The Chaotic Life

Patterns and randomness in how we live

Chaos theory and Batman: Part III

imageAnd now for the third and final installment of our introduction to chaos, complexity and randomness as portrayed by the primary characters in the movie Batman.... Read More

I am impressed!!!!

i am really impressed, when i first saw the movie few days ago i never imagined that someone could analyze it in such a breath taking way!! now i need to see it again after i read this article:)

Thank you!

I saw it again too. Like most movies, not as good the second time, even on I-Max. Oh well :( Still good enough. Dave


I have read all four of your blogs so far and have enjoyed reading them a great deal. Though I feel that I am missing the concept of chaos theory and its relation to research in psychology. Psychology is such a complex science due to its premise of studying something not physically tangible. I suppose I'm just having trouble constructing how psychologists can study something so immensely vast as well as having a myriad amount of the uncontrollable variables of the mind. Maybe it is my weak math background or the fact that I am tired from reading all day before I read these three new posts, but I am having trouble understanding. My apologies for the vague question and lack of comprehension but I do hope you can enlighten me when you get back.

Thank you,

It's all about the model

Hi Facc, Not vague. I get it. This topic is bantered about on our chaopsyc listserve a lot (see The issue is a big one, and gets into some deep areas of philosophy of science. Essentially, modern science finds that we live in a non-local, or deeply interconnected universe. See books by Minas Kafatos for a good readable example from physics, I'm just finishing one by him now. Things are particularly interconnected at the psychological and social levels. Almost nothing can exist in a vaccume. Try to imagine yourself floating in empty space, with nothing and no-one to interact with. You would surely go crazy as you essentially would cease to exist. So in any given psychological situation, there are many controlling factors and outcomes to consider. Example - my wife reads the bad news in the financial pages yesterday which sparks a fight (a good one at that) about my grocery shopping habits ("could you do a smaller shop today dear?"). So if you want to study the way we get along, do you need to include newspaper stories, or the federal reserve policies? Maybe so maybe not. What you really need is a good model. In any research situation, you decide what question you would like to answer, you decide which variables to include (only the most important ones), and you decide how the variables interact. The difference in nonlinear dynamics is you allow the variables to interact in nonlinear ways - such as a little change in one variable causeing a big change in another, depending on this or that other factor. You allow for variables to shift their interactions and behavior over time. And you allow the outcomes of your model to be eratic or complex. In traditional linear research in psychology, you may have the same limited set of variables in your model, but they have to behave in non-natural and unrealistic ways, with each variable impacting the other in a smooth and proporionate manner, and with outcomes that are sampled only one time, and that can only go up or down, rather than all over the place. So its still research, and the models will never match 'reality,' but they can always come a lot closer to 'reality' or if you don't believe in that, at least they may be more useful to us. Thanks for the question, -Dave

Your theories are really good

I really like your take on the triad nature of the movie and I comend you on your research. There is nothing wrong wtih the bandwageon in terms of psychology. It is cool to anyalize our favorite worlds and characters. I did not even know there was a chaos theory until this. Great job overall.


Big Thanks! -Dave

Wow! I went through all four

Wow! I went through all four posts, have seen the movie twice, and trust me; you do sum it up really well. I have been quite enamored by chaos theory since last year when one of my friends introduced the concept to me but was on the sidelines. Your demystifying it with the Joker presents an amazing perspective to it. Looking forward to more chaos!


Thanks a lot Shweta! -Dave

Re: Wow! I went through all four


Dr. Pincus' writings are technically convincing and very user friendly. I am staying tuned for more, hoping that you will too.

I noticed that the last line that you have written is "Looking forward to more chaos!" and not "Looking forward to more ON chaos!"

So just in case you used "Chaos" to refer to some sort of mayhem!

"The paradox of chaos theory is that chaos is not actually random, that chaos contains order, and that order contains chaos, in a Yin-Yang sort of manner."
--- Dr. Pincus, Dark Knight 1.

Neel, Ur last line answers


Ur last line answers it all. Since chaos has some order, hence I am looking forward to it!


Attack of the Blog!

Dear Neel and Shweta, This sort of exchange is the best thing I could hope for. You've just demonstrated the interpersonal branching that occurs when relationships evolve. Group and family therapist look for this all the time, as do individual therapists who look forward to the point where a client feels confortable saying when we are full of crap. Back and forth see-sawing is a sign of an early group dynamic. So thanks a lot for 'breaking new ground' and evolving the discussion. And forgive me for having the last word - which probably undoes a lot of the progress made :) -Dave

Wow Dave, You surely made us

Wow Dave,

You surely made us see a point we would have missed! Trust me, with me and Neel( she's the one who introduced the concept to me), you will find enough of demonstrations of dynamic group behaviour!

Distinguishing Chaos from Randomness

"This is one of the ways that researchers can distinguish chaos from randomness, by looking at how autocorrelation (i.e., momentum in a sense) drops off over time. In highly chaotic systems the drop off is fast, in low-level chaotic systems the drop off is slower, and in random processes the drop off is immediate." Dr. Pincus, Dark Knight - 1


I am unable to understand what you are trying to convey here. Can you please give a few examples to help better explain auto correlation and drop offs?

Best regards,


Hi Neel,

Sure. Regular correlation is how much one thing is related to another. Height and weight are correlated, extroversion and number of friends and so on. Autocorrelation is the correlation between something and itself as it changes over time. Your level of physiological arousal will be correlated over time - if it is high now, it will be high in a few seconds, as it goes lower, it goes lower still in a few seconds. If your level of arousal is pretty coherent and smooth, this autocorrelation over time will be high - reaching out far into the future. You would be a very steady individual. If you are all over the place emotionally, the autocorrelation will go down. Indeed, I read one good study in the journal of personality and social psychology a few years ago demonstrating that such variability in arousal was a good marker for the trait of neuroticism. So anyway, the higher the chaos, the lower the autocorrelation over time will be, the lower the chaos, the higher the autocorrelation over time will be.

Hope that helps,


Joker's Personality

This is a great piece and I really enjoyed reading it. I have a question because although I agree the Joker is a psychopath, I also see a lot of Sadistic Personality Disorder. Do you know what the biggest differences are? I've read a lot of psychological pieces on the Joker, but SPD isn't mentioned.


The Look on Joker!

That was a great piece, i read all 4 blogs and gained a lot of understanding and knowledge about Chaos Theory and Complex Theory and how you studied the personalities of Batman, Joker and Two-Face with it.

This post might contain some SPOILERS, so i suggest if some people don't want the movie to be ruined, they can stop here.

Anyways, i saw DARK KNIGHT quite a few times and i sort of understood the message behind some of the Joker's actions in the movie. What i am trying to say is that Joker had no goals and plans, just as he quotes ever-so-nicely that he is merely a dog chasing a car, who wouldn't know what to do with it once he catches up with it. Yet through his random chaotic actions, he is trying to help Batman. Joker didn't have any motives yet he was trying to merely teach Batman a lesson that "don't overexercise your powers or don't try to step over the limited boundaries that you have been given". Batman seems to deal with lots of his problems in a vigilante sort of manner but when you are the guardian of people of Gotham, you can't take over that role of Vigilante, you have to get down from power-trip and control or limit your actions. Lots of things that Batman did in DARK KNIGHT could have been questioned in terms of their moral and ethical boundaries and backgrounds. Therefore, Joker's way of exploiting Batman in order corrupt him at the core was basically a way of shaking up Batman and giving him a wake up call, because sometimes people have to hit rock bottom in order to gain and take in a healthy experience and recognize themselves. As we discussed that according to "Adele Hayes has shown some evidence that things tend to fall apart (i.e., greater fluctuations in symptoms, emotions and more erratic behavior) prior to positive changes in therapy for depression."

Does that make sense in any way that Joker was sort of fixing things up for Batman through his chaos and mayhem ways?

Very well said

Very interesting view on the characters. It surely adds a whole another dimension next to the usual moral analysis that one can perform on such stories. However, I have to disagree about Harvey Dent. Since he represents randomness, maybe we could consider him to be even more chaotic than Joker. If an individual decides to act randomly on every occasion in his life, the result would have nothing to do with the bell shaped curve, but rather with unpredictability. Just my view on the topic :)

This was very interesting

I really enjoyed reading this. im currently trying to research similar in my own special study at university.

I think that Batman through his own struggles in the film is pushed by the Joker to become more than a Hero, at times in the film you feel that Batman may be pushed to become a villan. I think the film in general is a good example of Batman as a character and why he IS The Batman.

i was trying to find your email or an address to write to you to discuss your views further.

i hope you get back to me.

thanks Lewis

Hi Lewis,

You can find me and my contact info at Chapman University's dept. of psychology. Easiest route is likely just to google "chapman university psychology pincus" or something like that - and you'll find my home page.

Best to you on your paper,

Dr. Dave

Reasserting Randomness


I have been fascinated by the ideas you present in this blog for some time, but only recently did I manage to put my own thoughts on the subject together. You can find them here:

I hope you take my ideas in that blog post in the spirit they were intended, which was to do justice to the inspiration your analysis provided to my own thought processes!



Thanks Matt - Your posting is really interesting

Matt - I read your post. Honored to be cited by such a good writer as yourself, and someone with such a command of philosophy. I know of Nietzche tangentially, and remember loving Spinoza's philosophy during graduate school, it seemed very non-linear to me at the time. However, because I haven't used these ideas in so long, I've forgotten the details. I understood well your comments on the existential nature of choice and responsibility versus giving one's self over to randomness. I was most intrigued by your discussion of the concept of "eternal return" and if you write more about that, I'd love to read it. I couldn't completely grasp the concept to be honest, but wonder if it relates to the nonlinear dynamics concept of "recursion." When applied to relationships, the idea corresponds to empathy, process comments, or mindfullness. Essentially, a system become aware of itself, and choosing based on that awareness. I think you are suggesting that Batman beats Joker because he has this quality. This is what allows him the freedom to choose to let the haroin die, and ultimately to choose to become a percieved villian for the greater good. Joker's ability to choose is more limited, he breaks stuff. Batman can break stuff or build stuff - finding nuance that better matches the real world of fuzzy morality. As the name of the film suggests, he can be the "Dark Knight" right? A paradoxical title. Is the eternal return about paradoxes of self-reference? That's my main question. Thanks again for reading and for giving me such a fun read in exchange. -Dave

The Eternal Return


Many thanks for your kind comments. Like you at the time of your Dark Knight posting, I am relatively new to the blogosphere so such praise is warmly received!

On the eternal return, you can rest assured that very few people really get to grips with it directly. As Todd May himself points out in the chapter I cite, it remains Nietzsche's most difficult concept. Even my own understanding remains largely secondary, as is I hope quite clear from the blog. Nevertheless, you seem to have come to terms with it pretty quickly if I follow what you say above.

Most of all, I think you really hit the nail on the head ("philosophizing with a hammer" is another of Deleuze's favoured "images of thought"!) when you refer to the self-referentiality of a system - this sense of doubling back (dédoublons, creating doubles, as Deleuze himself has it) is central to what is known in the humanities as "poststructuralism" (a movement that takes wide-ranging inspiration from Nietzsche in particular). Likewise, the sense that arises from that principle is, as you suggest, deeply relational. Might it also have something to do with that most canonical of chaotic principles, sensitive dependence on initial conditions?

To come back to the Bat, however, I'd agree that he is able to win out in the end because he embraces both "good" and "bad" sides of the equation; he masters those "active and reactive forces" I talk about in my posting, the forces that together (and only together) make up the eternal return, whereas the Joker and Two-Face remain more limited in the choices available to them. They lack "integrity", perhaps? (The double meaning of that word is such a boon to analysis of this issue, I find!)

There is, as always, so much more I could say about this, but I'll leave you with that for now. Clearly the great advantage of a theoretical field like chaos is that it facilitates discussion across disciplinary boundaries in such productive ways and I intend to keep a close eye on your blog in the future for that reason. No doubt I will also seek to return (eternally!) to chaotic themes, given how close they are to the surface of my philosophical outlook.




Matt, I get eternal return better now. Everything else you write makes sense to me too, and yes - the main advantage is weaving together the different disciplines. Maybe someday we'll finally get back to square 1, where the shaman's used to be :)- But with science this time to help things go a bit further even. Regardless - you made my day today with our little discussion. And who knows where that will lead down the road...


well, dr. David, i was always a very big fan of the chaos theory (i actually presented about it before) & when i saw tht movie, i thought about that way, from the CHAOTIC aspect especially the JOKER aspect, & i was really impressed to see a doctor like yourself discussing it this way, which was Awesome !! cause i always thought there's a connection between psychology & life & CHAOS.
what i wanted to ask is, you said the Joker was bad, tht he was chaotic by the mean of THE chaos not the Chaos theory, & correct me if i'm wrong, but i see it otherwise, the Joker for an agent of chaos he seems awfully organized !! he claims he doesn't have a plan but he does. all of his actions, that seemed CHAOTIC had a pattern & had some kind of order at the end, right ?

Also i wanted to know more about the prisoner's dilemma & the 'Social experiment' the Joker used at the end of the movie, if it had any thing to do psychologically or chaotically !!

Actually, i wanted to go deeper with the analyzing of the Dark Knight & the Chaos & i think you are the only person who could help me.
Many thanks to you Dr. David

Re: Chaos

Hi Spaynkter,

Your comment and question about Joker versus Chaos (technical chaos, as in deterministic chaos in chaos theory) makes sense to me I think. I believe I was trying to use Joker as an example of what people typically think of as chaos, versus the mathematically defined chaos of "chaos theory." Your point I think was that the Joker was not random. Indeed the two-face character was random - I was trying to make this distinction as well. Joker, it seems was trying to annihilate the structured plans of "The Batman." I was trying to focus the analysis on edge-of-chaos, or complexity, as a model for personality - and that the Batman character and his evolution in the film provided some good examples. If one wanted to speculate further (and it seems you would like that :), one could suggest that the Joker character was designed to be a driver of a complex dynamic (i.e., the Batman's behaviors). He attempted to force the batman into situations where his integrity would be broken, where he would be shattered. This would force batman to be rigid and broken, where he would lose flexibility and also structural integrity.

Joker tried to do this to individuals within the city and the city itself too - the prisoner's dillemma situation with the hanging trolley cars is one example. "Yes" to your question as well about prisoner's dillemma in psyc research - it is a frequently used research paradigm. Many studies have used it in organizational and social psyc primarily. The ones in dynamics are "iterative prisoner's dillema" paradigms, where to agents play round after round over time. I've got a study designed too that I'd love to do some-day using prisoner's dillemma. It's sort of a simple set up - you simulate high dimensional (close to random) chaotic but predominantly conflicting responding to a person (i.e, the participant in the study does not play against an actual person over time, but instead plays with pre-determined sequences of responding involving low levels of cooperation) to rigid conflictual responding, on a continuum. Once you get past this initial training phase you shift the pattern in the direction of cooperation. Shifts within a rigid time series should bring about transformation of the interactive dynamics more quickly - proportional to the rigidity.

The applied value of such a study would be to demonstrate that rigidity in behavioral sequences in relationships actually creates the seeds for positive transformation. I.e., - the most rigid conflicts also hold the best opportunity for high level adaptation through resolution. This is what I figure was being demonstrated by The Batman in response to Joker's attempts to break him - the other (not so nice) potential outcome of rigid conflict. In the prisoner's dillemma study too you could demonstrate the the same dynamic holds in the opposite direction as well - that rigidly cooperative dynamics are frail, and can break more easily into the direction of conflict if one party fails to cooperate on even a short number of sequences. The implication here is that flexibility is importan in and of itself - that rigidly happy people, and rigidly cooperative couples are not simply annoying - but potentially pathological. I think for most non-perfect people we suspect as much via common sense, right?

On a theoretical level - such a study might extend Weber's law of Just Noticable Differences in perception into dynamics at larger scales (i.e., interpersonal perception to dynamic connections).

Anyway thanks a lot for the shared interest...

-Dr. Dave

joker's psychological eval

it seems to me that you really don't have a way to put a stamp
on the way the joker's mind functions. he is beyond profile. if the medical staff at the asylum that houses the most criminally insane minds created in fiction can't diagnose his ills, what makes you think
you can?

he has a type of "super-sanity" that is adapted to urban life in the twenty-first century. he sees humans in their real light, entertains you, and the applause you give him is to call him "bad"?

got some work at the drawing boards, doc.

Web of Beliefs

I thoroughly enjoyed the article. Profiling the Joker's behavior reminded me of William James's web of beliefs theory, in which armies of smaller ideas only exist as ties to primary ideas that do not interact with one another and cause cognitive dissonance - thus, self sustaining and explaining why some people believe the strange things that they do.

As a result, we can see how destroying a primary idea can restructure a personality, by destroying the main facet that dozens upon dozens of smaller ideas rely on to exist. A most adequate analysis. Fortunately, Batman has his core beliefs rooted in place firmly, and they are reinforced by the second movie's ending, not thrown into dissonance. : )

Web of beliefs

Ive been long overdue to read some James and Dewey. If you have a reference to these web of beliefs ideas I'd be most grateful. I've known that James was a great dynamics theoretician, but I've never even heard of these ideas before. Very interesting. if you have any leads, please send to: pincus@

Thanks a lot - Dave

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David Pincus is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University in Orange, CA.


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