The Superheroes

Inside the mind of Batman and other larger-than-life heroes.

Helping Others, Helping Ourselves

Josh needed a kidney; Barry offered to donate one of his.

Here's a true story: Star Wars fan Josh Weisleberg had polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary condition; his kidneys were failing, he was on dialysis, and the waiting list for a new kidney was-and is-long. Josh had exchanged emails with other Star Wars fan on an online forum for collectors; at one point he mentioned his condition. Subsequently, Barry Benecke II--another collector on the online forum, who knew Josh only by his screen name--offered to donate his own kidney to Josh. Barry was a match, and the operation was successful.

Why did Barry want to give one of his kidneys to a man he'd never met? Barry explains that he'd recently loss a number of people close to him, all from different types of cancer: his mother, the daughter of a friend, a good friend, his wife's uncle. "It was because of losing those folks that I was compelled to try to help someone else. The first person who I found that I might be able to help was Josh." Josh notes "Everybody likes the heroics and people trying to do good and make the galaxy safe. When you translate that to everyday life, you have folks trying to live that...Barry is a hero for sure...He's Luke Skywalker." (Click here for more information about their story. Selfless behavior wasn't new to either of these men; they both belong to the 501st Legion, an international organization of Star Wars fans who enjoy putting on Star Wars costumes and doing good works such as running in marathons for charities, and wearing their costumes to entertain children in hospitals.)

The same selflessness motivated another 501st Legion member, Eric Seeman, to donate one of his kidney's to fellow Legion member, Jeff Romanoff, who had kidney cancer (click here and here to find out more about that story). Romanoff wrote, "Eric is a true hero and emulates everything Star Wars is about. A wonderful, selfless friend, putting his life on the line, so I may see my son grow up."

Barry's and Eric's selfless behavior falls under the category of what psychologists call prosocial behavior, actions that are directed to help others. Common examples include sharing, cooperating, comforting, and giving assistance. Why do people behave in these ways? What light can psychological theories and research shed in helping us understand why Barry and Eric gave of themselves-literally?

Psychologists divide possible motives for helping others into two groups (click here for an article by Daniel Batson on the subject) :

  1. People help others because doing so allows them to attain some goal for themselves, referred to as egoism;
  2. People help others because they want to improve the welfare of others, referred to as altruism.

The first type of motive covers a wide ranges of situations and experiences. In addition to the more obvious ones (e.g., that the helper collects a "chit" so that the person helped may feel the need to "pay back" the helper at some later point, or that the helper's status increases in other people's eyes), people may also help to relieve their own negative emotions in a situation--such as distress, guilt, or sadness; helping relieves those feelings. Solicitations for donations to help children with cleft palates may motivate people to donate because seeing photographs of children with this problem leads the viewer to feel sad or distressed for the children; donating money lessens these uncomfortable feelings.

Among superheroes, Peter Parker's decision to help others as Spider-Man seems to stem from egoism; he became a superhero, at least in part, to relieve the terrible burden of guilt he felt about being (indirectly) responsible for his Uncle Ben's death. Although this type of motive may seem less "noble" than the second type, the helping behaviors that result from this motive are still helpful to others and shouldn't be thought of negatively simply because the helper had less altruistic reasons for helping.

The second type of motive can arise when we feel sympathy or compassion for others. For instance, some of us may respond to the photo of the child with a cleft palate with a deep sense of empathy and compassion for the child, and want to help-donate-simply to improve that child's lot in life. Among superheroes, Wonder Woman's reason for being a superhero fits this description-she helps others simply because their suffering--or potential suffering--touches a chord within her and she feels compelled to act on their behalf. Altruism was at work when Barry and Eric each decided to donate their kidney.

My reaction to hearing about Barry and Eric's generosity was probably similar to yours: I felt humbled and awed and wanted to perform some "good work." Psychologists refer to the feeling that I had--and that people have when they witness or hear about other's altruistic acts--as elevation, a term first used by Thomas Jefferson to describe the desire to do charitable acts in response to seeing an act of charity performed by another.

Psychologists are investigating the extent to which the feeling of elevation translates into actual helping behavior. We may feel great by hearing about or witnessing other people's good works, but does it change our behavior? The handful of studies investigating this question suggests that it does (click here for an overview of this topic. For research papers, click here and here).

Might superhero stories--in which the superhero clearly acts heroically--induce a sense of elevation in readers or viewers? If research found that they do, it would be interesting to see whether reading an appropriate comic book story induces more, less, or the same amount of elevation as does watching a superhero cartoon or movie. (Ideally, to minimize confounding factors, the storyline should be the same across the media portrayals.) Perhaps (some) superhero stories don't just teach moral behavior; maybe they also induce people to help others through elevation. Wouldn't that be super!

[Thanks for Stephen Sansweet of Lucasfilm for telling me about the remarkable story of Barry, Josh, Eric, and Jeff, and to Mary Franklin of Bantha Tracks for her reporting of them in Star Wars Insider.]

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com. Click here to take her brief What is a Superhero? Survey.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., has taught psychology at Lesley University and Harvard University. She is the editor of the anthology The Psychology of Superheroes. more...

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