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The Psychology of Star Wars: Dark Side Edition

Star Wars makes lots of claims about our darker emotions. But are they accurate?

NeONBRAND/Unsplash, public domain
Source: NeONBRAND/Unsplash, public domain

Since the first film’s release on May 25, 1977, Star Wars has enthralled audiences worldwide. Much of the series' appeal no doubt is due to its stunning special effects, epic battles, and entrancing alien creatures. As important as these characteristics are, however, many movies boast all of them as well, so they alone can’t fully account for our lasting fascination. There must be something deeper.

According to Kevin Decker and Jason Eberl, editors of the book Star Wars and Philosophy, "it’s not fighting the ‘wars’ of the title that spurs the development of the main characters’ personalities . . . Instead, it’s the struggle to understand and overcome deep problems of identity, truth, freedom, and the tragic side of life.” In short, there’s a lot of psychology in Star Wars. But is the psychology of Star Wars reflective of how our minds actually work?

Of the numerous psychological assertions made in the series, none are more significant than its understanding of our darker emotions. In the galaxy far, far away, feelings of anger, fear, and hatred constantly loom in the shadows, ready to consume and pervert our personalities. The Dark Side is tempting and dangerous.

If this is also true in our real world, it’s something we all should know. So, let’s explore what real-life psychological science has to say about three major characteristics of the Dark Side.

1. The Dark Is More Powerful Than the Light

“I’ve become more powerful than any Jedi.” – Count Dooku (Attack of the Clones)

Every kid knows it. The Dark Side is more powerful than the Light. It’s one of the reasons that villains like Darth Vader, Count Dooku, Emperor Palpatine, and Kylo Ren are so intriguing. Even though these characters might not exactly be worthy of our admiration, their descent into darkness was accompanied by an increase in their Jedi powers.

Given that Jedi powers aren’t real (sorry to say), the closest analogue to this issue in real-life psychological science has to do with the consistent finding that negative emotions and experiences have greater impact on people than positive ones.

In one classic study, researchers interviewed three groups of people — some who had won the lottery approximately a year prior to the interview, some who had experienced a serious injury-producing car accident also about a year earlier, and a control group of people who had experienced neither outcome. Given that a year had passed, the lottery winners didn’t report being any happier than those in the control group. The positive emotions that undoubtedly existed soon after the win had quickly diminished. On the other hand, the accident survivors’ negative feelings persisted. In other words, negative events appear to influence people in a longer-lasting way than positive ones. Negative emotions stick around longer.

But this is just one of many examples of research demonstrating that darker emotions and events tend to be stronger than lighter ones. Writing in the journal Review of General Psychology, Case Western Reserve University Professor of Psychology Roy Baumeister and his colleagues documented this phenomenon in numerous areas of life, including the ways we learn, our friendships, and even our most intimate relationships.

For instance, negative interactions, such as arguments, appear to have a more powerful effect on romantic relationships than positive interactions, like bringing home flowers. In fact, on the basis of his longitudinal studies of married couples, researcher and couples therapist John Gottman has proposed that negative interactions are five times more powerful that positive ones. When the number of positive interactions experienced by a couple is at least five times the number of negative interactions, marriages tend to last. But, when the balance shifts significantly from this ratio, relationships are likely to fail.

There’s no need to despair, however. None of this means that the bad will always triumph. As Baumeister and his colleagues observe, "Good may [still] prevail over bad by superior force of numbers: Many good events can overcome the psychological effects of a single bad one.”

In other words, even though the Dark Lords of the Sith may be more powerful than the Jedi, this just means the Jedi need to work harder.

2. The Dark Side Has Advantages

“The Dark Side is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” – Palpatine (Revenge of the Sith)

In addition to the general claim that the dark is more powerful than the light, according to the Star Wars mythos, when people access the Dark Side of the Force, they unlock specific powers that practitioners of the Light Side lack.

We'll probably never learn to shoot Force lightning from our fingertips, of course. But real-life research does show that darker emotions activate certain useful abilities within us that our lighter emotions generally don’t. In other words, negative emotions, while unpleasant, can also be useful.

Researchers have long agreed that there is good reason that we human beings have the capability to experience negative emotions: These emotions protect us against harm. It’s important to remember that our species (homo sapiens) evolved to fit into a pretty perilous ecological niche. More than 200,000 years ago, dangers lurked everywhere. Fear, anxiety, and anger are evolution’s way of keeping us safe. If our ancient cousin Ug were out gathering berries and encountered a tiger, it would behoove him to be afraid and even angry. The ramped up response of his autonomic nervous system and the adrenaline pouring into his bloodstream would activate certain abilities that normally would have been dormant: He may suddenly hear certain sounds with greater clarity that could signal he’s being stalked. Distracting worries about yesterday or tomorrow may temporarily vanish, allowing his focus to narrow to the pressing needs of the present moment. Pain sensations may become suppressed, allowing him to fight harder or flee faster. Ancient humans who ignored or didn’t have negative emotions, wouldn’t have reaped these benefits, making them less likely to survive long enough to pass their genes to the next generation. In other words, we’re all the genetic beneficiaries of ancestors whose negative emotions helped them survive threats.

So, negative emotions in themselves are not harmful. It matters what we do with them. Anger can cause us to become violent and hurt other people, but it can also motivate us to fight peacefully against injustices. Anxiety and fear can hold us back from taking necessary risks, but it can also lead us to take practical steps to protect ourselves and the ones we love. Sadness can lead us to isolate ourselves and wallow in misery, but it also can lead us to reconsider our lives and ultimately make better choices.

As Palpatine so rightly said in Revenge of the Sith, “I can feel your anger. It makes you stronger, gives you focus.” Negative emotions focus our attention on possible sources of harm, helping us to eliminate or avoid them. That can’t be all bad.

3. The Dark Side Can Easily Consume Us and Is Best Repressed

“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you, it will.” – Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back)

A final major assertion Star Wars makes about our darker emotions is that they can easily consume us and, therefore, the best strategy is to repress them. In his famous confrontation with Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker goes to great lengths to push away his feelings of fear and anger, while Palpatine repeatedly encourages him to give into these feelings. The logic of the scene is that if Luke allows himself to feel these negative emotions, he’ll become forever turned to the Dark Side.

But is this really how emotions work?

No, it’s not. Negative emotions are a normal and unavoidable part of life, at least in measured amounts. As already mentioned, it's probably not in our best interest to avoid them completely, given that they confer certain advantages. But, we probably couldn’t avoid them even if we wanted to. This is due to a maddening paradoxical effect of what psychologists call “experiential avoidance”. Specifically, the more we try to avoid or suppress a psychological experience, the stronger that experience becomes.

It’s an easy principle to prove. Just follow this command: For the next 30 second, try not to think of a white bear. If you almost immediately failed at this task, you’re not alone. Participants in a study appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology couldn’t do it, either. That’s because in order to know what you’re trying to avoid thinking about, you have to think of it.

Likewise, trying to avoid or suppress negative feelings will actually make you more likely to experience them. For this reason, research indicates that emotional avoidance can be a risk factor for anxiety disorders and depression.

Counterintuitively, the best way to decrease negative emotions in the long run may be to allow yourself to experience them in the short run. It's one of the major principles underlying the practice of psychotherapy: Experiencing and talking about our feelings is good for us, even when those feelings are unpleasant.

In conclusion, Star Wars scores an impressive 2 out of 3 when it comes to the psychological accuracy of its assertions about our darker emotions.The dark does indeed appear to be more powerful than the light. And, our darker emotions can sometimes be useful. But, these feelings aren't likely to consume us, so we shouldn't try too hard to push them away.

They won’t turn us to the Dark Side.

David B. Feldman is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University. Listen to his podcast, “Psychology in 10 Minutes,” on SoundCloud, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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