Superheroes, Supervillains, and Ourselves upon the OCEAN

How do we view fantastic heroes and villains, and what does that say about us?

Posted Sep 15, 2013

An understanding of how people feel and think about life's heroes and villains can sometimes be better gained by learning what they think about fictional characters who epitomize the defining qualities. Fans have specific ideas about what fictional characters are "really like" and are often quick to blame storytellers when a favorite one's depiction is "out of character." Over the last year six years, my students and I have collected data on how nearly 2,000 college students, convention attendees, online respondents, prison inmates, and others see themselves and how they perceive others, including both fictional and nonfictional examples. Of particular interest to us as we continue our ongoing ERIICA Project (Empirical Research on the Interpretation & Influence of the Comic Arts), we've asked them to assess the "average" superhero and supervillain as well as their favorite of each. 

What's the point of doing all that? What possible value is there in asking survey respondents to assess people who do not exist? 

Frankly, doing so can have the same value as assessing people who do exist, and fictional people can't sue you for asking about them. You learn a great deal about human nature by comparing yourself to others. You don't just learn about them. You learn about yourself. You cannot, however, see a living human being's thoughts balloons or hear that individual's private voice-over commentary on events going on in life. You cannot see that person in many different situations or know what really happens when the individual is not around you. You see only a sliver of any other person's world. 

You can read a comic strip character's thought balloons. You can read the thoughts of a character in a book or hear a protagonist's narrative on film. They may not real, but the people who created them certainly were. Those creators reveal things about themselves through their characters. They reveal some of their own inner reality and experiences they might not even realize they've exposed. They provide glimpses into how they think, how they experience the world, and how they think others do, too. 

Contemplating fictional characters can help some people face issues so horrible, bizarre, or otherwise unnerving that they might turn away from examining real people in such circumstances. When I gave a guest lecture in another professor's trauma class, students there said the subject was very heavy and the class left them frequently depressed, but when I used Batman and his enemies as examples for reviewing some of the same serious trauma disorders, they got to enjoy the day's lesson. Brutal reality didn't make them turn away when I taught it through the filter of fiction.

Among the many purposes pursued through my research, the ERIICA Project explores the nature of heroism. By asking people to rate fictional heroes and villains as well as how they view the ideal person, we learn a bit about what they expect from good guys and bad guys even in real life. When they indicate where they expect their favorite heroes and villains to score on personality variables such as the Big Five personality factors, the OCEAN model as McCrae and Costa dubbed them, we can compare such ratings to what we know about real people. We can learn if they hold heroes up to unrealistic expectations or fail to recognize the humanity in life's villains. Sometimes crime-fighters and criminals can be more alike than people often want to admit.

The Boston Globe includes some of our findings regarding how people view themselves, their favorite superheroes, and their favorite supervillains - also available online:

The psychology of superheroes (and villains): What we learn about personality when we analyze good guys, bad guys - and ourselves.