Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Superheroes To The Rescue--For Real

Flying like Superman in virtual reality can make you more helpful in real life. That's what my colleagues and I found in a recent study. At Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Shawnee Baugman, Jeremy Bailenson, and I had participants enter a virtual environment and they were either given the power of flight or rode as passengers in a helicopter. They were then assigned one of two tasks: help find a missing diabetic child or tour a virtual city. Regardless of which task they performed, people who had the power of flight were significantly more likely to help a researcher pick up spilled pens in real life than the helicopter passengers were. 

Embodying a superpower in virtual reality may prime players to ‘think like superheroes’ and thus facilitate subsequent helpful behavior in the real world. Alternately, participants who could fly in the game may have felt like more active participants than those who passively sat in the helicopter while performing tasks, and this more active involvement may have induced their subsequent behavior.

To read the paper in the journal PLOS ONE, click here. To see a short video clip about the study, click here.

And for more about superheroes, take a gander at my new book:

This is a book about seven superhero origins stories, what they reveal about the superheroes' personality, how they reflect the findings of psychological research, why we're interested in their origin stories, and what their stories can teach us about ourselves.

[photo credit: Cody Karutz]

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Another Cosplay Survey: The Psychology of Cosplay 2

Hello to all you folks who cosplay. Here’s the link to a survey on cosplay that my colleague, Andrea Letamendi, and I are conducting.

We want to know more about the psychology of cosplay and hope you can help us. We’ll post the results this summer.


The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories

From my article in Smithsonian Magazine:

“Why is every superhero movie an origin story?” complained Entertainment Weekly film critic Adam Markovitz after seeing a trailer for this summer’s Man of Steel—yet another version of the 75-year-old Superman saga. Perhaps we love origin stories, Markovitz suggested, because they “show the exact moment when a normal guy goes from being Just Like Us to being somehow better, faster, stronger.”
I’m inclined to disagree. As a clinical psychologist who has written books about the psychology of superheroes, I think origin stories show us not how to become super but how to be heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power. I’ve learned this through hundreds of conversations at comic book conventions, where fans have been remarkably candid about their lives and the inspiration they draw from superhero stories.

Read more:

Friday, January 4, 2013

Holy Wonder Woman! A Review of Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines

I had the opportunity to see documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines recently. The film provides a history of superheroines, beginning with Wonder Woman, overlaid with a history of women in American culture and women’s rights during the same decades. It was interesting to see Gloria Steinem talking about feminism, Ms. Magazine, and Wonder Woman in the same breath, and to see many women (and men)—some famous, some not—talk about the ways in which Wonder Woman has been an icon of female power and inspiration.

Wonder Women
The film also includes what the director or interviewees see as the descendants of Wonder Woman in popular culture:The Bionic Woman, Ripley in the Alien films, Sara Conner ofTerminatorXenaBuffy the Vampire Slayer, and evenCharlie’s AngelsCharlie’s Angels seems like a bit of a stretch, but the film makes a case for it.

More interesting psychologically are the parts of the film that talk about how icons in general, and superheroines in particular, inform us about what we should aspire to be. How they create templates to which we gravitate and fuel our imaginations, our self-images, and who we might want to become. Some of us may resonate with (or aspire to) Sara Conner’s tough, capable, and single-minded way of being strong. Others of us may resonate with Wonder Woman’s model of compassion, bravery, and strength. Or Buffy’s sense of humor in the face of adversity. There is something for everyone in the pantheon of superheroines.

I wish the film had spent more time on the sexualization of superheroines. We all know that superheroines in comic books are drawn with marvelous figures in skimpy costumes, and film and TV superheroines as similarly endowed and attired. The film touched on the issue of superheroines always being sexy, and sexy being equated with power, but a longer discussion of the implications of this for the audience would have been welcome. For instance, what does it mean that superheroines sometimes use their attractive physical appearance to achieve their goals? (Though Wonder Woman rarely does this, other superheroines do.) And what are the effects on females in the audience who see that superheroines only come in a certain size “package,” adorned a particular way. (For interesting research related to this in computer games, see Lissa Behm-Morawitz’s research). What does it mean for women and men that superheroines are, by and large, also seen as sex objects in our world? (Click here for research aboutobjectification, in which the experience of being treated as an object results in coming to see oneself that way. Objectification theory was originally conceived of as primarily pertaining to females. The original article by Barbara Frederickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts in 1997.)
I suppose that’s the subject for another documentary.

Copyright 2013 by Robin S. Rosenberg

All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Her most recent book is What’s the Matter with Batman? An Unauthorized Clinical Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader.