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The psychology of superheroes (and villains)

What we learn about personality when we analyze good guys, bad guys — and ourselves

It’s an unusual psychological question: What distinguishes a superhero from a supervillain? Sure, one is good while the other is evil, but clinicians don’t diagnose people as evil. How do their basic personalities differ—and where do we humble mortals fit into the picture?

Fictional characters are human creations, obviously, so they don’t have personalities in a conventional sense. But if we view personality as someone’s characteristic pattern of actions, emotions, and thoughts, then, yes, a character can have personality. Given how we idolize superheroes and love to hate their nemeses, what we see in them can say a lot about the qualities we aspire to in our own lives, about the role models we seek, and the standards by which we judge them.

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My students and I investigate how real people view the relative personality of heroes and villains as part of our ongoing ERIICA Project (Empirical Research on the Interpretation and Influence of the Comic Arts). We have surveyed nearly 2,000 college students, online respondents, prison inmates, fan convention attendees, and others. We ask them to rate their own personality characteristics and then those of superheroes and supervillains along five dimensions commonly called the Big Five or the OCEAN model: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Most respondents see themselves as close in personality to their favorite superheroes. Though identifying with the forces of good is healthier than aligning with evil, this need to dichotomize good and evil may cloud some ways that superheroes and supervillains are actually similar to each other—for example, in their fearlessness and flamboyance. After all, these characters do not simply fight or commit crime. Most fight or commit crime wearing colorful costumes.

People high in openness are curious, creative, and analytical, eager to try things that are unfamiliar, nontraditional, and new. Our respondents tended to view themselves as highly open to experience, more so not only than their favorite supervillain but more than their favorite superhero, too. No matter how creative and analytical they might be, superheroes follow routines. After all these decades, Spider-Man still shoots webs, Wonder Woman runs in a swimsuit, and Batman throws batarangs, works out of a cave, and drives a big, black car.

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Conscientious individuals organize, plan, persist, attend to details, set higher goals, and follow tasks through to completion—but taking these characteristics to extremes can be counterproductive. Our respondents rated superheroes as most conscientious, then themselves, and then villains, apparently seeing a positive correlation between conscientiousness and heroism. In fact, though, many villains show impressive attention to detail and devotion to their goals: Take, for example, the Riddler’s preoccupation with puzzles and his compulsion to send clue-bearing riddles. Still, Batman’s success in foiling the Riddler’s meticulous plans makes the hero seem more conscientious overall.

The extrovert is more active, talkative, socially aware, and focused on his or her environment, as opposed to the shy, anxious, inwardly focused introvert. Extroverts also tend to be bolder, more fearless, thereby sharing greater capacity for both heroic and criminal behavior. Despite the real-world relationship between extroversion and criminal behavior, we feel like heroism should be more outgoing. Respondents expected their favorite superheroes to be more extroverted, while putting their favorite supervillains right in the middle of the spectrum.

Agreeable people are friendly, good-natured, and easy to get along with. Our respondents rated their favorite superheroes as being quite agreeable, but claimed to be even more agreeable themselves. It comes as no surprise that they rated villains, who would rather be feared than loved, very low here. Magneto spends no time concerned over whether his followers really like him.

Individuals high in neuroticism are emotionally unstable, more prone to tension, guilt, anger, depression, and anxiety. Respondents saw supervillains as being quite neurotic, while clumping themselves and superheroes together on the more emotionally stable side of center. Even we and our favorite superheroes aren’t stable all the time, however, which is a good thing. In some situations, as when facing a terrifying citywide crime wave, some emotional fluctuation is entirely appropriate.

Travis Langley is a professor of psychology at Henderson State University and the author of “Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.” This piece is adapted from “Our Superheroes, Ourselves,” edited by Robin S. Rosenberg (Oxford University Press).
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