The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode II at San Diego Comic Con 2013 (Recap)

Psychology of Star Trek Versus Star Wars Episode II San Diego Comic Con

Last week, Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I brought our popular intergalactic scifi battle, The Psychology of Star Trek Versus Star Wars, to San Diego Comic Con. We were joined by special guest panelists John Champion (Mission Log: A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast) and Bryan Young ( with Brian Ward once again serving as referee.

While Episode I of the debate focused on heroes, villains, and androids, for Episode II we expanded to broader themes of emotions, humanity, morality, inclusion, and galactic governments.

If you couldn’t make it, watch to the full panel and check out some of the highlights below. Thank you Patricia Bailey for the fantastic photographs and Brian Ward for the awesome video!

Round 1: Vulcans VS. Jedi

Vulcans Jedi

Vulcan and Jedi culture both harness emotions. Which path leads to a healthier way of life?

Andrea: The Jedi are doing it right...they’re regulating their emotions. They’re using their ability to cultivate and embrace positive emotions for pro-social reasons. They do experience negative emotions like anger, hate, fear...if you operate on those negative emotions it leads to the dark side which could be antisocial behavior. They manage negative emotions, they don’t totally avoid them. They recognize them, identify them, and then manage them. Whereas the Vulcan folk…Vulcans? The Vulcan folk…
Ali: They’re a species, Andrea, they’re not a folk.
Andrea: Their culture avoids and represses all emotion. We know as psychologists when you repress emotion and inhibit emotions they can build up. It makes sense that after a long time that can lead to distress. This whole Pon Far business is an example of how crazy things can get if you don’t allow yourself to experience emotions.
John: Don’t knock Pon Far until you’ve tried it! We have to understand that Vulcans are seething with emotions. They learned a long time ago to work actively to keep their emotions repressed or it would lead to their undoing. Look at all they’ve accomplished – Vulcan has never been conquered and they have advanced in sciences. And this is a theme I’m going to keep coming back to – science is greater than magic. There is some voluntary aspect to [the Vulcan way] – we know that Spock decided not to go through Kolinahr, found out it wasn’t for him, he had a more balanced life when he embraced his emotional side.
Bryan: When you look at Jedi versus Vulcan because they are completely different species they’re not a very good model for people to try to glean lessons from because we’re not built biologically or physiologically like they are. Jedi are human, presumably, but anybody can be a Jedi of any species. They’re much more inclusive. That line of thought is much better.
Ali: Let’s back up a second – why do we even have emotions? Emotions give us information, very quickly. Anger tells you you’ve been wronged, anxiety warns you about danger, sadness tells you that there’s been some type of loss. Here, Dr. Letamendi, is my issue with the Jedi. You just said repression is a very bad thing we shouldn’t do this. Who said this - “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”? One of the biggest problems we see with our patients is an intolerance of emotions, intolerance of thoughts that are aversive. The Jedi come out and say “yes, be mindful, be in the present moment, but not when it comes to negative emotions.” Vulcans have very powerful emotions. They use a logic based meditation to manage their emotions. What does that mean? I really don’t know…But here’s the thing – mindfulness, being fully in the present moment, being able to tolerate whatever thoughts and feelings you’re having good or bad is the best way to handle your emotions. There is one character in both franchises who is the embodiment of mindfulness – it’s not a Jedi, it’s not a Vulcan, his name is Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Round 2: Borg VS. Sith

Borg versus Sith

The Borg and Sith – which villain is a greater threat to humanity?

Ali: A threat, anxiety, or danger tells us two things – there’s uncertainty somewhere and our lives are in danger. No one represents that better than the Borg. They’re complete uncertainty. We don’t know what they’re going to adapt to, you don’t know where they're going to come from, what they’re going to be doing. We’ve seen Borg in real life – losing all sense of identity and independence, we’ve done it to ourselves. They were called lobotomies. We thought you take people with extreme mental illness, you cut off part of their frontal lobe, and now suddenly they’re behaving fine – but they were complete zombies, they weren’t able to do anything.  There’s nothing more terrifying than that, taking away our sense of humanity, the very part of ourselves that is so different and unique from every other animal species.
John: The Borg are relentless. There is no stopping them. If you stop some, they will make more and come after you. They will come after you in different guise because they can assimilate any species with any characteristics. That is terrifying. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve got, they’re going to assimilate you. No matter what, they’re coming after you. In the process they strip away your humanity, your individuality, everything that makes you you in order to become a cog in a machine. I’ll finalize this again by saying science…greater than magic.  
Bryan: How many movies ended with the Borg winning? As a species, we’re very very excellent with dealing with acute threats to our society. The Star Trek movie is a good example of how we meet the threat of the Borg. The problem with the Sith is they are absolutely insidious and from behind the scenes are decaying our society or any society they are involved in from within. When you have them making these moves we can’t see, making slow incrementally steps toward our doom, when they finally react with order #66 no one is prepared whatsoever. It’s a much more insidious threat and I say that with no pun intended whatsoever.
John: Tell that to the guys from Wolf 359.
Bryan: Oh you mean like Sisko? He seemed to come out of that okay. And the force, just because we don’t have an explanation for it doesn’t mean it’s magic.
Ali: Isn’t the explanation…midichlorians?
Bryan: Midichlorians are a microscopic life form that allows the Jedi or people attuned to them to better communicate with the force.
Ali: What does that mean?!?
Bryan: Do you want to know what a symbiotic life form is, Doctor?
Andrea: Let me piggyback on what everyone is saying. Of course the Borg are a major threat by assimilating entire cultures and societies. When it comes to humanity, that is the biggest threat. However, the Sith not only are operating on anger and hate but it consumes the individual. You have this individual destruction of humanity. If someone were to say the destruction of an individual does not impact humanity well it can because as you can see Anakin can wipe out an entire Tusken raider village just based on anger.

Round 3: "Let them die" VS. "Wipe them out"

 "Let them die" versus "wipe them out all of them"

A direct order to kill all the Jedi versus a passive suggestion to let the Klingons die - what are these two guys going through and what’s the difference between them?

Andrea: Some can argue that there isn’t really a difference whether it’s active or passive. It’s still genocide. Is [letting the Klingons die] really any different from order 66 or destroying Alderaan? If you want to talk about morality, that decision-making sounds the same to me and makes me wonder about this character Kirk, it’s an inconsistency with someone who is supposed to be a hero.
Bryan: With Kirk and the death of the Klingons, he’s obviously a very damaged individual. Sidious is after power, we understand that, but Kirk has a petty vendetta for the death of a son that he didn’t even care about or know about until six months before his death. For that he wants to avenge himself against all Klingons. He’s not a balanced individual at all.
John: There’s an important piece of context here that we’re missing – Sidious, the angry old emperor who goes around being angry (that is he job), we can pretty much say that’s the expected reaction out of him. If he wants somebody to die he will kill them. Most of you remember the scene of the emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi when he’s just shooting lighting out of his hands because that’s what he’s good at. But here’s the important thing about Kirk - Kirk has not only spent a lifetime chasing Klingons around the galaxy because they were the threat at a certain time but they also killed his son. Of course that’s going to damage his perspective of the Klingons. But Kirk learns from experiences. Kirk has a team around him, particularly with McCoy and Spock and the rest of the crew, opinions that he trusts. Even though he says, “Let them die” it’s immediately Spock who puts him back in line and says, “Only Nixon could go to China”. If anyone here can make a difference it has to be you. [Kirk] makes the idea of galactic peace his single driving point in that movie - that’s admirable.
Ali: A lot of this is in how we see the situation. When you’re driving down the freeway and someone cuts you off you’re like, “oh that guy is a bastard” right? But when you do the exact same thing you’re like, “oh I’m so sorry, I’m in a hurry”. It’s a concept in psychology called the self-serving bias. When it’s stuff about us or people we like we make situational explanations – I cut someone off because I’m in a hurry. When someone else does something, we say it’s that person’s fault. A lot of what we’re seeing here has to do with how we see these characters and whether we like them or not. We all like Kirk so we’re making a situational observation – it’s not really genocide. It’s like Batman– “I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t have to save you”. It’s kinda the same thing. We’re rationalizing in our head and not seeing it as murder or genocide. And just like [John] said, Kirk actually goes and tries to save [the Klingons].
Bryan: I think this is totally slanted toward Kirk – you guys need to defend Kirk and you guys need to defend the actions of Darth Sidious.

Round 4: Quark's Bar VS. Mos Eisley Cantina

Quark's Bar versus Mos Eisley Catina

Which of these franchises dealt with inclusion and diversity better?

Ali: We’ve got this idea in Star Trek – “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”. This idea pervades all of Star Trek. What’s the psychology of infinite diversity in infinite combinations? We know exactly how you overcome prejudice. There was a great meta-analysis which basically means a big study of a bunch of studies that have been done, about 500 to be specific. What they found is overcoming prejudice comes down to three things: 1) learning information about another group of people; 2) having exposure to another group of people; 3) developing empathy for other people. We saw this happen in America with desegregation and there are fantastic Star Trek episodes about this. There’s a Next Generation episode called “The Enemy” where Geordi and a Romulan are trapped on a planet. They’re supposed to be these enemies but they learn about each other and develop empathy for each other and overcome their prejudice. There are so many episodes that go on and on about this. That’s strike number one against Star Wars. Strike two comes in representation. What we see in Star Trek is breaking these barriers of inclusion. Star Trek had an African-American female and an Asian-American male, characters that wouldn’t be seen on other shows, doing important things. Going on to Star Trek: The Next Generation you have Beverly Crusher serving as the doctor, Deep Space Nine has the first African-American Captain, and Voyager with the first female Captain. However, here is a strike against Star Trek. I don’t normally debate against Trek but I have to do this. Here is where Star Trek has failed. Where is the LGBT Star Trek character? We're about 30 years too late on this. That’s an absolute failure. I don’t hold Star Wars to the standards because they only have six movies while we have over 500 hours of produced Star Trek. The time has come, a long time ago, for a LGBT character on Star Trek – it’s the final frontier of inclusion that we have to cross.
Andrea: In the Federation flagship, where are all the aliens? Most of them are human. You’ve got one Vulcan who can pass as a human, and they’ve covered his ears up to pass him as human. Whereas in Star Wars you have a lot of different aliens and species in positions of power and influence. You have Yoda, Yaddle, Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar. In the context of the Star Wars universe you have fantastic diversity across aliens and planets. What I like about that it doesn’t stop to tell you a story [about people with] half a face painted white and half a face painted black, it shows you that these different types of people are actually coexisting and doesn’t have an explanation for it. Maybe that’s what the future is like.
John: Producing TV is very different than producing movies. When you get into movies you have more truly alien characters. There are Federation ships based on Earth that have primarily human crews, there are Federation ships from Vulcan with primarily Vulcan crews, there is crossover and we don’t always get to see all of that. Let me point out something about these images you’ve chose Brian – like a lot of different bars and restaurants Quark’s looks very inviting on Deep Space Nine with all kinds of species and creatures from everywhere. I’m a little worried that on the Cantina I run a very high risk of losing a limb or being shot. And I believe if I could quote directly from that scene – “He doesn’t like you. I don’t like you either”. This is not the most welcoming way to bring people into a bar. Star Trek is about diversity, about humans and any other species growing beyond their limitations and embracing diversity.
Bryan: One thing I would say about the bars is that you’re looking at two very different classes of clientele that come into these bars. You’ve got Tatooine which is at the ass end of space. It’s literally the worst place in the galaxy. Obi-Wan tells Luke before he goes in, “this place is awful, we really have to go here but we shouldn’t be going here.” Quark’s is an affluent bar with clientele full of well educated science officers which isn’t terribly representative of the general populous in the United States whatsoever. The cantina is a ruff and tumble blue-collar hangout. It’s more charming. I mean look at the bar McCoy went into in Star Trek: III - that’s the epitome of terrible bars.
Brian: Why are we arguing about bars?
Ali: It’s late on a Friday.
John: Yeah.
Ali: I will say that DS9 is on the new frontier. Julian Bashir went there because he wanted to practice frontier medicine. It is out there, no one wants to be there.
Bryan: Except for all those Starfleet officers like Bashir.
Ali: Yes, besides him no one wants to be there.

Round 5: Federation VS. Empire

Federation vs. Empire. 

The United Federation of Planets versus the Galactic Empire – what is the psychology of each government?

Andrea: Do we have two hours for this question?!? Psychologically speaking, there are some important reasons why the Empire would be more realistic. So if you’re sitting here thinking how would they be able to execute order 66, how are these people able to blow up an entire planet, what is the psychology behind that? Has anyone heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment? So I don’t have to go through all that but you know there is this idea in psychology of deindividuation – masks and helmets that influence the ability for others to recognize you. When you have anonymity you are more likely to engage in transgressions, abnormal behavior, and sometimes aggressive behavior. It’s not just anonymity but also being in an organized group [versus] a weaker alliance of those who cannot protect themselves.
Bryan: Both series are really good at showing us something that we need to learn. Star Trek is really good at showing us how we can be our best when we put aside greed and capitalism and pursue what’s highest among us as a species. I think that’s admirable. But I think it’s a little pie in the sky. The Empire illustrates something that is much darker but more realistic. The Empire maneuvers with moneyed interests, with lobbying efforts, with all of these horrible things that we’re watching playing out in the news day after day. Regardless of who is in power, there is a giant machine working behind the scenes to benefit them and to harm us. The lessons learned there with how the Empire is portrayed and how you watch the best of intentions of someone like Anakin Skywalker turning into the evil Darth Vader is a much more valuable lesson. It’s nice to see what we can achieve but it’s also important to learn how we can [avoid] the path to evil.
John: What you just said reminded me of the opening crawl of [Star Wars:Episode I and as soon as they started talking about taxation my eyes rolled into the back of my head. There is something about the Empire that is absolutely terrifying and appeals to a authoritarian streak so I guess if you totally devalue your individuality and really have an hankering for oppression then sign up for the Empire today - they have some lovely white armor. The Federation is modeled after the establishment of the United Nations. There can be a better future where we can celebrate diversity, we can maintain individuality and cultural identity, and we can also work together for the bigger things that are worth working towards.
Ali: I really loved what Bryan said – they’re both very complimentary to each other. They’re both in extremes but they’re both important messages and they’re two sides of the same coin. Who here has seen Trek Nation? Everyone go watch it on Netflix. Rod Roddenberry, the son of Gene Roddenberry, did this fantastic documentary. He interviews George Lucas and it’s a fantastic interview because George Lucas talks about how much he liked Star Trek until he got to the point where he couldn’t say he liked Star Trek because he did Star Wars. There’s also an interview with Gene Roddenberry talking about how much he liked Star Wars. These are two very complimentary stories about the Federation and the Empire. When you look at the Empire, just like Andrea was saying, obedience to authority and the Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment is definitely playing out here. You also have a lot of conformity – there is a reason why all the stormtroopers where white. Going back to Star Trek, one big psychological idea is superordinate goals. There is a classic study in psychology, the type of stuff we can’t do anymore because now we have institutional reviews boards that say this stuff unethical, but there was a psychologist who got kids and made them hate each other. And there was violence and aggression and all of that. Then, on of the later days, he made them work together on a goal that they couldn’t achieve separately. They had to collaborate. When they were forced to work on a superordinate goal, those problems of prejudice, violence, and conflict they all disappeared. That’s the United Federation of Planets. It’s focusing on these big goals that we need a lot of people to contribute to and work to achieve. That’s why the Vulcans, humans, Tellarites, and Andorians all came together to form the Federation. Both [stories] work together and are important.

Q & A

Photo by  Patricia Bailey .

Photo by Patricia Bailey.

Since our panel was the last of the day, the convention staff were very generous and allowed us to go over our allotted time. This gave us an unprecedented 20 minutes for a dialogue with the audience on topics such as family relationships, why LGBT characters haven’t been included in Star Trek, racism via Ferengi and Jar Jar Binks (including an epic defense of Jar Jar by Bryan), the “magic” of Q, an obligatory evoking of Doctor Who, and the developmental psychology of Data. After our panel’s very own redshirt moment, the highlight of this discussion was the last question, from friend of the panel Lowen Baumgarten, which ended things on a wonderful note:

Lowen: One of my favorite moments in Star Wars is when Han Solo swivels around and says “Now I owe you one”. One of my favorite moments from Star Trek is when they all go camping together in Yosemite…and then the rest of the movie is awful. Which franchise do you think does friendship better?
[Panel is speechless]
Bryan: Luke Skywalker in the Empire Strikes Back. He’s training on Dagobah. He’s told that the entire fate of the galaxy is on his shoulders. If he leaves, because he sees a vision of his friends hurt, the entire galaxy will unravel almost undoubtedly. And he says, “You know what? My friends are more important.”
Ali: Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain. Spock has super-powered shoes. Kirk is falling and is caught by Spock. They’re reminiscing about it as they’re eating McCoy’s brandy beans and Kirk says, “I knew I wasn’t going to die today because I knew my friends were here.” And then he dies with Picard, and they’re not friends, so it holds up in continuity.

Episode III

Team Wars won this round, tying the series 1-1. We hope to continue the debate with Episode III at 2014's WonderCon or San Diego Comic Con. Got a topic you want to see us debate? Sound off in the comments below.