wanted to support the war effort could do so in ways other than being in the front lines. Take the father of a friend of mine as an example: He had polio at a very young age, and one of his legs never grew right, so as an adult that leg was a good six inches shorter than the other one. (Although doctors told him he'd never be able to walk, they underestimated him and he walked throughout his life.) He was rejected by the military when he tried to enlist to fight in WW II (he too, was 4F). But he signed up with the Merchant Marines, an auxiliary of the Navy in which civilians serve to help supply navy ships. This was only one possible way to serve the larger military effort. The film doesn't make clear why Rogers didn't join the Merchant Marines or help the war effort in some other way.

And there would have been other ways. The film also tells us that Rogers was a clever guy: When he's in basic training that he's the only one in years who's figured out how to get a stuck flag down from the flagpole without climbing up to it (solution: take out the pin holding the flagpole to the ground. The pole and flag then come fully down to ground level). But if Rogers is so clever, couldn't he figure out a different way to help the war effort than risk his life on a super soldier serum?

For me, then, the film didn't provide a compelling reason for Rogers to serve in this particular way. To be fair, the film tries to get away from the easy brawn > brains play. Rogers (and we the audience) are told that Rogers-rather than a more fit cadet--was picked to be a guinea pig for the serum because "weak men know the value of strength and also compassion." (This may not be the exact quote; I was scribbling my notes in a dark theatre, after all. But the quote captures the gist of the line.) Thus, we are informed, Rogers is the perfect candidate to be a super soldier because his ability to be compassionate is a function of his having been a weakling. Wow-what would Superman (or Ma and Pa Kent) say to that? Or Wonder Woman? (Perhaps the fact that she's female means she's got a leg up on compassion?)

I was also disappointment by the two-dimensionality of other aspects of the film. The bad guys wear black. (And their faces they sport some weird leather pre-cursor to a Darth Vader mask-why are all the evil minions faces hidden behind a what-must-be uncomfortable and vision-obscuring mask?) The evil overlord is a power-hungry megalomaniac whose origin story I'd love to learn about; his dialogue feels like it could date from a World War II-era film. No depth there.

Once I was over my disappointment about the lack of psychologically rich material, I tried to have fun with the film. Yet I kept having moments of déjà-vu-that I'd seen something like this before. There were bits that reminded me of Star Wars (especially the evil minions marching in formation) and of Raiders of the Lost Ark (another film in which Nazi megalomaniacs mess with occult powers they don't fully understand in an effort to be boss of the world). There didn't seem to be a lot that felt unique to the film.

On a positive note, there was one bit that I thought was great: before Cap becomes the soldier he longs to be, there is a montage that showed the commodification of Captain America. He and two dozen dancers in patriotic short dresses do a tour of the US in order to sell war bonds. The montage includes Captain America comic books (yes, they worked in that there were Captain America comic books during the war-brilliant!), which are shown being read by children as well as some soldiers. A cool interweaving of fiction and fact.

We'll see what next summer's crop of superhero films brings.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Women and Fashion

After seeing a preview of the film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, based on Lisa See's novel about the practice of female foot-binding in pre-revolutionary China, Arianna Huffington recently wrote a post on her thoughts about women's friendships and the ways that women are willing to deform themselves, literally, for fashion. I want to address both topics here.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways that people can improve their relationships with their bodies. To me, Ms. Huffington's post is on a related topic, and highlights additional ways that people can improve their relationships with their bodies: Be a critical consumer of fashion trends that require you to be uncomfortable when dressed, and ask for support from your friends as you try to become more comfortable with your body -- and encourage them to do so too.

Fashion first

What's in style comes and goes, but what's "in" for women typically has at least one element that's not comfortable, as Ms. Huffington's post points to: footwear. High heels have been around for decades (even longer, actually), and they are neither comfortable nor practical. Wear a pair for more than an hour (if that long) and your feet will start to hurt. Walk around in them -- on stairs, on city streets, on a dance floor -- and your risk of falling increases. So why wear them? In my unscientific, nonrandom sample of women I've asked, the answers range from "I like the way they make me look/walk" to "it's expected." (I didn't bother asking men about high heels since they don't wear them. But it's a safe bet that if men were expected to wear high heels, that type of shoe would have long ago gone out of fashion. Can you see Arnold Schwarzenegger or Christian Bale in a tux and heels? That's a funny image. I laughed out loud when I imagined by husband in heels.)

Yes, it's true that high heels, by virtue of the physics of walking in them, lead women to walk differently than in low-heeled shoes; in fact learning to walk in high heels takes practice -- there are many YouTube videos explaining how to do it, but even experienced models sometimes lose their balance. The walk is "feminine" because it's unlike that of a man (although men would walk that way if they got the knack of wearing heels). To which my reply is "So what?" I like dressing up, but dressing up and looking nice are in a different category from enduring pain or discomfort for beauty's sake or because it's expected and part of the conventions of culture. This seems pretty close to the explanation for why (well off) women in pre-revolutionary China broke, bound, and deformed their feet. This process is described in gory detail in Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and I assume will be similarly shown in the film.

From foot fashion, we can go on to other elements of fashion that can be uncomfortable, although perhaps not as physically damaging: panty hose; girdles or their more modern equivalents (which are spiritual descendants of whale-bone corsets in the quest to make a woman's body conform prevailing cultural views of the perfect body); certain kinds of bras, tight fitting clothes of any kind (which make you more conscious of your body when you move and are uncomfortable after eating if not before); heavy pocketbooks (do we really need to carry all that stuff around?).

If your clothes make your body hurt or feel uncomfortable, you're more likely to become annoyed with, or not like, your body. You're certainly going to become more conscious of your body in a way that isn't necessarily positive. If your waist feels uncomfortable because your pants or skirt are a tad too snug, you'll feel as if you're "too fat." (I am aware that for some people, wearing clothes that are snug at the waist helps them regulate their food intake -- they become more aware of when they've had enough. My point is more general.) If you have wide feet and try to fit them in to narrow shoes, then you'll probably dislike your feet and notice them more as they hurt.

With A Little Help From Your Friends

As Ms. Huffington points out, women can serve as wonderful sources of support for each other, sustaining and helping each other grow. I think it would be amazing if women challenged their female friends about some fashion choices. For instance, rather than compliment a friend on her new high-heeled shoes, what if you said, "Those shoes are nice, but I think it will be hard to be comfortable in them. Your feet will hurt and that'll put a damper on things. Why not wear something that looks nice and is comfortable?" or "Your new pocketbook is nice, but it's so big -- it could throw off your balance and hurt your shoulder." See what I mean? And if you decide to wean yourself of damaging fashion trends, let your friends know (and why) and ask for their support.

While we're on the subject of sacrifices for fashion, I've got one more topic to discuss: pockets, or the lack thereof, in women's clothes. Men's clothes have functional pockets, which is why they don't need pocketbooks. (Men might carry briefcases or backpacks for additional items, but their most important items -- wallet, phone, keys -- are likely carried in pockets in their clothes.) Their pants have nice big front pockets, their back pockets may even have buttons so things like a wallet won't fall out, their sportcoats and suit jackets have breast pockets big enough for big wallets, and assorted other pockets. Their coats have pockets.

Women's clothes? I can only wish. Yes, I know that the goal for women's fashion is to make women look sleek and not boxy. But surely there must be a way to design fashionable clothes that look good and have functional pockets somewhere, so we can keep our wallets, keys, and cell phones on our persons without having to wear men's clothes. Then we can have our important stuff with us at all times. Think of the advantages! Less need to guard our pocketbooks. Less rooting around for our cell phones or keys. Less shoulder fatigue. I look forward to those fashion designs.