The Psychology of Cult TV Shows Live at San Diego Comic Con 2014

Image by Booster Designs.

Image by Booster Designs.

Join me and a panel of therapists and scientists (mad or otherwise), including Dr. Janina Scarlet (The Superhero Manual), Dr. Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight), and Billy San Juan (Alliant International University) as we discuss the psychology behind cult TV shows at San Diego Comic Con! Find out how TV shows might help us cope with painful experiences and what psychology says about the demons that live inside us.

Thursday July 24, 2014 8:00pm - 9:00pm Room 23ABC

The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode IV Live at San Diego Comic Con 2014

Join me and Dr. Andrea Letamendi (Under the Mask Online) as we bring our popular intergalactic sci-fi battle back to San Diego Comic Con for round 4! We'll step into the pop culture ring to debate the science behind realizing your full potential in these two legendary franchises. Special guest panelists include producer Rod Roddenberry (Trek Nation, Roddenberry Entertainment) and actor Sam Witwer (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Being Human). Join a side and cast your vote as we crown one the winner! Refereed by Brian Ward (The Arkham Sessions).

Saturday July 26, 2014 8:30pm - 9:30pm Room 26AB

Episode I Recap 

Episode II Recap

Episode III Recap

Infinite Memories at the Edge of Tomorrow (Non-spoiler film review)

Edge of Tomorrow poster

Edge of Tomorrow is the worst marketed film of the summer. It dropped the source material's awesome name, All You Need Is Kill, and its trailer was super depressing. The only thing the film had going for it was the star power of Emily Blunt (she was great in Looper) and the vision of Doug Liman (loved his Bourne triology).

Then there's the Tom Cruise issue. I grew up on Cruise's films (Top Gun, Mission: Impossible, Minority Report) but it's hard for me to support a guy who outright denies the science of psychology and rejects the treatment of mental illness.

Why did I see Edge of Tomorrow? As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I'm a sucker for time travel paradoxes.

A Surprisingly Fun Film

Emily Blunt uses a scifi sword against an alien in Edge of Tomorrow.

Emily Blunt uses a scifi sword against an alien in Edge of Tomorrow.

Despite all of that baggage, Edge of Tomorrow works. It’s got a fun déjà vu premise with the main character, Cage, reliving the same day over and over (like Groundhog Day, Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Cause and Effect", and Source Code). What's new is the way events are re-experienced. Things unfold much like a video game. Cage fights aliens, dies, restarts a level, and gets a little bit farther in the battle before dying and respawning again. The action is fun, Blunt’s character kicks a lot of butt, and it’s great to see Cruise play someone who isn't (at least at first) the traditional Cruise action hero. There's also lots of humor sprinkled throughout the film. My only complaints are the film’s boring final boss battle and forgettable score (they should have just used the Halo soundtrack).

How Memory Works

Tom Cruise's Cage begins the film without any knowledge of fighting a war.

Tom Cruise's Cage begins the film without any knowledge of fighting a war.

The psychology of Edge of Tomorrow is also a fun thought experiment. I'm not talking about the exosuits (check out Nerdist for more on that). I was more interested in the film’s depiction of memory. If you accept the premise that someone could re-experience the same events over and over again, how would that impact their memories?

The human memory system is a combination of limited and infinite capacities. When you see or hear something, the details last for a couple of seconds before they fade away. Some call this sensory memory. You can experience this yourself by looking at the words on this screen and then immediately closing your eyes. How long did the image of the screen stay in your mind? Probably less than 2 seconds.

Important information (like hearing your name in a crowded room) gets past sensory memory and enters working memory. We used to call this short-term memory. Working memory is like a desk where new information (like the text on this screen) gets combined with stuff you've learned from the past (things you remember from watching Edge of Tomorrow). Most people can hold 5 - 9 chunks of information in working memory. Stuff that gets practiced (repeating a phone number in your head) or thought about a lot ("I wonder how many times Tom Cruise relived the same day?") moves past working memory and enters long-term memory.

This is where things get interesting. Unlike sensory and working memory, long-term memory has an infinite capacity. It's pretty reliable, but works much better if you're in a situation that's a lot like the one where you originally created the memory. Try thinking of the lyrics to one of your favorite songs right now…it's kind of hard right? But if the accompanying music started playing, the lyrics would rush into your head. Context helps us remember long-term memories.

A great TED talk on how memory works:

Context Improves Memory

Context makes it easier to remember the stuff that's important for right now. We're a lot better at recognizing people, places, and things when we see them in their natural environment. You can easily identify neighbors when you notice them near your home but if you see the same people in another part of town it's much harder to know who they are.

We're also much better at context and recognition than we are at remembering specific events (episodic memories). Go to a dinner party and you'll immediately know if you met someone before but you might not be able to remember their name. Why are we built like this? Evolution decided long ago that it was more important for us to recognize a tiger as a threat than to remember specific details about the animal. Try it for yourself – can you remember what you had for dinner on your last birthday? Probably not. But if I gave you four different options, you'd recognize the correct answer.

Getting back to Edge of Tomorrow, the more Cage relives the same day, the more he begins to remember. New situations become familiar because context helps him remember what's about to happen next (like a secret card game, where an alien is about to strike, or suspicious guards with yellow armbands). The ability to recognize details in contexts becomes Cage’s superpower.

Cage remembers every conversation he has, which could happen after many respawns.

Cage remembers every conversation he has, which could happen after many respawns.

Remember though, both sensory memory and working memory have limited capacities. Even if we relive a day a second time, we wouldn't be able to remember everything because we don’t create memories for everything. A lot of data is lost and only the important stuff gets into long-term memories. From his first respawn, Cage is able to remember everything that was said around him. That's not how memory works! I could imagine him remembering a lot of details after many respawns though. If we do something a bunch of times, it becomes a procedural memory. Memories about riding a bike, playing Super Mario Bros., dialogue from your favorite movie, or commuting to work are all procedural memories. These memories are recalled without any effort and are rarely forgotten, even if you have Alzheimer’s. Most of what Cage does by the end of the film is based on procedural memories (e.g. awesome exoskeleton gymnastics).

Memories are Imperfect Recreations

Since this moment happened so many times, Cage's memories should have started to blend together.

Since this moment happened so many times, Cage's memories should have started to blend together.

There is a problem with a memory system that’s based on context, recognition, and procedures. When we do the same thing a bunch of times, we can start blending different memories together. You might remember Jamie, Adam, and Mariam all coming over to watch a hockey game with you even though Jamie wasn’t actually there. Why the false memory? Because Jamie is usually there. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage should have confused a bunch of events from his numerous respawns, but that never happens.

Contrary to most Hollywood films, our memories aren't perfect recordings of what happened. Each time we think of something, new information gets combined with old information in working memory. Think of memories like a live concert - the same song always sounds different depending on the venue, how the band is performing that day, and how we feel at the concert. There are infinite ways in which we experience the same memory, depending on the context where’re in and how we’re feeling.

Overall, Edge of Tomorrow tells an entertaining story that gets the psychology of memories mostly right. I probably enjoyed the film, despite my opposition to Cruise’s personal beliefs, because of the context. It’s easy for me to experience the work he does within action films. Outside that role though, it’s hard to recognize who he’s become.

For more on the video game feel of Edge of Tomorrow, check out /Filmcast's discussion of the film. AV Club also has a great review. You can hear me discuss Edge of Tomorrow on this week's Super Fantastic Nerd Hour podcast.

The Good, Bad, and Ugly Psychology of Comic-Con

San Diego Comic Con Logo 

When non-geeks find out I'm a geeky psychologist, we always end up talking about comic-cons.

"What's the deal with all those weird people who dress up?"

"You mean cosplay?" I reply. "It's a cool way to celebrate a character you love, kinda like Halloween. I cosplay as Captain Kirk all the time." 

"X-Men and the Avengers are cool but I'm not one of those loners who can't separate fiction from reality."

It always bums me to hear that, people discounting something they haven't tried.

"Comic-con people are actually really friendly. Some of the coolest people I know I randomly met at a convention."

And then there’s my favorite...

"There's got to be something wrong with people who go to comic-cons! Why would anyone stand in line for hours just to see a glimpse of a new movie?"

"People stand in line for all kinds of things they're excited about like a special sale, a new amusement park ride, their favorite band, or a big sports game."

Since this conversation keeps coming up, I wanted to set the record straight and share my guide to geek conventions. I present to you now the good, bad, and ugly psychology of comic-cons. 

What’s comic-con?

Comic book conventions are just one type of fan gathering. There are others – Star Trek conventions, Star Wars celebrations, video game and tabletop gaming expos, anime conventions, and many more. Regardless of the focus, they're all organized the same way. You can attend panels to learn about a topic, see celebrities, talk to artists and writers, shop at huge exhibit halls, and meet people who like the same stuff you do. 

Some of my favorite memories from past comic-cons:

What separates comic-cons from other fan gatherings is how popular they've become. Take San Diego Comic-Con for example. It started as a small meeting of 300 people in 1971 and grew to fit into the San Diego Convention Center in the 1990s. Everything changed in the early 2000s when X-Men and Spider-Man launched the superhero film genre. Soon after, Hollywood moved into San Diego Comic Con to promote their films directly to fans. As a result, San Diego Comic-Con has grown to become the largest fan gathering in the United States with over 130,000 attendees. It’s also expanded beyond comic books and focuses on all aspects of pop culture.

A beginner's guide to comic-cons:

San Diego Comic-Con's formula is being replicated across the world. While they vary in size and quality, chances are there's a comic-con happening near you sometime soon. For better or worse, we're in the middle of a comic-con explosion right now (read more about that at the SDCC Unofficial Blog).

The good: It’s all about people

The main reason most people go to a comic-con is to meet people.

Surprised? Don’t be. The stereotype that geeks are loners who don’t care about social interaction is completely false. Geeks love making new friends and comic-cons make it easy to find other people who love the same things you do. It’s like baseball fans going to a sports bar on game day.

Hanging out with my friends is always the best part of comic-con. San Diego Comic Con 2013.

Hanging out with my friends is always the best part of comic-con. San Diego Comic Con 2013.

Wanting to connect with people is hard-wired into our psychology. It might even be our most important evolutionary advantage as a species. The brain prioritizes social relationships so much that when it’s doing nothing, the brain’s default setting is to keep itself prepared for social situations. That’s why it’s so easy to strike up a conversation at a comic-con – our brains are always ready to talk about our geeky interests. 

That’s one of the coolest things about conventions – they lead to new friendships. From Geek Therapist Josué Cardona to Larry “Dr. Trek” Nemecek and film journalist Aaron Neuwirth, I’ve met a ton of cool people at comic-cons. We know friendships improve immune system functioning, increase lifespan, and are the most important part of recovery from traumatic experiences. I can personally attest to this because comic-cons helped me grow as a person.

Our social brains are also the reason why so many people are interested in seeing celebrities at comic-cons. We’ve evolved to stay up to date on what our friends and acquaintances are up to. Because we see celebrities on TV, films, and websites all the time, our brains think of them as being part of our social network. Sitting in on a panel with Robert Downey Jr. or getting an autograph from Zoe Saldana is just another way of connecting with people you care about.

But there’s more to the celebrity stuff. Comic-cons give you the opportunity to talk directly to content creators. If you sit in on enough panels, you’ll notice a pattern – fans talk about how much a particular story means to them. Battlestar Galactica, next to being one of the best scifi shows of all time, means a lot to me. It helped me cope with a stressful period of my life. I also use it in my lectures to talk about the psychology of gender, politics, war, and peace. That’s why I go out of my way to meet actors from Battlestar Galactica at comic-cons. I want to thank them for their part in creating a story that has brought me so much joy. 

Gratitude has been described as a “super emotion” that not only helps the person expressing it but also lifts up the mood of all those who witness it. In experimental studies gratitude has been shown to undo negative emotions, make positive emotions last longer, improve resilience to stress, increase helping behavior, and improve physical health. It’s not just attendees who experience gratitude at comic-cons, but celebrities too. Here’s what Joss Whedon had to say about attending San Diego Comic-Con:

Someone will say, “You helped me through a hard time in my life with this show.” For a long time I thought, “That’s so sweet and lovely they’re responding to the work.” And then I realized, “Oh, I was helping me through a hard time with that show, too.” I was a different version of them. We’re almost like a support group.

Part of collecting and cosplaying is also about expressing who you are in social situations. People buy stuff for 3 main reasons – to get tools, increase safety, or build an identity. Buying toys, t-shirts, posters, and collectibles communicates to the world who we are and what we care about (though sometimes we can get carried away). That’s also why people cosplay – it’s a public celebration of a character that means something to you. For more on that, check out Andrea Letamendi and Robin Rosenberg’s research on the psychology of cosplay

The Bad: Comic-cons exhaust your body, mind, and wallet

Comic-cons are exhausting experiences.

People are on their feet all day, walk miles across a convention center floor, and eat bad (and overpriced) convention center food. Lots of attendees get dehydrated because they just don’t get enough water. All of this makes people feel weak, dizzy, and confused.

Combine physical exhaustion with massive crowds and it makes sense why so many people feel stressed at comic-cons. Anxiety at comic-cons can be triggered by thinking that you have no where to escape to, feeling like it’s hard to breath, being stuck in a crowded space, and hot flashes or cold chills. People with an anxiety disorder, especially panic disorder or agoraphobia, might have an especially hard time (for a good discussions about this, check out Wil Wheaton’s blog).

The overall convention experience can wear you down. New York Comic Con 2010.

The overall convention experience can wear you down. New York Comic Con 2010.

Most of the time, if you stick with the situation long enough the anxious feeling will disappear. Sometimes all you need is a break, some water, or a snack. If the convention offers it (like PAX East did this year), take advantage of the wellness rooms for a break from the crowds. If the feelings don’t disappear and these types of situations are always hard for you, then you might want to consider additional help before your next comic-con adventure.

There’s also the horror of waiting in a lot of very long lines. Research has shown being bored while in line, not knowing how long you’re going to be in a line, and not knowing if you’re going to make it into the thing you’re waiting for makes people agitated. This stuff happens ALL THE TIME at comic-cons. I waited 2 hours at New York Comic Con to see a Walking Dead panel. I didn’t get in, was really upset, and felt like I wasted my afternoon.

Everything at a comic-con has a long wait. WonderCon 2013.

Everything at a comic-con has a long wait. WonderCon 2013.

Turns out how you feel at the very end of a line is very important – if the line speeds up or it took less time than anticipated, you feel really good about the experience no matter how long you waited. If the line ends badly, you’re going to be very upset at the people responsible. Disney has mastered this kind of stuff – they advertise longer wait times than reality so you think the line went by faster than it did, their queues are full of entertaining stuff so you’re not bored, and the length of a line is always hidden so people aren’t turned off by the sight of an enormous slow moving line. Comic-cons could benefit from copying Disney’s tactics.

Want to avoid the drain of lines? Find something to occupy yourself (like comic books). Or better yet, make a friend by talking to the person next to you. Not only does is that person also excited about whatever you are waiting for, but lines feel like they’re moving faster when you’re with a buddy.

I cope with long lines by getting to know the people around me. San Diego Comic Con 2013.

I cope with long lines by getting to know the people around me. San Diego Comic Con 2013.

Some of the longest lines at comic-cons are to purchase exclusive products. These are usually collectibles that are in limited supply and only available at the convention. These situations make you feel scarcity, like you don’t have as much of something you need. Scarcity of anything, whether it’s a ticket to the convention, an exclusive action figure or a variant cover, literally gives us FOMO (fear of missing out). We believe exclusive items are very important, we constantly think about them, and our willpower drops when we are around them. Scarcity is part of our brain’s basic software – if something near us is important and rare, we’ve learned to take advantage of it now because this opportunity might not come again. It’s the same stuff that goes into the psychology of Black Friday (the biggest shopping day in America).

How do you attend comic-con without draining your wallet? Do you research and check out comic-con exclusives way before the convention. Make a list of what you really want and then set aside some extra money for impulse buys. If you want to stick to your budget, keep cash in your wallet and hide your credit card for emergency use only. When you’ve got everything on your list and you’re out of cash, leave the exhibit hall. 

The Ugly: People can do horrible things in large groups

It's easy to feel lost in a crowd at comic-cons. New York Comic Con 2012.

It's easy to feel lost in a crowd at comic-cons. New York Comic Con 2012.

People are capable of doing very ugly things when they feel anonymous in a large group.

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of discussion about harassment at comic-cons. At 2013’s New York Comic-Con, a TV crew harassed a series of mostly female cosplayers. Just a few months ago, a sexist t-shirt labeled “I like fangirls how I like my coffee – I hate coffee” was found at WonderCon. Then there’s the constant unwanted physical contact and verbal harassment that makes it unsafe for many women to cosplay. None of this is specific to comic-cons, it’s part of a larger sexism problem in the geek community (and it’s a lot worse online).

Check out Jennifer Landa’s awesome “fake geek girl” satire:

Why does this kind of stuff happen at comic-cons? Very large gatherings like the big comic-cons (San Diego & New York Comic-Con), concerts (Coachella), parades (Mardi Gras), and sporting events (World Cup) can lead to deindividuation. People feel anonymous, like they’re a part of a crowd and not an individual person. This makes it easier for people to do stupid things because they’re not worried about what other people will think of them. It also makes people very emotional and easily influenced by what others are doing. Deindividuation is a lot worse when drugs or alcohol are involved (which is a problem at concerts, parades, and sports, not comic-cons). Lack of sleep can also increase the risk of deindividuation (that is a problem at conventions).

Deindividuation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on what’s happening around you. If someone is in danger, a few people standing up to help could lead to a surge of support from a crowd. But if no one stands up against harassment, others will join in and the problem continues. For us to remove this ugly behavior from conventions, we have to engage the whole geek community and make it clear that harassment won’t be tolerated. The science here is definitive – all it takes is one person to speak up against harassment in a crowd to change the entire dynamics of the group. 

When it's good, it's great! When it's bad, it's still pretty good. 

Yes, bad things can happen and the whole experience of comic-con is exhausting. But when you read what people remember most about comic-con, they’re powerful examples of gratitude, altruism, and comradely. Comic-cons help people connect, be true to themselves, and grow. The best cons, like San Diego Comic-Con or DragonCon, expand to citywide celebrations. But even the small neighborhood conventions give you a chance to meet cool people. That’s why I love the current explosion of comic-con culture – they’re making the world a better place. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said:

“If Comic-Con people ruled the world, the future would be invented daily and warfare would be nothing more than bar fights with toy lightsabers. That is the world I want.”

For more on the psychology of comic-con, check out my live discussion with the Unofficial SDCC Blog below or download the audio podcast.

Days of Future Past Celebrates the Psychology of X-Men (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

X-Men: Days of Future Past poster

Time-travel is my favorite type of science fiction story. It lets us see dystopian futures, wander into nostalgic pasts, explore cause and effect, and visit characters at key moments in their lives – all within the same story.

That's why X-Men: Days of Future Past, a beloved X-Men comic and an awesome episode of X-Men: The Animated Series, was my most anticipated movie of the 2014 summer season. Despite stumbling in a couple of areas, the film sets a new standard for superhero films because it celebrates everything that makes the X-Men unique.

Uniting the X-Men Franchise

X-Men: Days of Future Past brings together the X-Men film franchise.

X-Men: Days of Future Past brings together the X-Men film franchise.

The X-Men continuity is expansive. There are six X-Men films (3 good, 2 bad, 1 in between). Each is loaded with mutants. Some have been played by multiple actors. Major characters have died, only to return in subsequent films. It's all rather confusing (just like the X-Men comics).

Miraculously, Days of Future Past ties it all together. I'm not just talking about references and cameos (though there are plenty of those). It feels like everything from the original X-Men trilogy to the solo Wolverine films and the First Class prequel are converging on this story. At the same time, the movie remains accessible enough for casual fans to enjoy.

Days of Future Past pulls this off because it focuses on the essential story of the X-Men – a persecuted group of people coming together to promote understanding.

Prejudice and Empathy

 Dr. Bolivar Trask has no empathy for mutants.

 Dr. Bolivar Trask has no empathy for mutants.

The film is about survival. Magneto's Brotherhood wants to end mutant persecution. Dr. Bolivar Trask's Sentinel program is an attempt to protect humanity from the threat of mutants. Both groups work towards their own self-interests. Only Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men want coexistence. 

These group relationships are based on real science and highlight one of the most nefarious principals in social psychology – the ingroup/outgroup bias. People consistently prefer their own group to others. Even when psychologists randomly assign individuals to groups for no reason at all, people will like the group they are in and dislike outside groups. This finding is stronger when you believe your group is being persecuted in some way (like Magneto and Trask).

There are good reasons why mutants and humans have such a strong bias against each other. Magneto doesn't believe mutants are the same species as non-mutants (even though they are). Growing up in the Holocaust, he has seen the inhumanity of humans first hand and has no empathy for them. Trask fears that mutants could result in the extinction of humanity (kinda like what happened to the Neanderthals). By hunting mutants and experimenting on them, Trask believes humanity can build strong defenses against their threat. It's easy for Trask to justify his actions because many mutants don't look like humans and the less something looks like us the less empathy we have for it.

We don't see Magneto or Trask as villains though. We know both characters are only trying to help their own groups. Unlike the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which has failed to create any memorable villains outside of Loki, Days of Future Past gives us multiple antagonists with complex motivations.

Why don't the X-Men show the same prejudice as Magneto or Trask? The ingroup/outgroup bias is overcome when people learn about other each other, come into continuous contact, and experience empathy. Charles Xavier has dedicated his life to promoting these exact goals at his School for Gifted Youngsters. Why does Professor X care so much about mutants and humans? His telepathic powers give him the ability to see past group differences. Having read so many minds, Xavier knows that humanity and mutants are both guided by the same basic thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

It's too bad the writers of every X-Men film feel the need to depower Professor X in some way. The explanation of how this occurs in Days of Future Past just doesn't scientifically make sense given what we know about the human nervous system. 

Cooperation and Teamwork

Diversity makes the X-Men a stronger team.

Diversity makes the X-Men a stronger team.

Another way to overcome prejudice, at least temporarily, is by finding a common goal. We see this throughout Days of Future Past. Humans consider working together to stop the mutant threat. Trask even calls stopping mutants a "common struggle" that could unite all of humanity. Meanwhile, Magneto and Xavier (in both past and future) collaborate to fight the Sentinel program.

There is a scientific basis for this type of cooperation. In Muzafer Sharif's robbers cave study, groups of boys who hated each other learned to get along when they had no choice but to cooperate. These types of superordinate goals sometimes lead to long-term cooperation (the 12 British colonies coming together to form the United States of America) while others alliances end after a goal is achieved (the US alliance with Russia to defeat Nazi Germany).

My favorite example of collaboration in this series is the X-Men team itself. Research has shown diversity makes a team stronger. Having people with different perspectives fights the dangers of groupthink and is why NASA recommends having a mixed gender crew on all of its missions. With the X-Men, the more diverse the team is in mutant powers, the greater their ability to achieve their goals.  Check out the opening battle from Days of Future Past to see what I mean. Kitty Pryde, Bishop, Iceman, and Blink do much more as a team because of their different abilities.

That brings me to my second complaint – while the future X-Men are a diverse team, the X-Men of the past are a boys only club. Sure, Mystique plays a central role in the story (and Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful in the role), but I would have liked to see more key female characters working alongside Magneto and Professor X.

A Bold New Future

While much of the time-travel doesn't add up if you do the math, I really like where Days of Future Past ends. The mistakes of past films have been corrected and the future is wide open for new stories.

The next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, has already been described as a "disaster movie, extinction level event". If the producers are able to weave in the core elements that make the X-Men stories so compelling, as they did on this film, the franchise will continue evolving beyond what we typically see in the superhero genre.

Check out my guest appearance on Out Now with Aaron and Abe where we explore all things X-Men and Days of Future Past. To learn how Days of Future Past fits into the larger superhero genre of films, check out AV Club's review. I also like what Variety has to say about the lack of wide scale destruction in Days of Future Past. io9 does a nice job discussing the important relationships in the film.