The psychology of superheroes

the-avengers-walking.jpgSuperhero ensemble tale The Avengers chalked up a record US$200.3 million at the North American box office in its opening weekend. (Zade Rosenthal/Disney/Associated Press)

First aired on Day 6 (04/05/12)

Superheroes have leapt from the colourful pages of comic books and movies into our imaginations for generations now, but what they mean to us can be much more than mere entertainment.

Psychologist Robin Rosenberg has extensively studied psychological phenomena revealed by superheroes and has written and edited several books about superhero psychology, including the upcoming Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care. She says superheroes are often admired, not just for their power, but because they can offer a moral example to live by.

"All of us look for models of either how to behave [or] how to guide our thinking when we're experiencing moral or ethical dilemmas," Rosenberg told Day 6 host Brent Bambury during a recent interview. "What would X do? And so superheroes offer ... a set of values, that if you agree with each given superhero's philosophy, they can help guide you."

But of course, as inspirational as superheroes are, they're also clinically fascinating. After all, what possesses someone to constantly risk their lives and eschew their own needs and desires to help others? How does someone strong enough to lift a city bus resist the urge to rob a bank? To mark the release of The Avengers, a movie that features several high-profile superheroes, including Captain America, the Hulk and Black Widow, Rosenberg discussed what makes some of these characters so intriguing psychologically.

Iron Man (Tony Stark)

stark-175.jpg"Tony Stark's character, like Batman, actually, teaches us about a field in psychology called post-traumatic growth or stress-induced growth. And that is how people do strive to make meaning of trauma. They say 'why did this happen' or 'why did this happen to me?' And in coming to terms with it, they often create a mission for themselves, and that's what happened to Tony Stark in the film version of Iron Man. The first film did a fantastic job, I think, of just layering the different ways that Tony Stark had felt betrayed, by the circumstances of his abduction, his kidnapping and his injury, and how he really sought to find some silver lining from the experience."

Captain America (Steve Rogers)

captain-america.jpg"Captain America, in his own film, showed us how people, however they were growing up, a version of that still stays with them although their life circumstances may change. So, for instance, kids who were heavy in their childhood and then grow up and become normal weight or average weight, inside often still feel like that heavy little kid. And so Captain America's character, basically, was physically weak, he was not at all an alpha male, sort of the opposite. And so with this super serum he became a different person, in essence, and people responded to him differently. But inside, part of him is still the Steve Rogers he was before, so, again, it'll be interesting to see how he is, what his issues are, as people treat him as this bulked-up guy, this really strong guy, and as he comes to feel himself be that."


thor-150.jpg"For me, what would be psychologically interesting is his own struggle of being a god but people really not wanting to bow down before him, and especially his teammates, who might take him or leave him, or might view him as a helpful colleague but not the boss. I think The Avengers film in general is a nice opportunity to see some of what we know about the workplace environment and how colleagues get along and how diverse colleagues can get to know each other and get along. So I'm looking forward to that psychological aspect of the film as well, and Thor's role in that."