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Post-Traumatic Growth

What Is a Superhero?

What's a superhero and why does a psychologist care?

Welcome to The Superheroes Psychology Today blog. In this first post, let me address two questions: Why a psychological blog about superheroes? And what is a superhero?

First, why the blog? I write about superheroes-who seem to be everywhere these days-because their stories often capture essential truths about human nature. That's why, I think, many people like superhero stories. We resonate with the themes in the stories, with the dilemmas and problems that superheroes face, and we aspire to their noble impulses and heroic acts. We identify-or would like to identify-with them (although some times me way identify with the villains). Superheroes are models for us, and they are modeled after us.

Superhero stories provide rich examples of psychological phenomena. For instance, the origin stories of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Tony Stark/Iron Man are wonderful examples of how people make meaning of traumatic experiences-a field of psychological inquiry called posttraumatic growth or stress-induced growth. Click here for a Psychology Today article on the topic. You can read more on this topic by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun here and here. For even more articles, click here. (More on this topic in another post.)

The second question that I want to address in this post is: What is a superhero? For purposes of this blog, I'm going to use a broad definition: Someone who manifests a super-ability or superpower and generally acts heroically-is brave and self-sacrificing. In fact, the dictionary that is a part of Microsoft Word has as an alternate definition of hero (not a superhero, mind you, but a plain hero): A person "with superhuman powers." And Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines a hero as "a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability." So the line between my definition of a superhero and that of a hero as defined by some dictionaries is a narrow one. The use of masks or costumes is not a prerequisite for superhero-dom according to this definition.

According to my broad definition, examples of superheroes would include both the heroes in the DC and Marvel comics universes (such as Batman, Superman, Iron Man, and Spider-man) as well as a large cast of heroic characters whose talents and abilities go significantly beyond that of "normal" people. Thus, I include as superheroes Hellboy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (even though they don't wear costumes or have secret identities) and 24's Jack Bauer (he certainly has a super-ability to fight through pain and he can hold his urine for hours). Note, though, that according to my definition, someone who commits only a single heroic act while exhibiting more than normal talents or abilities would not be classified as a superhero.

I use a broad definition here also because I think that what makes superheroes so compelling is the idea that we are on the same continuum as they are. They're like us, but with something extra. We ponder what it would be like to be them. And with advances medicine and technology, the line between us and them will get increasingly narrow. Medications will enhance our cognitive functioning so that we might be able to become as smart as Batman; steroids, medications, or nano technology may enhance our bodies so that we might become almost as strong as Wonder Woman or Wolverine (okay, maybe not that strong, but you get the point). Or at some point in the future, we might be able to don a powerful exoskeleton like Iron Man (also click here for more on that).

Like any good science fiction, superhero stories also point to possible societal changes that result from medical and technological changes. The stories illustrate how such advances might change us, and what issues we might encounter as some humans procure these special gifts while others of us don't. And how it feels to be more "able" than other people. (In fact, psychologists who do research on gifted people can speak to this issue.) In subsequent posts, I'll explore some of these and other issues.

In the meantime, I want to know what YOU think defines a superhero. Click here to complete the What is a Superhero? survey.

Stay tuned.

© 2010 Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

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