Superhero psychology – an interview with Dr Travis Langley

Below you can read an interview with Dr Travis Langley, psychologist, whose main activity is analyzing fictional characters – mostly superheros. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook as Superherologist and I strongly advise you to do it!

For me this interview was  a dream come true, because it was talking with the most well-known person who does, what I do here and is for me kind of guru.

So – with no longer delay – I invite you to read the English version of the interview with Dr Travis Langley. Its original (Polish) version was a part of 2nd issue of Psychological Magazine Bang!

Bang!: Thank you very much for this conversation and that you agreed for the interview for our magazine.

Travis Langley: I think a magazine popularizing psychology is a good idea. Interviewing me is obviously the terrible idea (laugh). But this is mainly what I do and why I’m doing it – I want to show people that psychology is interesting and doesn’t have to be dull and we can have all sorts of ways of having fun with it and make it interesting. Everything I do is to show people that psychology is great and interesting.

B!: You are one of the most well-known psychologist, mostly because you analyze superheroes. How did it all start? Why did you decide to do something like that? Looking at your Twitter account – a lot of people know and like you for what you do.

TL: I was always interested in superheroes. My father found my baby book not so long ago and apparently the first word I said was “Batman”. But in 2007 I was teaching a class called “Psychology of literature” and it turned out to be a very powerful way of teaching psychology – students were learning a lot by using fictional examples. They learned a lot about different areas of psychology and it stayed with them. And a lot of them said that they had learned more psychology than they had expected – they came there to learn about the literature, but beside that they also gained a new perspective on psychology. I had that on my mind when I read a book called Superman on the Couch which went through what superheroes say about our culture. The author wrote about psychiatrist Fredric Wertham who in 1950s damaged comic-book industry with accusation that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. They commented that 50 years after that nobody said much about comics in context of psychology and mental health – and that was true.

That was in my mind when I visited San Diego Comic-Con for the first time and I met comic book scholars there. And I already knew that it was a very powerful way to teach psychology – by using fiction. And I started to think whether comics itself would have a power to teach, so I decided to write an article and use Batman as an example. I started to work on the scholar article but by the time I finished, I knew that I have so many ideas that I could easily fill a book with the things I have to say about Batman, and that let me talk about other fictional character.

So most of it came from my going on the conventions. Because I have all this knowledge about psychology, I got involved in speaking in conventions and talking about different fictional characters and their stories.

B!: So it all started from literature for you. It is the same with the comic books, just different medium? Or teaching psychology using literature and comics, films, TV series is different somehow?

TL: When we teach, we use examples all the time. We use anecdotes, fables… If you look at the psychology textbooks, you can find there examples from stories and fiction, and also about real people and historical events or some personal examples.

It occurred to me that we can use a lot of this fictional examples. And you have my book – Batman and Psychology: Dark and Stormy Knight. It have done very well and it is still doing very well! And then I got to know some other psychologists with an interest in comic books and people came after me. Different psychologists were coming at the conventions and people were writing to me and saying: “I would love to get involved in that thing, so if you do more books, we would like to write for the things you doing.” So when I started a new series of books (we started with The Walking Dead and Star Wars psychology), I knew a lot of other people – psychologists or working in psychology – who were interested in writing the same way as well.

B!: For me the interesting and somehow surprising thing is that people who are not connected with psychology are interested in such topic. They are coming and asking about the psychology of fictional characters – how they could be “diagnosed” or just about some psychological analysis of the plot they are reading or watching. Are you not, let’s say, accused of doing “silly things” and not using your knowledge for solving real problems and making a world better place, helping people? Just analyzing some men in capes…

TL: (laugh) There are some people who will approach it with some skepticism, sure. Some of them say “Why aren’t you talking about REAL PEOPLE?” and I do not have a straightforward answer to that, but what usually makes sense for them is when I remind them something.  Way back, when they were young and they were taking a math class and they had to solve a math problem – calculating different trains and different speeds: “Train A is approaching with such a speed and Train B is coming from other direction; calculate when they reach each other”. For somebody who loves trains, that example is a wonderful example to learn math. I use fictional characters because people love them. And somehow this example really works – even for the most skeptical people. Then they get that what I am doing. I analyze fictional characters and stories because it is fun, sure. But it is not all I am doing. We do this to teach psychology and talk about all different things and make knowledge stick to students more.

And on the question “Why don’t you analyze real people instead?”: real people do need to be analyzed, but there are some problems with that. You don’t know what is going on in the mind of the real person. I always fear to analyze the living human being, especially when you’re talking about the abnormal psychology. It would not be fair for me to take some random celebrity and speculate about all the different mental illnesses that person might have. That would be very unfair to that person. In some cases we would even be right, but we don’t know them privately, we don’t know their private moments. Fictional character is safer in that way. Also – with fictional character we can get people to take some of them existing biases aside. You know – Star Trek was popular in 1960s partly because it was looking at the issues of the day but through the analogy of this fictional characters and species. They could look at racism of the 60’s and whatever predisposition people already have in their heads about the specific races were not intruding. because they were not looking into the racism of our world, they were looking at this fictional cultures. That would let people step aside of what biases they may already have and to pay attention to the actual issue, to the point of what was going on. Sometimes you can look harder on reality and you can get more truth through fiction than looking at real life examples.

When I teach my forensic psychology class, sometimes the topic could be so unpleasant – you know, we are talking about real criminals and crime victims. And sometimes it is hard for my students to get the point of what I am saying, because it is affecting them emotionally. But when I use a fictional example it is not so hard for them and they can get what I am talking about.

B!: You are teaching students in many different areas of psychology (like forensic psychology and the topic of heroism and psychopathology). What do you think is the best or the easiest part of psychology to connect the fiction with?

TL: Well, any area can be integrated into this. But what I found out is that abnormal, social, developmental and personality psychology are in particular the ones. When we talk about abnormal psychology, we can talk about mental illness. When we talk about social psychology, we can talk about interaction of the characters – every story is built on the interaction between characters. You don’t have a story without it. Even if somebody is alone, it still is some relationship, a thought for themselves. Developmental, how people grow… maybe that one is not so easy to show as social. But personality psychology – a lot. I think we can put those three – abnormal, social and personality psychology – on the top. These three would come up the most.

We can talk about all areas of psychology here, so it means we can talk about all aspects of human nature. We can look at what brings the worst, but also the best in people. I personally like the second part. People are fascinated in what brings out the worst, we can look at issues like: what makes someone a psychopath. We are still not completely sure on that one. Or we can talk about that fictional examples, like what would make someone become like villain that appears in this story and relate that to real life.

But we can also talk about what brings out the best in people, for example – how talking about fiction can connect with real life. There is this thing called post-traumatic growth. People who have some aspects of PTSD mostly re-experience what they have gone through. We can see that in characters like Batman and many others that gone through trauma. They are not letting it go, they are hanging to it more than a lot of other people would, but they find a way to make a meaning of what they have gone through and grow as people and find purpose in life. And that compares to numbers of real people in the world, like Candise Lightner, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She waged her rage at that drunk driver into organization which was originally called Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. She made meaning out of the terrible thing that happened. John Wash whose son was brutally murdered became an advocate for the missing children. So this is a real life phenomenon, but most of this real life examples are heartbreaking. We can talk about exactly the same with the examples of characters like Batman or Carol from “The Walking Dead” or Sansa and Arya Stark in “Game of Thrones”. And people can get what we are talking about if they were reading those books or comics or watching these TV shows. They actually probably know more about these characters than about Candise Lightner or John Wash! So they already have some knowledge and understanding and connection to those characters. That makes easier for them to think what we are really talking about here.

B!: It is also about emotional attachment to that characters. I think it is why this kind of approach is used in therapy. What do you think about the therapy done with the use of superheroes and their stories?

TL: Now I have to put this plain out – I’m a psychology professor, I am not a therapist. But in terms of what I think about it, I know people like Dr Janine Scarlet or Pat O’Connor who use stories in therapeutic contexts. Janine for example have a client who was very hard to open up. So Janine asked the girl what she liked, and she mentioned the TV show “Veronica Mars”. And Janine watched this TV series, felt in love with it and the next session they spend talking about “Veronica Mars”. And it made that client not only connect to the therapist but also to talk about some of the problems that fictional character was facing, and they were also problems of her own life, although she was not open to discuss it in that context. The use of fiction let her talk about it in a safer way. It could be a very powerful method.

B!: You were talking about your different books and lectures you do – of which of your books are you the most proud? Which is your favorite? Which do you think is (or was) the most important and why?

TL: The first one. The first book – Batman and Psychology. You know, it was an achievement. It made me an author of a book! And it was the one I made by myself – it is all my thoughts.

I love working on these other books with all these people, we would not be able to do it at the pace we do, like three books in a year. And I love the fact that we have now a variety of points of view, it is not only mine. It is very helpful if I have a trauma specialist coming in and talking about character trauma; when I have a child therapist talking about the psychology of a fictional child or adolescent. When I have an actual forensic psychologist there, conducting their own analysis out there… We can do so much more than I would be able to do by myself!

But the biggest place in my heart has the Batman book. Because it was the first and it is all me.

B!: We talk a lot about superheroes here, but what would you say about villains? Are they more or less important? Are you looking into them in any other way than into superheroes?

TL: Oh, villains, plenty of people love to talk about villains! In The Walking Dead and Psychology book and in the Batman and Psychology book we have a lot about villains. People love to look at it! But you know, all the criticism of psychology itself was that we often focus only on the bad side of human nature. It was the criticism in the history of the field – that there is so much focus on the bad side of human nature that the good one could even be neglected. We have to have that in mind going into this.

But you know – the stories are obviously focused on the heroes, the protagonists. Usually we know about them more than we know about villains. They give us more information, more to talk about, more to analyze. But yes, we look at the villains as well. In Star Wars we look at what would it take for somebody to go to the Dark Side. In The Walking Dead we look at the characters like Governor or Neagan. Why would they do this things? In the Game of Thrones book we have probably more of the analysis of villainous characters than in any other book. We have there some of the sadistic characters, like Ramsay Bolton.

But you know, I think it is more useful to remember, after all, to value heroism more. You know, to look more into what brings out the best. I think it is too easy in a way to look only into what brings out the worst. I think it is more useful to look at what brings out the best. Like recently Dr Seligman – he was best known for his work on learned helplessness and was a president of American Psychological Association – said that we have to focus on the field of positive psychology and look at the personal strengths and values in people. Prof.  Zimbardo, who is most known for his prison experiment and looking into what brings out the worst in people, in recent years is trying to understand what brings out the best in people. And he acknowledged that there is research on altruism but it is very little research on heroism. What brings out the best in people in terrible situations? It has been very neglected in psychology and I think it is very useful to try to pull out together what we know about these things.

B!: It is very interesting what you say, so – do you think that the recent boom of superhero plots – films, TV series etc. – is connected to that need of heroism? And what do you think about it that it is so much of that kind of plot in mainstream media recently?

TL: People always loved stories about heroes. But nowadays, in XXI century, you can see that boom of fantastic heroes or heroes in fantastic situations. You have so much sci-fi and fantasy in the movies and TV. There is for sure increased interest in what makes superheroes so popular, where did that come from? Partially it could be because CGI and special effects make it possible to tell all these stories, but I think it is more in it than that. I think that XXI century is different – we have this awareness of danger, greater concern about where the world is going and it is harder to see how anybody can fix some of the world’s most complicated problems. And I think that makes people even more interested in people who CAN fix world’s most complicated problems, who can do the right thing. People look for heroes and in America we can refer to that as the “post 9/11 concern”. Obviously on the whole world terrible things happened and terrorism happened in many different places, but 9/11 changed American perspective about that and made America more conscious about the fact that it is scary, dangerous world out there that can affect us all. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that there was this big increase in looking at apocalyptic stories ever since then. About 40% of all zombie movies came out since 9/11. So there is more than 1/3 heading towards the half. People are thinking about questions like – where is the world going? How might things end? How we all are going to react in the bizarre, dangerous situation? But you cannot take things from the news – you can’t take Ebola outbreak TV-series and have fun watching it. Because it touches too close the things we are really afraid of. But you can have “The Walking Dead” or any other zombie series. You have series with vampires. You can look at these things, thinking “that’s not going to happen”, but still have the same concerns about what will happen in the apocalyptic situations.

So we got a lot of different reasons. But mostly it is simple – people want heroes. People want to know that somebody will step up and do the right thing. And it gets harder to think about who can be a hero in that world in which any hero is going to be pitched apart by 24/7 internet news, people will take apart their life and find out all kinds of things. It was so much easier to be a hero decades ago. Now we have to recognize that our heroes are human beings and has that complexity that wasn’t there before.

B!:  If you have to pick one – do you have your favorite character? Why?

TL: Batman. Simple as that. I know, I should have something like a bigger surprise here, but no, no surprises on that one – it is Batman.

And why… Some of it is hard to say, I always loved Batman, since my actual memory begins! But you know, it is a very human character. He is somebody that we know, who has gone through some very difficult things but he found strength. Even aside from the fact of his origin, even aside the fact we relate to that kind of origin (it is a very primal origin), we know that always will be times when terrible things happen. When we are in a wrong place in a wrong time. And we want the sense that somebody can step up and do the right thing. When you know that no guy in a big red cape and god-like powers is going to come from the sky and help us, we still know that somebody can step out from the dark and help us. And Batman touches on that.

Another I think is Batman’s persistence. Don’t give up. Keep trying no matter what. I think that are reasons why Batman appeals to us so strongly. Taking our worst qualities, our weaknesses, our pains, or frustrations and finding a way of turning them into something useful to help people.

B!: What is your attitude when you see a big mistake (according to the psychology) in the film or TV series or in a comic book? Are you annoyed about creators’ lack of research or are you happy that you will have something new to analyze?

TL: (laugh) Usually it starts with being annoyed. But it depends on what the mistake was. And if it is like “well, there are real people who make that mistake”, it is OK. A couple of weeks ago [the interview was conducted in October – red.] in the TV series “Westworld” the character played by Anthony Hopkins used the term “cognitive disorder” incorrectly. He was not right in the way he used it. But this character could be talking outside his area of expertise, so the character could be making that mistake because real people make such mistakes. Something so simple like term “dissociation” – it is not “dissasociation”. A lot of people add this extra syllabi because it makes sense to them. But if it is a character that should know better – it bothers me. It’s not bothering me when the character that does it could logically make it wrong.

Different topic is when they present this thing incorrectly. You know, something like schizophrenia and they are talking about different personalities – that is not something that schizophrenia is!  Then they are really messing it up. When they show somebody acting like some sort of people does not act. When their represent real human nature wrong. Because it is what psychology is about – it is about non-humans as well, but for me, psychology is about understanding human nature. Understanding people and why we do the things we do.

B!: I understand what you mean with the characters that should know. Because for me one of the biggest mistakes like that is in “Sherlock” where there is a term “high functioning sociopath” used. Like – there is no such thing and Sherlock Holmes is the character that would know it. It is not possible for him to make such a mistake, he should know that there is no such thing!

TL: I know! People keep asking me about that one and it really bothers me as well. Because sociopath has a lot of different definitions. And I would like to know what definition they were using for him to come up with these. When he says he is not a psychopath – I can accept that. But when he says he is a high functioning sociopath – I want to know what definition he is using because he is the character that should know better! As soon as you said “Sherlock”, I knew what you are heading into – that’s the part that bangs me the most.

That also was in the episode of “The Big Bang Theory” when Sheldon used the term “negative reinforcement” incorrectly. And Sheldon is an incredibly smart character, who have a knowledge about behavioral sciences, so to some extend it was for me like “Oh, he is not so smart in this area!”, but there was a much later episode though when he essentially corrected himself! The term “negative reinforcement” came up and he said something like “Well, it does not actually mean that”– well, interesting! Of course Sheldon didn’t said out loud that he has been wrong, but I think that the creators must have found out that they made a mistake and they found the way to correct it in the show. And I appreciate that they done it!

B!: Like you said – people are always interested in a superhero disorders. So can you give some examples of the characters with mental illnesses or disorders? Maybe you have your favorite example of the character you can diagnose or show something as an example?

TL: Oh, we have so many different characters that we can look into and analyze… I kind of like looking at Iron Man as an example of someone who seems like an obvious narcissist that fits the criteria of narcissistic personality disorder. He seems so narcissistic, however, he has some empathy for other people, he has some concerns for other individuals, when you go through the diagnosis criteria for narcissistic personality disorder that would say that the person has this inflated view of themselves without any achievements. And Tony Stark has actually not an inflated view of himself. He really IS the smartest man in the room most of the time. And he does have a commensurate achievements. Even though he is really self-absorbed most of the time, there are reasons to me not to look at him as a narcissistic personality disorder.

B!: I also like to show Iron Man as the case of dealing with trauma. Because he has several traumatic events in his life and processes it really differently. In the first Iron Man movie he has this post-traumatic growth you were talking about before, but after that there was Avengers movie and he has other near-death experience and he tries to cope with it the same way, but the general circumstances are so different that he ends up with severe PTSD.

TL: Yes, I use exactly the same examples – Iron Man 1 as a post-traumatic growth and PTSD in Iron Man 3. And some people ask me “Why did he grow in the first movie but he suffered PTSD in the third one?”. Like combat veterans – some of them came through several traumas and finally end up with that one that not pack up and they suffer heavily. And for me, when I look at what happened in Avengers movie, at the end, when he is heading up towards the end, he thinks he is going to die. He accepts it, he thinks he is not coming home. So he has a moment in which he believes it is the end of his life. In Iron Man 1 he never had such a moment. He never thought that he is going to die, he never had time to think that this is the end of his life. He always knew he could die, but he was going to fight to keep it from happening. And that moment when he really thinks this is the end, that is the very different experience than anything he has gone through before.

B!: So that was all of the questions I prepared for you, thank you very much for the talk. Is there anything you want to add at the end of this conversation?

TL: Oh, gosh. We gone through so many things… Buy my books! (laugh) No, I’m kidding, don’t write it.

Just one more parting thought. When people think that they are not interested in psychology, they are wrong. They are interested in psychology because they are interested in people. When they ask: “Why is that person doing that?” – this is a psychological question. When they are trying to figure out what will make a situation better – it is a psychological question, whether they realize it or not. We all talk about psychology all the time whether we use the technical terms or not.

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