Why Popular Culture Psychology? What's the Point?

Is there really any good reason to analyze popular culture psychologically?

Posted Feb 14, 2018

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When asked why I write about fictional characters' psychology, I offer many different reasons. For example, some topics are so difficult to talk about when discussing real people that it might be easier to get people to think about those same real issues when talking instead about characters. That filter of fiction can be a powerful thing.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We learn much truth from fiction. Examples and comparisons help us understand and to see things from a fresh point of view. Remember having to do a math problem, calculating something such as when two trains approaching from different directions would reach each other. For somebody who loves trains, that's a great way to learn math. A professor at my university teaches a class on math and baseball, and for a student who loves baseball, that's a great way to learn math. I teach the psychology of real people by talking about fiction. It works because I analyze the fiction by talking about real human nature.

I'm best known as the author of the book Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. When I talk about real children who've witnessed their parents' murder, my forensic psychology students can feel so disturbed that they miss the information they need to learn about the associated problems. However, I can talk about how the same things we've learned about real people apply to the fictional character Bruce Wayne, and the students stay with me.

Some of the contributors who write chapters for related books that I've edited offered these thoughts.

  • William Blake Erickson: I guess there are a few reasons, but mostly I think it really helps me with my teaching and I value what this experience has given me in that domain. It's also a good conversation topic during job interviews. It's really helped me there.
  • Erin Currie: It makes psychology concepts approachable. Popular culture characters and situations play out so many complex human dynamics that they provide great examples I can use to make these concepts easy to understand by non-psychologists. Also, because they happen outside of reality people are much more open to considering the consequences for problematic behaviors and perspectives they share. What's the point of our field if our work is inaccessible to the majority of people?
  • Denisse Morales: Popular culture is often a reflection of the current social and political climate. It tells our weaknesses, our strengths, our issues, our passions through characters.
  • Scott Jordan: Any group of people has a story. It's what binds them and affords cooperation. Contemporary popular culture is a torrent of stories that are rich and complex enough to be discipline-relevant to psychologists. By writing about pop culture, I get to be part of it. It's an absolute thrill!

People on Twitter who aren't psychologists who analyze characters and stories this for this kind of book shared these thoughts when I asked, "I know my answers. I'm curious how YOU view these: What's the point in analyzing popular culture psychologically? Why bother looking "inside the heads" of made-up characters? Fair warning: I may quote you at @PsychToday."

  • @RyanLSittler: I'd say because it acts as a type of shorthand. If you discuss Batman, a character many people are familiar with, the explanations and connections you make can be quickly - and easily - understood. Easier to analyze something people somewhat understand than start from scratch.
  • @linann6: Fictional characters are based on what the author perceives as the way real people think & act for the most part. I know from watching Supernatural that there are characters I can see myself in and this has helped me understand why I do and say things the way I do.
  • @legalinspire: Mostly so people have something to argue about, AFAICT. Like most nonsurvival activities, it’s a way to distract ourselves from onrushing oblivion.
  • @WooPigDoc08: Because these characters are road maps, metaphorically guiding us toward who we want to be, how we want to live, what we want to do, and where we want to go... or so we think.
  • @TwoShrinksPod: B/c it is an interesting exercise scientifically to see if models of psychology and psychopathology explain a character’s actions - listen 39mins in to this ep discussing anakin skywalker mental health
  • @PolymorphicOne: I question the validity of the analysis when focused on characters written by disparate authors. Is the psychology not more a matter of the writer's choices in serving the story? Characters do not make (un)conscious choices in their behavior.
  • @LurkingJack: Maybe because fictional characters in fictional stories are so much more fun to analyze than real life people like, let`s say politicians screwing up real life? No clue
  • @TownToonie: The point of analyzing popular culture psychologically is to delve into our own psyches & explore issues through a fantastical storyline that parallels some struggle in our own life & find relevant solutions from it. Looking "inside" provides glimpses into our own qualities that propel us towards success & failure. Further we can analyze the actions & emotions demonstrated by our heroes & villains that gain them success/failure. Use that inspiration & passion to reach our goals successfully. #joy #nerdfan #superFun
  • @JackDTylerD: In the current social climate of being inclusive with characters in media so LGBT, nonwhite and otherwise different folks can have someone to relate to, I always like to remind people that a character doesn't have to look exactly like you to be relatable. When we look at a character in fiction and confidently say why they are responsible for their words, actions and feelings, it helps us get a grip on ourselves, especially when we see ourselves in that character. (I may or may not cope by calling my exes Mr. Burns. Just saying.)
  • @m_abdel_maksoud: Because, as Wilde said: "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life" By understanding pop culture we understand our world better. Anecdotally, I've come to understand close people much better after watching their favourite TV shows or reading their favourite books.
  • @Jess_Starkiller: Because people relate to fictional characters more than real people these days
  • @angel_houts: We analyze pop culture because we view the projected polarization of ourselves. We like to think we are the honorable Jon Snow. We fantasize with the power of Vader. We understand the Joker's motives. Finally, we are reminded by the thin moral line that we can cross with Magneto.
  • @fitgeek_uk: Probably for the same reason I've started a provisional website about physics in some of these shows.... I find it fun and a good launching point for learning actual physics

What about you? What do YOU think? You've read this far. I hope you've stayed interested enough to share some thoughts on this. To some of us, this matters a great deal, and you can help.

Much appreciated!

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