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The Psychology of Superheroes

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I have two great loves: psychology and superheroes. Recently I have decided to combine these two loves by creating an introduction to psychology honours class creatively titled ‘Psychology of Superheroes’. For my students, I gather textbooks by Dr Travis Langley and Dr Robin Rosenberg and accumulated online articles and podcasts. We cover all the basic areas like learning, lifespan and personality development, and cognition, but also discuss themes like culture and gender/sexuality.

Both the students and I have fun in the class, but the topic of superheroes is more than just a nerdy pop culture discussion. I write articles analysing the psychology of various animation and graphic novels. Within a year, I hope to complete my own textbook on the topic and continue to revise the class each semester. Why even spend my time thinking about superhero psychology, or ask others to care?

Jung called the hidden thoughts, feelings, and desires that all people regardless of time and place experience the ‘collective unconscious‘. What is personal to you and me is a universal phenomenon. In the same way, our personal unconscious shines through symbolically in our dreams, the collective unconscious shines through the symbols in our mythology. We can find these symbols in ancient mythology, fairy tales, and yes, comic books. Superhero fiction reflects our reality.

Like any good fiction, the sagas of superheroes bring us out of ourselves and connect us with something larger than ourselves, something more universal. Moreover, in our superheroes’ foibles, struggles, and triumphs, we can see elements of our own foibles and struggles, and hope for our triumphs (Rosenberg, 2008, p. 1–2).

Whether a person is an avid comic book reader or just enjoys seeing the films, many people identify with a particular hero’s (sometimes villain’s) story.

Some people say that Batman is their favourite, but their reasons vary. Some identify with his traumatic history from childhood, others take comfort from the way he has made meaning of his adversity (‘If he can pull through and help others, it inspires me to do the same’). Some Wonder Woman fans aspire to be like her – confident with herself and her body. Still others identify with Spider-Man, who juggles multiple real life problems, fights crime, and tries to do the right thing in all spheres of his life (Rosenberg, 2013, p. 12–13).

Personally, I’m one of those Spider-Man fans: nerdy, awkward, and a smart ass. In my class to illustrate research methods, I give my students a survey on their current emotional state and their favourite superhero characters. Preliminary data suggest that various feelings, thought patterns, or ways of self-identification connect to which heroes a person feels drawn. For example, feelings of guilt correlate with liking Aquaman, while feelings of acceptance correlate with liking Superman.

Perhaps as readers and viewers engage with their favourite characters’ stories, they can work through their anxieties along with the characters. Perhaps as Peter Parker continues to grieve over the loss of Uncle Ben, juggling responsibility with personal desires, fans can vicariously cope with instances of their own grief, or reconcile their own inner conflicts.

Psychology of fictional characters is becoming a new trend in scientific discussion. Before, talking about our modern mythological heroes was not taken very seriously by academics. Through the culmination of comic book history, society often sees comics as enjoyed only by children or ‘fanboys’.

There is much literature about fairy talks and mythology, including works by Bruno Bettelheim, Rollo May, C.G. Jung, and Joseph Campbell, but no major specific studies of superheroes by psychiatrists or psychologists. (Fingeroth, 2004, p. 23)

This statement is no longer true. Many clinicians and researchers, like Drs Langley and Rosenberg as well as Dr Andrea Letamendi of the Arkham Sessions podcast, embrace their geekiness and apply it to educating others about mental health.

If nothing else, through the lessons in our modern superhero mythology, I would like my students to connect psychological principles to their own lives and gain an educated appreciation for mental health, hopefully slowly changing our culture of stigma against those with mental illnesses.

Heather Ness received her MS in clinical psychology at Clayton State University. She currently teaches introduction to psychology courses at Middle GA State University. 


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