Superheroes, or most any kind of persistent heroes, have to be tough in order to keep doing what they do, day after day. Lately, I've been reading about mental toughness, a term psychologists use to characterize a quality studied in athletes (particularly elite athletes of various types; Crust, 2008; Nicholls et al., 2009). Mental toughness has four components:
According to Peter Clough, a leading researcher on mental toughness,
Mentally tough individuals tend to be sociable and outgoing; as they are able to remain calm and relaxed, they are competitive in many situations and have lower anxiety levels than others. With a high sense of self-belief and an unshakeable faith that they control their own destiny, these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition or adversity (Clough et al., 2001, p. 38).
When I read this quote, I thought of superheroes (or action heroes like James Bond).
Although certain situations may elicit mental toughness more than other situations, research indicates that some people are generally more mentally tough than others (that's why it's considered a personality trait) and it arises from both genes and environment (particularly adversity). For athletes, such adversity includes an exposure to a tough sport environment (challenging competition) and early setbacks through which the person can learn from failure (Bull et al., 2005).
Reading about mental toughness led me to reflect (again) on the perceptiveness of superhero comic book writers--who probably derived the idea of mental toughness from observing the real world. The writers provided many superheroes with both the components related to mental toughness, and the environmental adversity to toughen up the heroes. For instance, pre-spider bite high school student Peter Parker (who becomes Spider-Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider) http://marvel.com/universe/Spider-Man_(Peter_Parker) is characterized as someone who has the elements of mental toughness:
And like many people with mental toughness, Peter has experienced adversity (Dienstbeirm, 1989): (1) his parents died when he was young, (2) his aunt and uncle-his guardians--have limited financial means, and (3) Peter is socially marginalized, despite his best efforts. And of course Peter's guilt about his unintentional role in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben toughen Peter up.
Spider-Man is only one example, but mental toughness runs rampant in the superhero world: I'm thinking of Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The list goes on.
After reading the research on mental toughness, I got to thinking. Is this personality trait (and its similarity to qualities possessed by superheroes/heroes) the reason that great sports figures are considered heroes? Perhaps the term hero has become almost synonymous with the qualities of mental toughness.
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.