Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cosplay Survey

To those of you cosplayers who heard--or heard about--the Psychology of Cosplay panel at New York Comic Convention and would like to take the Cosplay survey, click here to go to the survey or go to the URL below:

 I plan to publish the results and will link to them.

Friday, August 17, 2012

How Could She Do That? Compliance, the film—what's going on

Remember a bunch of horrible phone scams to fast food restaurants? The caller posed as a police officer and induced managers to strip search young female employees by saying the young women have stolen from customers? (If not, you can read about it here.) A docudrama film, Compliance, has been made of the worst incident, in which a young employee was detained, strip searched, and perform sexual acts. The story is a true one, and a disturbing one, and the film is similarly disturbing. Disturbing enough that at a screening that I attended yesterday, some people walked out. (This has been true in other cities as well.)

In the nutshell, the police officer ratchets up his requests of the restaurant manager; in turn she is swamped at work and with the approval of the caller (who is posing as a police officer) delegates to others the task of “watching over” the young employee who the police officer has said has stolen money. It starts out having her empty her pockets, then search her pocket, then disrobe to have her clothes searched. It goes on from there. The process resembles that of the participant in Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience study, in which participants were asked to give increasingly larger shocks to another person (unbeknownst to the participants, no actual shocks were administered. Click here for more information about the Milgram experiment.)

Given this incident really happened (in other locales as well—this wasn’t the only place the perpetrator called), how could this happen? We hear about this case, shake our heads and say that if we were the manager, we wouldn’t do anything like that. We’d know enough to say “no.” But would we?

There are several factors that explain how this could happen:
  • ·      At least in the film, the manager was portrayed as clearly identifying with “authority”—the (supposed) police officer. The caller played this up, explicitly joking that she was his eyes on the ground. She was more focused on being a good “assistant” to him, rather than a good, thoughtful person viz her employee. (When the manager’s boyfriend was enlisted to watch the young employee, the manager very much wanted her boyfriend also to be a good assistant to the caller.)
  • ·      The restaurant was very busy that night, and the store was already short-staffed, and earlier in the day had a problem with food refrigeration and so were running out of some foods. The manager was very stressed, and had a heavy “cognitive load”—had many things she was juggling in her head. This would make her likely pay less attention to challenging the police officer or thinking critically about what he was asking her to do.
  • ·      The young employee did not overtly “fight back” (though she did ask to be allowed to leave the room in which she was being detained); it seems clear in the film that she was experiencing some degree of learned helplessness—a situation in which no matter what she did, she couldn’t “escape” from the situation. At the start of her detainment, she had been told that if she cooperated with the strip search it would all be over soon. But it wasn’t over then, and it just kept getting more intense and outrageous. At some point, she likely felt that no matter what she did or how much she protested, it wouldn’t make a difference.

I won’t give too much more away, but if you have the stomach for an intense film with no happy ending, I suggest you see it.

Copyright 2012 by Robin S. Rosenberg

Suggested Reading:

Richer, S. D., Haslam, A., & Smith, J. R. (2012).  Working Toward the Experimenter: Reconceptualizing Obedience Within the Milgram Paradigm as Identification-Based Followership. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 315.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

More on the Psychology of Batman

With the frenzy about Batman this week, here are some links that might be of interest:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


This blog post is adapted from the book What’s the Matter with Batman? An Unauthorized Clinical Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader, by Robin. S. Rosenberg.

In my last post, I discussed Batman’s mental health and wanted to “get out of the way” some obvious “issues” that Batman seems to have. I brought up Batman’s lapse in  judgment in taking a minor, Dick Grayson, as a ward and sidekick. I begin this post by continuing the discussion of Batman’s lapses in judgment in taking on additional minors as sidekicks.

Further lapses in judgment came with his taking on each subsequent Robin. In Jason Todd’s case, Wayne struggled against the lesser of two evils; Todd had been trying to steal the Batmobile’s hubcaps and Wayne felt that if Todd weren’t taken in hand and shaped to use his talents for good then Todd would end up on the wrong side of the law.
  Other Robins (Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown) have had that role because they asked Batman to allow them to be Robin. (They were young and the idea of being Robin is exciting and cool, as well as providing a great purpose to their lives.) It’s up to the adult—to Batman—to exercise good judgment, which he didn’t. It may have been bad judgment for him to accede to their wish and continue to allow them to be in the role, but that doesn’t mean Batman has a mental disorder: Bad judgment does not necessarily indicate a psychiatric disorder.
Batman didn’t have anything to do with the most recent Robin—Damian Wayne—assuming that role. Wayne didn’t even know that he had a son until presented with his pre-teen son Damian.[1] Damian’s ascension to the role of Robin occurred during a period of Wayne’s extended absence from Gotham City[2], when the adult Dick Grayson stepped into the role of Batman; it was Grayson who allowed Damian to become Robin. Once Bruce Wayne returned, however, he allowed his son to continue in that role.[3] Given that Damian Wayne had been trained at a young age to kill—by the nefarious League of Assassins—it is (somewhat) understandable that Wayne would want to try to remold Damian to use his talents for good, just as Wayne attempted to do with Jason Todd.

Substance Abuse: Pain Relief
  Batman’s crime-fighting activities can leave his body battered, bruised, or broken. Alfred not only acts as butler to Bruce Wayne and concierge to Batman, he also acts as doctor and nurse to the Caped Crusader—stitching wounds, setting broken bones, even performing some surgical procedures. Batman’s body suffers.
Does Batman take pain medication to help him keep going, and if so, is he “addicted”—does he have a substance abuse problem? Stories don’t often indicate that Batman takes anything to dull his pain, probably because if he did he’d be slowed down and his senses dulled—and make him more likely to get really hurt by a criminal. So it’s not likely that he self-medicates. Most of the time that he’s had a significant injury he seems to do what some people with chronic pain have learned to do: accept the pain, compartmentalize it, and live life anyway.

All That Money
  Wayne is an incredibly smart man who has found a way to make his money grow, and then to divert money to fund his activities as Batman. I don’t see anything about his spending habits that indicates signs of a mental illness. It would be a warning sign if he went on spending sprees and he often purchased unneeded items—this could possibly indicate manic episodes of bipolar disorder.[4] Or if Bruce spent large sums of money to protect himself against an unknown enemy that no one else had reason to believe posed a threat—this could indicate that Wayne might be suffering from paranoia. But that’s not the case. The money he spends to support his activities as Batman, phenomenal though they may be, is well spent to prepare him to fight Gotham City’s criminals.

What Personal Life?
  Bruce Wayne doesn’t have much of a personal life. When he’s not busy as Batman (in or out of the cowl), he’s overseeing the Wayne Foundation (his philanthropic organization) or Wayne Enterprises (formerly called WayneCorp, the company he owns and from which his wealth derives). Moreover, he must devote some time to the parties of the rich and famous (including his own) to keep up his billionaire-playboy façade. He’s juggling multiple full-time jobs. Yes, he tends not to have relationships with people outside of his work life, but the same can be said for many of us—particularly if we spend many hours at work, side by side with our colleagues. Plus, given the secret of the Batman part of his life, it’s hard to let other people in. If and when he does tell a woman he’s romantically involved with about his secret life, she’s likely to get twisted up when he goes to work each night.
This is what happened with Silver St. Cloud; she is a wealthy and sharp woman in Bruce’s circle who deduced that Bruce Wayne is also Batman. Although they love each other, after she witnessed the Caped Crusader fight the Joker she realized that she couldn’t be in a romantic relationship because of the stress of worrying whether he’ll come home each night.[5] One appeal of Catwoman as a romantic partner is that there’s less that Wayne has to keep from her (except his Wayne identity in some stories), and she truly understands who he is as Batman. He is fully known.
  Bruce is also fully known by his butler/sidekick Alfred. Ditto with any of the five Robins. Alfred and each Robin know about Bruce’s dual identities, about his history and vulnerabilities, and about his mission. Wayne is thus truly and fully known and accepted by more people than most of us can claim.[6]

Copyright 2012 by Robin S. Rosenberg

[1] In Grant Morrison’s story arc Batman and Son (1996).
[2] During the Final Crisis storyline in the comics (2008).
[3] In Batman & Robin #2 (2011).
[4] One could argue that among the wealthy, most purchases are “unneeded”: another house or apartment, another sports car, another work of art, clothes for a makeover. Such spending sprees might indicate mania if they were different from the person’s usual behavior, and occurred along with other symptoms of mania.
[5] The seminal story of Silver and Bruce, written by Steve Englehart in 1977-1978, is in Detective Comics #469-476, 478, 479, and also collected in the bound volume Batman: Strange Apparitions.
[6] As I have noted in other writings, one element of his personal life that I find potentially psychologically interesting is his relationship with Alfred Pennyworth, his butler. In Wayne’s youth, Alfred functioned as a de facto guardian, yet during Wayne’s adulthood, Alfred’s role is that of assistant: he takes orders from Wayne, but their familiarity and long history allows Alfred to “reprimand” Wayne occasionally. The closest analogies I can think of is the relationship between an adult and his or her nanny from childhood, or an executive and his or her coach.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Batman’s Mental Health, Part 1

This blog post is an excerpt from the book What’s the Matter with Batman? An Unauthorized Clinical Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader, by Robin. S. Rosenberg.

What’s the matter with Batman? There must be something wrong with him, right? After all, he does things most of us wouldn’t do in a million years: He dresses up in a bat costume and puts his life on the line night after night, without any official status. He’s a billionaire, yet he dedicates a significant portion of his personal wealth to fund his “hobby” of being a crime fighter. He has no real personal life to speak of—at least not one that isn’t directly connected to his work as Batman. (Note, though, that the same can be said of many of us!) He broods, he can be obsessive in his preparations to tangle with criminals, and the fact that he witnessed the murder of his parents must have left a scar. These facets of his life are certainly unusual, but the question I investigate in this book is whether these issues—along with various problems and “symptoms”—place Batman in the “abnormal” range from a mental health perspective. If so, just how bad is his problem (or problems)?
In fact, a fair number of people in our world and in Batman’s world have wondered whether something is wrong with him. I sometimes speak at comic conventions and people are fascinated by the question of whether there is something clinically wrong with Batman. Batman is “different” from other people in the world he inhabits, and people wonder about where the line is that separates “different-normal” from “different-abnormal.” Although people in our world may not be different in the ways that Batman is (for instance, very, very few of them dress up as a giant bat except at Halloween or comic conventions), his stories can lead us to think about what it takes to be considered “abnormal”—whether he is more than simply different, but rather has a mental illness.
After all, at first glance dressing up like a bat in public (or even in private) would seem to suggest a significant problem. Dr. Chase Meridian, the psychologist in the film Batman Forever (1995), is one such person. She remarks “Well, let's just say that I could write a hell of a paper on a grown man who dresses like a flying rodent.”
The book What’s the Matter With Batman? An Unauthorized Clinical Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader (from which this post is an excerpt), in a way, is the fulfillment of Dr. Meridian’s aspiration. It is intended to explore Batman’s issues from a psychological perspective—to determine whether his actions, thoughts, and feelings indicate a mental illness.

Evaluating Batman
Let me state clearly at the outset that I’m going to talk about Batman as if he were a real person. You and I both know that he’s a fictitious character, but part of what makes him such a compelling character is thinking about what it would be like if he did exist, if he were real. So in my discussions about him I’m not generally going to talk about why writers might have written particular stories, added specific characters, or how the Comics Code Authority guidelines might have affected his character, other characters, or the stories. I’m going to take him as he is and try to understand him, contradictions and all.
Part of my goal is to determine whether Batman’s actions and problems reach the level necessary to be diagnosed with any of the disorders in the “psychiatric diagnostic bible” at the time of this writing: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition-Text Revision, abbreviated as DSM-IV-TR.[1] The specific disorders that seem to be the most likely candidates include:

  • Dissociative Identity Disorder
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
My evaluation of Batman is intended both to entertain and to educate. People familiar with Batman stories may find my views on the Caped Crusader’s mental state interesting and illuminating. My hope is that you will also learn something about psychology in the process—something that can be of use to you as you think about yourself or other people.

Clinical Evaluation: A Continual Process
When mental health clinicians are asked to make a clinical evaluation of someone, they do so by talking to the person being evaluated, observing that person and, in some cases, obtaining information from others—family members, referring doctors, the court, or law enforcement agencies if they are involved. In some cases, psychological or medical testing is done to help clarify a question about the person’s functioning, such as whether he or she has delusions (entrenched beliefs that are not based on reality) or whether the person’s cognitive functioning is impaired in some way.
I couldn’t interview Batman directly (folks dressed as Batman at comic conventions don’t count), so how did I evaluate him? My clinical impressions and assessment of Batman are based on the stories that I’ve read or seen. Just like any mental health clinician, then, my conclusions are based on what I observe and what has been reported to me of the person.  
Making my task even more challenging is the sheer number of stories about him: In his many decades of existence, Batman has been featured in an almost countless number of stories in comic books, films, television shows (including cartoon shows), novels, and graphic novels. He’s been featured working solo, with various members of his bat-family (e.g., Robin, Nightwing,[2] Batgirl), and in team-ups with other superheroes, such as Superman. I have not read or seen every story that features Batman. Not even close. So when you read this book, you might find that you disagree with me, based on Batman stories that you know but I've not encountered. Just as mental health clinicians sometimes revise their diagnoses and understanding of a patient when additional information points to symptoms or strengths of which they were previously unaware, I might well revise my conclusions if I knew all of the salient stories.
If you disagree with my conclusions because you know of specific stories that support different conclusions than the ones I reach, please let me know; please send to me the name of the specific story, a brief summary of it, and if possible, the relevant dialogue, narration, or artwork. You can send that information to me at If and when there is enough information to warrant changing my diagnoses and overall evaluation, I’ll revise this book in a second edition, credit you in the revised acknowledgement section, and keep you posted.

Let’s Get Some Issues Out Of the Way
There are a few aspects of Batman’s life that I’d like to address right off the bat (no pun intended): that he dresses up like a bat, that he takes teenage boys as his wards and sidekicks, whether he has a substance abuse problem, that he devotes so much money to his life as Batman, and that he has no real personal life. Let’s see whether any of these things indicate that something is really wrong with Batman.

Dressing Up
He dresses up like a bat. I grant that it is weird, but the issue at hand is whether it’s more than that—whether it’s a sign of mental illness. My answer is that in Batman’s case it is not, for several reasons. First, Bruce Wayne didn’t decide to walk—or swoop—around the streets of Gotham in a bat costume because he actually thought he was a bat. Wayne started dressing as Batman because he had a specific purpose in mind: to disguise his identity when he fought criminals. Sounds like a good idea to me, and one that is used by military personnel when necessary (though not the bat part). Wayne also wanted his disguise to serve another function: to evoke fear in criminals. As Wayne noted to himself in Batman’s origin story in 1939: “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot… so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible..."[3] Thus, Wayne intentionally set out to wear a disguise that did more than hide his identity. In this sense, his choice of disguise—of costume—was effective because it met his objectives. Yes, we can argue whether a snake costume would have been more effective, but that would have been harder to squeeze into.
Additionally, Batman’s use of his attire is analogous to police officers wearing their uniform, or butlers wearing their uniform, when on duty. Uniforms (of which his costume is one) signal what the wearer’s role is. If you see someone in a police uniform, you expect certain kinds of behavior: If the officer pulls a gun and points it at someone running, it will likely mean something different to you then if the gun-holder wasn’t wearing that uniform. The uniform immediately conveys context to understand the wearer’s behavior.
In a sense, dressing as a bat is akin to dressing as a Ninja or a Navy Seal: the color—black—enables him to hide in the shadows until he wants to emerge, the bats’ wings enable him to glide short distances, and the overall appearance achieves its ends. It’s scary. His willingness to wear this unusual costume (for most of Batman’s existence, he wore tights on his legs with “underwear” on the outside, which most people find weird) speaks to his dedication to his mission and how important he thinks the costume is. And, as we see, it is.
In what cases might Wayne’s costume be considered a possible indication of mental illness? If Wayne actually believed that he was a bat (that is, if he had delusions), it would certainly suggest a mental illness such as schizophrenia or delusional disorder. If Wayne wore his batsuit for sexual excitement, it might indicate a sexual fetish. Another red flag would arise if Wayne thought he was a different person—a different identity—when he dressed as Batman; if he did, he might be suffering from dissociative identity disorder, discussed in the next chapter. (On a related note, in the book I refer to “Batman” and “Bruce Wayne” somewhat interchangeably, but I typically I refer to him as “Batman” when he’s fighting crime or in other ways functioning in his role as the Caped Crusader. I’m more likely to refer to him was “Wayne” when discussing his pre-Batman days or his life as a “regular man” rather than a crime-fighter.)

Why Wards: Taking Youngsters Under His Bat-Wing
Batman has taken five youngsters under his wing to become Robin: Dick Grayson (the original Robin, who as an adult went on to become Nightwing), Jason Todd (who later took the name the Red Hood), Tim Drake (who as an adult went on to become Red Robin), Stephanie Brown (who later became the fifth Batgirl), and Damian Wayne (Bruce’s previously unknown son, whose mother is Talia al Ghul—she is the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul). It’s a curious thing for a romantically unattached man with a dangerous lifestyle to assume legal responsibility for a young teen—as he did with Dick Grayson. Also curious is why he trains and accepts minors as sidekicks in a dangerous profession. Might this be an indication of mental illness on Wayne’s part?
To answer that question, we need to understand Wayne’s motives. I think his motives were generative.[4] In this context, the term generative comes from Erik Erikson’s term generativity, which refers to a desire to guide and nurture the next generation.[5] People can be generative in a variety of ways: through formal or informal mentoring at work, creating objects for others to use, or helping to rear children. When Wayne first took in Dick Grayson, I believe he was acting on generative impulses. Grayson’s family was part of a circus act and Dick had witnessed his parents’ murders, mirroring Bruce Wayne’s witnessing his own parents’ murders. Wayne took in Grayson to help someone in pain from growing up alone and isolated. He gave Grayson the gift of a mentor that he himself did not have.
Okay so far, but why put a child in danger by taking him to skirmishes with criminals? That’s a harder question to answer. Initially when Robin first appeared on the scene in 1940,[6] the world was a more innocent place and criminals were much less willing to harm law enforcement officers and children. Nonetheless, exposing Dick to danger was a clear lapse in judgment on Wayne’s part. A very clear lapse. Wayne might have wanted to help buffer Grayson’s loss, but there were many ways he could have done that without putting the youngster directly in harm’s way as they battled criminals. For instance, he could have used Grayson as an assistant who stayed in the Batcave, much as Alfred does, and as does the character Oracle, who helps Batman through her work at her command center.[7]

Look for Part 2 about Batman’s mental health next week.

Copyright 2012 by Robin S. Rosenberg

[1] For brevity’s sake, in the rest of the book I’ll refer to it simply as DSM-IV. It was published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2000.
[2] Nightwing is the codename for adult crimefighter Dick Grayson; when Dick was younger, he was the first Robin, Batman’s sidekick. Nightwing is primarily based in Blüdhaven but comes back to Gotham City from time to time to help Batman.
[3] The story, written by Bill Finger, is in Detective Comics #33.
[4] Although some people have read sexual motives into Wayne’s relationship with Dick Grayson (notably Fredric Wertham in the 1950s), I don’t think their relationship had sexual overtones and writers of Batman stories have stated that they wrote Wayne as a heterosexual character without a sexual attraction to Grayson. Their relationship was and is more like that of father and son.
[5] According to Erik Erickson, generativity is a key challenge to the seventh stage of development and stands in contrast to its opposing tendency of stagnation, a self-centeredness in which the individual doesn’t better society in some way. His book on development is Erikson, Erik H. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press.
[6] In Detective Comics #38; Robin was created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and artist Jerry Robinson.
[7] Oracle is Barbara Gordon’s codename; Barbara Gordon had originally been Batgirl, but after the Joker shot her at her home she was left without the use of her legs and is wheelchair bound. (Note: The relaunch of the DC Universe in 2011 had Barbara Gordon with full use of her legs and in the role of Batgirl.)

Monday, June 25, 2012

If you're going to the San Diego Comic Convention, please stop by for my panel:

Comic-Con 2012 - What's New

Thursday, July 12

The Dark Knight Rises: Is Batman Broken?
He’s strong, smart, and heroic. He's the Dark Knight we want on our side, but is Batman also out of his mind? As Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy comes to its end, psychologists Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight) and Robin Rosenberg (What’s the Matter with Batman?The Psychology of Superheroes,) discuss Bruce Wayne's relationships, strengths and weaknesses, and potential diagnoses, and ask Bat-Films executive producer Michael Uslan and some of the comic book writers who know Batman best, Len Wein and Steve Englehart, exactly how healthy it is for an orphaned billionaire to spend his nights fighting crime while dressed like a bat. Does the Dark Knight have bats in his belfry?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Assembling the Avengers

The idea of an Avengers film was daring: to put together A-list actors who have played Marvel superheroes recently, give them a good plot, script, and director (Joss Whedon). As opening weekend box office sales indicate, the risk paid off and the film was a success.
What about the psychological aspects of the film? (After all, I’m a psychologist, so that’s what I look for in films.) I anticipated that the film would focus on team-building: taking superheroes who are, for the most part, alpha males and female who are used to acting autonomously, and who comes from diverse backgrounds and have diverse experiences. They are:
  • one rich incredibly smart industrialist (Tony Stark/Iron Man),
  • one Norse God (Thor),
  • one supersoldier out of his era, and who grew up a small weakling (Steve Rogers/Captain America); he probably still has at least a partial view of himself as a weakling (just was someone who was “fat” as a kid but slim as an adult still feels “fat,” and someone who grew up poor but becomes rich never quite feels he or she has enough wealth),
  • one emotionally scarred spy who can lie flawlessly and take down multiple guys simultaneously (Natasha Romanov/Black Widow),
  • one humble scientist who prefers to be alone and who has been working to master anger management techniques (Bruce Banner/The Hulk), and
  • one guy who’s a fantastic archer (Clint Barton/Hawkeye).
(Plus a one-eyed “leader,” Nick Fury, who sets the goals and parameters for the team—or who tries to do so.)
The task laid out for these heroes (aside for saving the planet from the bad guys) is to figure out how to function as a team. To cooperate. To subordinate their own ideas to a designated leader. To be part of an ensemble.
In other words, the film is an origin story—about the origins of the Avengers. How they collectively came to be. With this many A-list superheroes, each superhero doesn’t get that much screen time, unfortunately. (Unless a longer director’s cut is in the works for a DVD.) So the film doesn’t have time to delve into a lot of character development for an individual character. It’s about group process. 
Psychologically, the origin story wasn’t as rich as I’d hoped it would be because a significant chunk of time was spent on the requisite action scenes and the who-can-piss-higher-up-the-tree scenes in the first half of the film: Iron Man versus Thor, Tony Stark versus Bruce Banner, Hulk versus Thor. Black Widow versus Hawkeye. And the who-is-more-of-a-real-hero scenes (which Captain America wins hands down). I was hoping more time would be spent focusing on a topic to which most of us can relate from our work experiences: How do people from disparate backgrounds and experiences come together to work as a team?
The film did address this point, though I would have liked to see more depth to it. Like all origin stories, there is a transformational moment in which their dynamic shifts for the better. [spoiler alert] That moment occurs after a “sidekick” dies (Agent Coulson), they have gotten creamed by the bad guy (Loki, Thor’s adoptive brother), and Nick Fury gives them a talking to about being a team. In fact, it becomes clear that more of the same bickering while fighting Loki and his minions will be ineffective. They need one leader, and the rest of them need to be willing to be led. It works. [end of spoiler alert] Instead of trying to piss higher, they cooperate, they support each other, they praise each other’s efforts. They become more than the sum of their parts. They become a team and figure out how to each member’s strength’s to their collective advantage.
The transformational moment rests on a staple used in science fiction: a common enemy or threat brings people together to work as a team. (In some science fiction stories, for instance, Earth’s nations put aside their differences and join forces to protect Earth from a hostile alien force.) This dynamic is explored in a classic psychological study by Muzafer Sherif, in which 11-year-old boys in an overnight camp were initially divided into two groups and the groups competed in various contests for prizes. Tensions between the two groups ran high, with name-calling and vandalism. As part of the study, the boys were then told that the camp’s water supply was cut off, and all boys needed to cooperate as a group to help restore the water supply. After uniting and working together against the threat (lack of water), their previous opposing-team tension decreased. This is what happened to the superheroes in the Avengers: They had to cooperate to defeat Loki and his enemy army, and their previous in-fighting and tensions dissolved as they focused on the common and important task at hand. Good job, Avengers!
Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The robber’s cave experiment. Norman, OK: The University Book Exchange.

Friday, May 4, 2012

When the Avengers Assemble?

Click the link below to hear my radio interview with the Canadian Broadcast Company about psychological issues I'd love to see played out in the upcoming Avengers film:


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Robin on Batman

Comic Con on the Couch: Psychoanalyzing Superheroes

Robin Rosenberg explores the inner lives of masked crime-fighters and the civilians who dress like them.
(Illustration by Norm Breyfogle)
The shrink wants to know how Batman is feeling.
In this case, Batman is a husky mid-40s native of uptown Manhattan’s working-class Washington Heights neighborhood, his own personal Gotham. Under his thick black rubber mask, he grunts in his best Christian Bale, “The person that’s under the mask doesn’t exist.”
But the woman he’s talking to wants to get deep under that mask. She’sRobin Rosenberg, a middle-aged Palo Alto psychologist in private practice who specializes in an unusual clinical cohort: superheroes. Rosenberg, a columnist for Psychology Today and the author and editor of several books, including the anthology The Psychology of Superheroes, wants to know what motivates Batman. Yes, Robin is questioning Batman.
For more of this article in Pacific Standard Magazine, go to...

Thursday, January 12, 2012


I previously wrote a post about one of the themes from the film Limitless: the idea that some pills can make us smarter. That they can enhance our cognitive abilities, such as our ability to pay attention, to learn, to remember, to be creative or think "out of the box." In essence, such pills-cognitive enhancers-hold out the promise of intellectual superpowers, at least for some of us. The film (and the book, The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, on which it is based) portrays a glimpse of what it would be like to have such seemingly limitless enhanced powers.

In a recent article, psychologists Thomas Hills and Ralph Hertwig suggest that there may well be limits on how enhanced our cognitive abilities can become, or how enhanced they can become without some significant cost or "side effect." As an example they hold up caffeine intake, which can help us focus and stay alert (and so makes caffeine a cognitive enhancer), but too much caffeine can make us anxious or impair our fine motor coordination. In this case, more isn't necessarily better.

Even when a more enhanced ability might be even better, Hill and Hertwig suggest that humans haven't evolved to be more enhanced without a cost. They point to "S," the man with a famous memory. S could remember lists of words or numbers of astounding length, and could recite them from memory backwards as easily as forwards. Once reading or hearing something, S never forgot it. However, S couldn't remember faces very well. He also couldn't shut out the associations and memories that were triggered by things he read and heard. His extraordinary memory came at the cost of other "normal" abilities. (You can read more about S in The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory by Aleksandr Luria.)

This seemingly built-in compensation for extraordinary abilities is highlighted in an article by Allan Snyder in which he discusses people who are savants-who have extraordinary pockets of knowledge or skills that contrast sharply with the rest of their abilities. Dustin Hoffman's character in the film Rain Man is an example of a savant. Because of how the brains of savants work, they can access information that most of us can't, but in turn they are less likely to understand the information. Metaphorically, they can see the trees in detail but don't understand that together they create a forest. Snyder proposes that it is the lack of the ability to see the whole-to process that many trees indicate a forest-that gives rise to their being able to see the trees in such detail.

Researchers have temporarily been able to induce savant-like skills in "normal" participants through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a procedure in which a coil placed on the scalp emits magnetic pulses into selected areas of the brain, briefly inhibiting those brain areas, and allowing other brain areas to become more active. Using TMS in this way, researchers have found that "normal" non-artist participants can temporarily draw better (and are able to pay more attention to detail), become better proofreaders, and become better at guessing the number of elements in a container (e.g., akin to the number of marbles in a jar), among other abilities. The specific ability that improves depends on the exact position of the TMS coil.

The fact that TMS can temporarily enhance a specific ability by briefly disabling another ability is part of the point Hill and Hertwig make: A given ability is only a plus in certain contexts, and the "side effects" or costs of that ability can, in other contexts, create deficits. Being able to remember everything you read is great for law school and being a lawyer, but it creates problems if you can't recognize the presiding judge from last year's case (but she recognizes you!).

It appears that our ability to be enhanced may not be limitless after all.

Copyright 2012 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.


Hills, T., & Hertwig, R. (2011). Why aren't we smarter already: Evolutionary trade-offs and cognitive enhancements. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 373-377.

Snyder, A. (2009). Explaining and inducing savant skills: Privileged access to lower level, less-processed information. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences. 364, 1399-1405.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Radio Interview about Real Life Superheroes

Click here to listen to an interview with NPR affiliate WFAE's Mike Collins about real life superheroes.