The Psychology of Wolverine
Why he's the way he is
Posted August 6, 2013
Instead, in what follows I outline a psychologically interesting aspect of Wolverine’s origin story—such as it is. It is excerpted from my book Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care.
Wolverine is a fierce and fiercely loyal mutant superhero. He is brawny, cranky, and has a temper. In fact, when Wolverine is fighting, he sometimes has berserker rages. But he also has a good heart. He is one of the most popular Marvel’s superheroes, long before actor Hugh Jackman donned Wolverine's black leather outfit and lupine-like coif. Wolverine's popularity means that he pops up and saves the day in several different comic book titles each month in addition to his appearance in Saturday morning X-Men cartoons and in films.
What makes Wolverine so appealing? He's the James Dean of superheroes: the safe "bad boy" with a short fuse and a tender heart—the loner who longs to belong. Moreover, Wolverine's fans—in his world and in our world—are won over by his tenacity, wry humor, and his commitment to a person or cause. We admire who he is.
How did Wolverine, a.k.a. Logan, become who he is? And what is his origin story? Like most superheroes who’ve been around for a couple of decades, Wolverine has a long and convoluted history. He first appeared in 1974 in Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk #180-182, written by Len Wein. From the outset, he had a spandex style superhero costume, metal claws coming out of the back of his hands, and he was superstrong. With his first appearance he battled the Hulk, matching the green guy rage for rage. Although he didn't defeat the Hulk in their first matchup, Wolverine fought well and he manifested another power: his healing abilities. We subsequently learn that the gleam in his claws is from adamantium, a fictitious metal alloy that is indestructible. In addition, we are told that adamantium is also bonded to all the bones in his body.
Wolverine is an unusual superhero in that he was created without a backstory. In fact, not only was he backstory-less, but for most of his career he has had a form of amnesia—he doesn’t remember his past. Thus, for much of Wolverine's life as a superhero, both he and his fans didn't know how he got those adamantium claws, how he could heal so miraculously, why he fought with berserker rages, or why he had animal-like heightened senses of smell and hearing (although it was assumed that a genetic mutation had something to do with at least some of those abilities). Also unknown to Wolverine and his fans was any sense of what factors motivated him—why he behaved the way he did.
His amnesia fuels his desire, at times a compulsion, to find out about his past and why he can’t remember it. Paradoxically, it is Logan's inability to remember where he comes from that forms the core of who he is—that forms his adult personality. Insofar as he has an origin story, it is that he developed amnesia. At least until 2001, when Marvel comic book writers created an origin story for Wolverine, and film writers followed suit.
What if you, like Wolverine, had no one around to fill in the blanks of your past for you? What would you do? You'd likely observe your own behavior, and from your observations, you'd make inferences about your personality and make guesses about your past. You’d confabulate—create false memories to fill in the blanks. Wolverine's autobiographical amnesia puts him on the same playing field as his fans: he (and we) figure out who he is by watching how he acts and reacts, noticing his instincts and habits; we just don’t know how he got that way.
Self-perception theory explains this process in more detail: By observing your own freely chosen behavior (versus behavior that is constrained by the situation, such as having a somber demeanor at a funeral), you infer underlying psychological characteristics.[i] For instance, suppose that, like Wolverine, you find yourself gravitating to bars; if someone asked you why you hang out bars, you'd likely answer that you prefer it, perhaps for the sense of companionship that being in a bar provides. According to self-perception theory, you'd then infer underlying attributes about yourself for choosing to hang out in bars: You must be the kind of person who prefers the social stimulation of being around others while at the same time being able to be alone among others (after all, if you really wanted to socialize you might do it in other ways). Alternatively perhaps you infer that you like to drink a lot—and maybe you’re depressed and unhappy with your life. In any case, you'd latch on to some rationale for your behavior and use it to draw inferences about yourself and your personality.
What would Wolverine observe in his behaviors that would allow him to develop a sense of himself—his preferences and inclinations, his strengths and weaknesses? Let's put ourselves in Logan’s mind around the time he appeared in the first X-Men film (now referred to as X-Men 1, released in 2000)—right before he joins up with any other mutants. Logan is in rural Canada, cage-fighting for money, handily winning without his opponents making a mark on him. After the cage-fight, he drinks in the bar, but then the man who lost the cage-fight goes to knife Logan as payback for Logan’s victory. Logan’s claws come out, he threatens those who move in on him, and then Logan leaves. He (and we) can infer many things about himself just from this scene.
First and foremost among the conclusions that Wolverine can draw about himself is that one way or another, he's a freak. He's got foot-long metal claws that come out of the back of his hands and he's got science-defying healing powers. The obvious question is one of nature versus nature: Was he born that way or made that way? Wolverine wants answers to this question.
Needless to say, Wolverine wants to keep quiet about his freakish nature and he doesn’t know whom he can trust. Plus, his body's actions suggest to him and us that he's not the kind of guy who trusts easily and probably with good reason. Which leads to another conclusion he can draw about himself: His propensity for fighting, and his fighting abilities, suggest that he was in some type of fighting profession. It's easy to see why, in the absence of any other information about himself, he'd be a loner—it’s the safest course of action for him to take.
The Man Without a Past Commits to a Future
Wolverine’s autobiographical amnesia, in concert with self-perception theory, can help us understand why a loner like Wolverine would join the X-men. And joining the X-Men is probably the second seminal event in Wolverine's development in making him the man he becomes.
* * * * *
I Am Like You
To understand how autobiographical amnesia and self-perception theory explain why Wolverine joined the X-Men (and why his enlisting with them is important for his identity), I first need to explain a bit more about self-perception theory. In addition to inferring qualities about ourselves by observing our own behavior, we also infer qualities about ourselves when we observe the behaviors of people who we feel are very similar to us—people with whom we feel a sense of shared identity. Here's an example: Let’s say you identify with your best friend; you think that the two of you are generally similar—similar values, similar preferences. If you know that she donates money or volunteers to help in a local homeless shelter, you'll probably make some inferences about your friend's personality (e.g., "She's an altruistic person who wants to help those less fortunate than herself.") Because you identify with this friend, you're likely to attribute these qualities to yourself too: "If she is this kind of person, then I must be this kind of person too."
Lest you think that this is too theoretical, a set of experiments by psychologists Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini found exactly this.[ii] Put yourself in the position of a participant in one of their studies, a study that, you are told, is about "people's perceptions of different kinds of interviews." In one version of the experiment (your version) you're going to listen to a randomly selected interview with Interviewee #49. Before you listen, though, you're told that your brainwaves will be measured with an electroencephalograph machine (EEG) so that the researchers to determine the degree of similarity between your brainwave pattern and that of Interviewee #49.
You are told that Interviewee #49 and you have similar brainwave patterns, and you can see this for yourself: The computer monitor shows the two brain wave patterns superimposed on top of each other. The computer also displays a "brainwave similarity index," and the similarity between your EEG and that of Interviewee #49 is 93 out of 100. You're told that any similarity index over 90 is rare and typically arises only between siblings or between very close friends. In fact it's so rare that the computer popped up a request that you check with the experimenter at the end to make sure that Interviewee #49 wasn't a close relative or friend of yours.
You then listen to a short interview between a research assistant and Interviewee #49 about college students living on campus versus off campus; Interviewee #49's remarks were generally bland and not noteworthy. You keep listening past the official end of the interview because they are still talking. You hear the research assistant ask whether Interviewee #49 would be willing "to do something for a cause relevant to [the investigator's] other line of research, which is homelessness." Specifically, would Interviewee #49 be willing to take an extra 10 minutes to examine materials about homelessness? The answer was "yes." Then after a moment the audio ends. So far so good.
On the computer screen, you're then asked questions about how you perceived the interview style of the research assistant. You're also asked to: (1) rate how similar your own personality is to that of Interviewee #49; (2) whether you feel a shared sense of identity with Interviewee #49; and (3) whether you share similar attributes with him or her. The computer screen then informs you that the investigator is looking for additional participants for another study that must end in a few days—would you be willing to participate immediately after this study?
How do you think you'd respond? If you're like the participants in the actual study, you would say yes. (In contrast, if you had been in the control group—with no EEG and no mention of similarity with Interviewee #49—you’d be a lot less likely to agree to participate in the additional study.)
Okay, time to debrief after you're finished with the experiment: Unbeknownst to you, your brainwaves were not actually being measured while you were hooked up to the EEG machine. What you saw was a pre-recorded EEG. So when you saw "your" brainwave pattern superimposed on that of Interviewee #49, it wasn't your pattern, and the brain similarity index wasn't based on your data. The reason for all of the effort about the EEGs and the similarity index was to try to induce you to feel a sense of shared identity or kinship with Interviewee #49. This EEG/similarity index procedure was successful in leading participants to feel a sense of similarity—of what the investigators referred to as shared identity—with Interviewee #49.
Being told about the high brainwave similarity index (which could reasonably be taken as a possible indicator of genetic similarity) led the participants in the experimental group to feel that they had similar personality characteristics to Interviewee #49, despite not knowing very much about him or her. The take-home message from this study is that, in essence, when we feel ourselves to be similar to another person, whatever attributes we infer from his or her behavior, we are likely to infer about ourselves (and thus we are likely to behave similarly in the future.)
* * * * *
But what does this study have to do with Wolverine? Here's what: First, in order to understand himself, Wolverine looks at his actions and attributes (see Table 2, left column)—his claws, his readiness to fight, his healing powers, and he infers certain characteristics about himself. He knows that he is "different" than other people and that he should try to hide this. The safest course of action is for him to keep to himself, keep his head down (so to speak), and either hope that his memories come back or else find a way to build a life going forward without memories.
Then one day he encounters other people who are also different. Not exactly in the way that he is—they don't have claws or apparent healing powers--but they are nonetheless different from your run of the mill human. He recognizes that if he's a freak, he's not the only one.
How does he encounter them? Let’s go back to the first X-Men film: Immediately after the cage-fight I described, Wolverine encounters a young mutant, Rogue, She’d seen Logan's claws pop out when he was threatened in the bar, so she hides in the back of his pickup truck. He discovers her and let her ride with him after she explains that she too is "different" than other people. Before their conversation can go much further, though, the mutant villain Sabretooth causes Logan's pickup truck to careen off the road. Rogue and Logan are initially knocked unconscious, and end up being rescued by the X-Men. He and Rogue are brought to Professor X's School for Gifted Children (also the X-Men headquarters). Professor X, the head of the “good” mutants, explains their mission to Logan and invites him to join them: to advocate for mutant rights and for peaceful co-existence with humans, and to protect humans from nefarious mutants (who may band together for evil or dastardly deeds). Wolverine accepts the invitation. Why? Let’s take a closer look at why Wolverine might throw his lot in with this band of mutants.
United We Stand
Let’s apply the results of the Goldstein and Cialdini study to Wolverine in order to understand how joining the X-Men helps Wolverine to construct a sense of who he is, or who he must be. Let’s imagine what Wolverine sees when he observes the Professor X and the X-Men. He sees people who are like him: people who are "different"—people with superabilities or powers, and who are unafraid of violence, or at least don't let their fear deter them.
When Wolverine meets these other mutants, he is in essence like the participant in Goldstein and Cialdini's study who is told of the similarity index score of 93. Seeing other mutants right there in front of him, in action—he can't help identify but with them, to feel a sense of shared (freak) identity. And once he identifies with them, it's a small leap for him to witness their voluntary behaviors and then infer attributes about them based on those behaviors.
What attributions is he likely to make? After he observes that they've banded together for a cause—mutant rights plus peaceful existence with (and protecting of) humans—he'll infer that this band of mutants is altruistic. The X-Men's motives are pure and they are decent people. They don't fight people unless they have to and they don't use their powers gratuitously. And because he identifies with them, Wolverine attributes these same characteristics to himself: "They are freaks like me. They are decent, well-meaning, altruistic folks who use their powers for good, so I must be that kind of person too." And he does become this kind of person. He fights the good fight; he selflessly battles beside them, and is extremely loyal.
How fortunate that it was the X-Men that Wolverine encountered after he developed amnesia, and not the sometime-villain, Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants(a band of mutants who see themselves as superior to humans, and hence seek to dominate us). If Logan had run into the Brotherhood of Mutants first and they invited him to join their ranks, Wolverine might had developed a shared identity with these mutants, and become a different person!
 In this context, a mutant is a type of human who has a more than or different than human ability or power caused by a genetic mutation.
 This was originally a Norse term used to describe the experience of soldiers who become so immersed in the heat of battle that they fight like animals, indiscriminately mowing down friend and foe.
 Despite fighting valiantly against the Hulk, Wolverine took a major beating—so much so that the Hulk thought Wolverine was dead. Sometime after the Hulk strode away, Wolverine's healing ability enabled him to fight another day.
 I will generally use the present tense to describe Wolverine's amnesia; however, in the comic book stories, Wolverine did "get back" his memories.
 I am going to use the X-Men film rather than the comics to discuss Wolverine’s amnesia and self-perception theory because the various comic book stories have long, complex, convoluted and sometimes contradictory portrayals of Logan’s amnesia, real memories, and implanted false memories.
 Let's not forget—he finds himself in Canada; a strong hockey player with incredible healing abilities would be a definite plus.
 Without an X-ray or other scan of the bones of his body, there's no way for Wolverine to know that his skeleton has been infused with adamantium. Once he learns about his skeleton, he still doesn't know whether he was born or made that way. Of course, we readers can speculate that such an indestructible metal skeleton must have been done to him—and done after puberty. Otherwise how could little Wolvie grow?
 Wolverine fans know that answer to that: Both!
 For those of you familiar with the scientific method, you're in the experimental group; the control group does not have EEGs done and no comparisons are made between participants in the control group and Interviewee #49. In all other respects, participants in the control group receive the same procedure that you do.
 In a variant of this study, participants read the transcript of an interview, and no mention was made of EEGs or brainwave patterns. Rather, some participants were asked simply to take the perspective—the thoughts and feelings—of the person being interviewed, to imagine themselves in the shoes of Interviewee #49. Other participants (the control group) were asked to read the transcript, without the request to put themselves in the shoes of the interviewee. The results of this study were similar to the one with the EEGs: When participant felt some type of shared identity with the interviewee (in this case, to take the perspective of the interviewee), he or she was more likely to agree to volunteer to help the researcher with a subsequent study.
 Interviewee #49 was always the same sex as that of the participant.
 Even if Wolverine isn't sure whether his special abilities come from mutant genes or biotech advances, he would still feel a sense of shared identity with the mutants given that that each of them is a freak in one way or another.
 Of course Wolverine leaves the X-Men for solo adventures; given there are four monthly comic book series in which he is featured, he'd have to! Nonetheless, the rest of the X-Men become Wolverine's family and, as with being a member of any family, sometimes you want to be off on your own.
[i] Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-perception: an alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological Review, 74, 183-200.
[ii] Goldstein, N. J., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). The spyglass self: A model of vicarious self-perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 402-417.