I recently listened to an episode of “This American Life”, which was repeated from 2001. The first segment focused on a hypothetical question that John Hodgman (2001) posed about what superpower you’d choose, invisibility or the ability to fly. It is not my intention to provide all of the details about the show; instead, my intention is to discuss some of the potential conclusions drawn by those involved.

Alexi Berry, used with permission
Source: Alexi Berry, used with permission

The episode is worth a listen. Hodgman describes stages people go through making the choice. He discusses some gender differences. And best of all, at least for someone who loves psychology, his subjects discuss why they make the choice, and offer some conjecture about psychological aspects that might play a part. Though this is not an official psychological study, the conclusions drawn relate to projective tests used in psychology.

Projective tests have fallen out of favor. As a practicing therapist I do not know anyone who uses them regularly. Graduating students these days are taught empirically-based methods, and projective tests have not been found to be as valid or reliable as other inventories. One issue is the way in which they can be manipulated, because they deal with the unconscious. For example, if you choose invisibility, but deny it has to do with your need to embrace your shadow, I can simply purport that is so because you are using unconscious defense mechanisms to suppress the insight. If you had agreed, I compliment you on your insight, and making the unconscious, conscious. The scientific method, which looks at observable behavior, is invulnerable to this. Empirical-based treatments are not the end all, be all, and a good deal can be gained from projective tests.

Therapy purports itself a science, and as such wants distance from what it believes are practices with less than a scientific approach. But how exact is science? For argument’s sake, let’s draw a parallel with psychopharmacology: there are currently over 40 antidepressant drugs. No single drug works for every person, and in fact, medical advice when seeking antidepressant medication, is to remain persistent until you and your doctor find one that works for you. Furthermore, most antidepressants have been found to be only slightly more effective than placebo. Yet they are the most prescribed drugs in the United States.

The parallel is this: no single antidepressant works for everyone, there are a multitude of options, their effectiveness is questionable for the long-term, and no one is suggesting we cease using them because they are not scientific enough. Projective Tests could be viewed similarly. Perhaps they are not as accurate as one would hope, but in some cases they offer deep insight into one’s unconscious. I believe this is a possibility with the superpower dilemma.

The dilemma is such: you can choose one superpower, the ability to fly, or the ability to become invisible. If you choose to be invisible, you and what you are wearing is invisible, and you choose when to activate the ability. However, things you pick up are not invisible. If you choose the power of flight, that is all you get; you do not get super-strength, or other superpowers, just the ability to fly up to 1000 mph.

Hodgman postulates a theory at the end of the segment. He states, “At the heart of this decision, the question I really don't want to face, is this: Who do you want to be, the person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are?” If this choice is true for most, it relates to Jung’s idea of the “Shadow”, and to Maslow’s idea of self-actualization.

First, in Jung’s theory, the first goal toward psychological health is embracing the Shadow. The Shadow is one’s dark-side, the side one does not want to acknowledge is her own. Here is where the thoughts and desires one is ashamed of, finds despicable, or otherwise wants to deny exist. Many of those who choose invisibility do so to hear what others say about them when they aren’t around, to spy on others, or to procure things they don’t have the money to pay for. It is easy to see how this relates to the dark side.

On the other hand, those that choose flight usually site travel as their main reason. Some hope to help others, and others generally see the ability to fly as exciting and something to make life more fulfilling. There is no mention of anything considered dark. Contrarily, there is mention of being able to help others.

Maslow’s theory of self-actualization discusses a desire we all possess to transcend more basic needs, and achieve our fullest potential. Aspects of self-actualization include the desire to help others, become more invested in life, and otherwise carve your own path. The actions of one self-actualized are less focused on ego satisfaction, and more toward experience and the benefit of others.

To explore this further, while discussing Projective Tests, I asked students in my Abnormal Psychology class what they thought of Hodgman’s idea, and its possible relation to unconscious motivation to either embrace the Shadow or the drive toward self-actualization. About a third of the class agreed the question denoted whether they needed to embrace their shadow or are moving toward self-actualization.

Of course there are exceptions. With anything that attempts a glimpse at the unconscious, there always is. For example, a client being late to a session can be considered resistance. There are other explanations, however, and many are viable. There was a time when any lateness was interpreted as resistance. Now a more skilled clinician would consider the circumstances, but keep in mind that resistance is a potential explanation. In relation to the superpower question, some choose invisibility because they wish to be alone, to disappear at times. Choosing to fly for travel alone does not indicate movement toward self-actualization. But, like more reputable projective tests, the answer is a great starting point for discussion and possibly says more about what lurks below awareness than you realize.

Copyright 2015, William Berry


Glass, Ira; Chicago Public Media; 2001; Superpowers; This American Life; Transcript retrieved from: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/178/transcript

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