The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode III at WonderCon 2014 (Recap)

The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode III, WonderCon, with Chase Masterson, Ali Mattu, Brian Ward, Catherine Taber, Andrea Letamendi

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I brought our intergalactic scifi battle, The Psychology of Star Trek Versus Star Wars, back to the place it started – WonderCon! Actors Chase Masterson (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Catherine Taber (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) joined the discussion with Brian Ward returning as referee.

While Episode I and Episode II focused on a variety of topics, for Episode III we narrowed the discussion to the science behind family, relationships, friendships, and bullying.

If you couldn’t make it, watch to the full panel and check out some of the highlights below. Special thanks to Nerdist’s Amy Ratcliffe for covering the panel!

Round 1: Parenting

Star Trek's Worf and Alexander, Star Trek's Anakin and Shimi

Brian: Let’s talk about the parent and child relationship in both franchises.

Andrea: The whole nature versus nurture debate is a myth. It’s actually a combination of nurture and nature. Parenting and the genetics of parents are very important, as are the environment in which people are raised. Star Wars understands that dynamic. The stories are very sophisticated. If you have a very nurturing parent, something in the environment may still cause a social or mental problem. Anakin is a good example of that. He had a very strong nurturing mother figure and grew up with a lot of social support from her. But unfortunately he goes through a lot of trauma and adversity losing her and Qui-Gon, another important parent figure to him.

Cat: It’s very interesting when you think about Anakin. You know how much he regrets losing his mother. I also wonder if not having a father made him more susceptible to Palpatine and his becoming a shadow father figure.

Ali: I agree with Andrea, which is not surprising since we’re both psychologists. It’s a little bit of both nature and nurture. If you think about genetics, the way we look and also the way we act, a lot of that is inherited. A lot of our temperament is genetic. Look no further than Commander Worf and Alexander Rozhenko. They’re both pretty stubborn bastards, right? Worf is very much set in his ways and Alexander is like, "I don’t want to be a Klingon!" That temperament is genetically inherited. Parents also play a big role with teenagers. The teenage brain is rapidly changing – it’s wired for learning and rewards. That’s why teens do stupid things. The front part of your brain, the frontal lobe, it doesn’t finish developing until you’re 20. So parents are really important in applying the brakes. We see this with Wesley Crusher in “The First Duty” where he and Rogue Squadron [correction: Nova Squadron] do all this stuff that ends in the ultimate death of a person. Picard is sort of a father figure and helps him to put on the brakes and remember to be true and honest. I think we see that with Leeta and Nog a bit – she becomes a bit of a mother figure in Nog’s life.

Chase: Leeta’s relationship with Nog and so many parent-child relationships in Trek are extremely complicated. As Ali referenced in Wil’s episode…you said “doody” by the way…

Ali: I was hoping no one noticed!

Chase: The beauty and complexity of these relationships is how pivotal they are in Star Trek. Part of the reason that Sisko was such a protective parent of Jake and why so much of the drama happened in terms of this family relationship was because they lost Sisko’s wife, Jake’s mom. That happens a lot in wartime. In a similar way, Leeta and Rom had Nog go off to war and when he came back and spent most of his time in a holosuite, which is comparable to a drug, it stopped our lives. Screw the war and everything else that is going on, this is all that matters. That pivotal element of the family is essential to Star Trek.

Round 2: Romance

Star Trek's Leeta and Rom, Star Wars's Padme and Anakin

Brian: Talk about the romances in these two franchises.

Ali: When you think about romance and love you’ve got passionate love and compassionate love. Passionate love is the lust you experience when you see someone you’re attracted to, when it feels like your brain is on a drug. It turns out that your brain actually looks like it’s on a drug. If you do a brain scan of someone who is lusting after their loved one and then a brain scan on someone who’s on cocaine, they look kinda the same. What’s going on is dopamine is firing in the brain, getting the party started, then you see someone you’re really attracted to and norepinephrine starts firing, kind of missile locking on that person. What causes this type of stuff? We’re attracted to people we’re similar to, people we see often, those who are familiar to us. One of the reasons why Leeta and Rom were attracted to each other is because they worked together and saw each other a lot. But the turning point, when we get to compassionate love, the type of love that is long lasting where oxytocin starts to flow which happens six months down the road, it’s about shared values. It’s not just alone being near someone and seeing them frequently, but seeing something in another person that you really care about. The turning point for Leeta and Rom is that episode when you all – wait that didn’t really happen, that was your character…I promised myself I wasn’t going to do that and I did. It’s when your character and Rom form that union against Quark and you see…err…your character saw Rom in a differently light where there was a shared value of caring about people around you. Leeta is a very kind person and that’s the shared value between you two.

Brian: Ali you gotta build a wall between Chase and Leeta.

Ali: I’m trying really hard to keep things separated…

Chase: It’s just a TV show.


[Chase rubs Ali’s ear]


Brian: WonderCon after hours!

Chase: Leeta and Rom really loved each other in that Star Trek sense which is seeing someone for who they are inside and seeing who they can be, having patience to nurture that, respect them while they grow. That was so true of them from the beginning. I don’t know about your zip code but it doesn’t work that way in mine.

Brian: Let’s talk about Star Wars.

Andrea: There’s a lot of research that shows your judgment is clouded when you’re in love. The Jedi were correct when they tried to keep Anakin away from Padme. Those brain-imaging studies do show that the parts of your brain that are responsible for critical thinking are really impacted by passionate love. Unfortunately, when you have a breakup and no longer are connected to the person, object, or robot you love the parts of the brain that are activated cause a lot of distress for a person. That leads to a lot of risk taking behavior, being out of control, and being impulsive. We see that in Revenge of the Sith with Anakin. He’s really affected when Padme arrives on Mustafar. Anakin really believes this delusion that she’s aligned with Obi-Wan. He starts engaging in a lot of risk taking behavior. He already started on that path but this event pushes him over the edge.

Cat: Anakin and Padme’s “secret relationship” is super sexy in the beginning, but it ends up being their downfall. Especially for Anakin when he starts experiencing these feelings and not being able to bounce it off someone. Calling your girlfriend, she can help talk you off the ledge. But in this case no one talked him off the ledge. This ultimately leads to their destruction. A secret relationship sounds kinda sexy but it’s not worth it in the end.

Ali: One thing you see in both of your guys’ relationships…err…both romances, sorry I’m working on this, is the cross-cultural aspect. Whether it was Ferengi and Bajoran culture or breaking the Jedi Code, both franchises talk about the struggle that occurs when you have two cultures colliding in a relationship. 

Round 3: Loving Stuff

Star Trek's Scotty and Picard, Star Wars's Lando and Han Solo

Brian: The great Montgomery Scott said, “It’s like the first time you fall in love – you don’t ever love a woman like that again.” Of course he’s not talking about a woman, he’s taking about a starship – the Enterprise 1701 – no bloody A, B, C, or D. And of course Han gets a bit teary eyed when he thinks he may never see the Falcon again. It’s a unique kind of love these people have about stuff. What it is about human beings and stuff?

Andrea: I’m guilty of having relationships with stuff. I’m a collector of many things – action figures, comics, and I understand this relationship with stuff. This type of strong bond with a ship is not a fictional thing. Research has gone into material love, it’s called material possession love. Most of the research has focused on cars, computers, and guns. The people who had the strongest attachments, the ones that said things like, “I don’t want anyone else to touch her” or “I would be devastated if I didn’t have this object”, lacked interpersonal relationships. The closer people were bonded to these things the more they were living isolated lifestyles where they were missing out on a lot of social support. It’s the chicken and egg thing –  the more time you spend with a thing the less time you’re going to be available for people and get social support. But maybe people are attached to things because they don’t as much support.

Ali: I promise this will make sense in a moment. I went to my first Star Trek convention in 5th grade. It was a few months before Star Trek: Generations was about to come out and we all thought it was going to be a good movie. I bought a copy of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual. Anyone own a copy of that in here? [A handful of the audience raises their hands] Alright, a few fans of the technical manual. It’s basically a manual of how the Star Trek technology works. On the top half is the fiction side of it. “The Heisenberg compensator compensates for the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” And on the bottom it’s like, “yeah we don’t know how this works, it’s totally not possible, it’s all made up.” I loved this book! It’s one of my prized possessions. Why do we have stuff? We have some stuff for tools. Is the technical manual a tool for me? No, it doesn’t help me build a Heisenberg compensator. Does it provide me with some safety or security? Not really, if it’s raining I’m not going to put this thing over my head because I don’t want it to get ruined. But does it build my sense of identity? Does it add to my personal history of who I am? It does do that. Does it bring up nostalgia? Absolutely. What is nostalgia? It reminds us of the past, not just past events, but important past relationships. Nostalgia is a part of the psychological immune system that goes, “hey, remember those important people in your life, reach out to them, you don’t know how much time you have with them.” That’s why we have stuff. Getting back to the Enterprise and Falcon, for Scotty it’s about his relationship with Kirk and the adventures they went on. For Han, it’s about his relationship with Chewie and all the things they did together. That’s why we buy stuff and that’s why I bought a ton of stuff this weekend.

Brian: For Han couldn’t it also be his love of having beaten Lando out of the Falcon? Cat, anything from your past? Any “stuff” you can’t give up?

Cat: I’m a collector too, definitely. I collect figures. But I never had a love of stuff. When I got my first car I was in love with it but it did wear off for me. I see this love of stuff with some people more than others. I wonder if there are factors that make people more susceptible to that? But when I think about my car for instance at that time with my lifestyle it was a part of my home. I put so much time and effort into that car. It’s not just a car, it’s my car. It was a source of pride.

Brian: Chase, anything from your past?

Chase: I don’t get into stuff that much. I don’t shop, I’m not into clothes, and I try to force myself not to get into tangible things. I can see how it is so absolutely important because I will on the other hand relish a note that I made when I was talking to somebody. I will cherish it because of the connection and relationship to that other person. That’s what really brings things to life for me. I can see where the things we are attached to are more than an object. Quark and his latinum for instance – it’s not about the actual money, it’s about the power and prestige, the idea that he’s arrived and perhaps someday will be the Nagus. It’s interesting to see how it all comes back to love. For Sisko, the station was so extremely important because of the memories and relationships, the things that took place there.

Round 4: Friendships

Star Trek's Kirk and Spock, Star Wars's Han Solo, Chewie, Luke, and Leia

Brian: The two franchises both have a very strong connection to familial bonds – whether you’re part of a crew or part of a family. Let’s talk about the friendships. 

Ali: When it comes to friendships, the people you see often tend to become your friends. As a kid it might be the kid next door. At school it might be someone in your class. As an adult it’s your coworkers. Social relationships are incredibly important. You could argue that they’re the most important evolutionary advantage we have. Our brain prioritizes social relationships so much that when we’re doing nothing, when we’re just sitting still in a resting state, our brain’s default is to activate all the social neuro networks waiting for the next social situation. It’s getting us ready for the empathy and compassion. The more friends…well if we have friends…yeah I don’t know where I was going with that…if we have a close group of friends it helps us recover from illnesses faster and gives us a longer life span. But I think Leeta’s character had the opportunity to develop friendships. She worked in a bar and saw people on a very frequent basis. It was a lot tougher for Padme. Padme was a senator at a very young age and had to rule a star system…

Cat: A queen.

Ali: A queen?

Cat: A queen.

Ali: Right, a queen. This is why I’m on Team Trek. It’s harder to make friends when you’re the ruler and then the senator, especially in a time of war when so many people are trying to take your life. I’ve seen Clone Wars – there are A LOT of bounty hunters constantly going after Padme! There was much more opportunity for Leeta to make friends, much less for Padme.

Andrea: You’re my friend so I’m going to agree with you because this question is about friends.

[Audience laughs]

Andrea: No it’s true, we’re all friends.

Ali: Yup, we’re friends.

[Audience laughs, Andrea and Ali are confused]

Andrea: I talk about things like resilience and recovery and the single most powerful factor following a traumatic event or huge stressor is social support. We are social being and in order to recover from physical and emotional illness we rely on our close bonds. With this particular character that Cat voiced, as I recognize Cat is a separate person than her character…she’s particularly isolated. So when you see her have opportunities, like with Satine, they are able to relate to each other and can connect, you see Padme’s personality come out. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen a lot for her because of her role. It’s unfortunate because as we see later on she’s really someone who could have benefitted from social support.

Brian: Let’s go back and talk about Leeta’s relationship with the crew around her.

Chase: Of course relationships were the most important part of DS9. The show took place on a station and we didn’t have a place to go. The great adventure was inside ourselves and to each other in ways that Trek had not gone before. We had more opportunities for relationships and one of the themes was who really is your friend? Absolutely we had more opportunities for connectedness with people but you also don’t know who likes you and why, what’s the attraction is, how close can you get to this person, why do they like you? When Leeta is a dabo girl and Rom is Grand Nagus, it’s hard to know who your real friends are. One thing I really loved about DS9 is the people you don’t think are going to be friends, like Quark and Odo, do end up coming through for each other in ways you would have never expected. Sometimes it’s the most unexpected people who become your friends.

Brian: I think adversarial relationships are also just as important. We see that all over real life and fiction. Like Batman and Joke – wait, we’re not talking about Batman…

Andrea: To speak to the pilot episode of DS9, it deals with the idea that if you lose somebody and can’t let go of that person, you can’t move on. It took aliens with a higher power for Sisko to understand that he was unable to move forward and he was stuck in a relationship with his wife who was deceased. I was incredibly moved by that and thought it was extremely well done, psychologically.

Brian: Let’s talk about Padme and her close group.

Cat: It seems like some people need friends and people around them more than other people do. Padme is more of an introvert. She’s needs people less than others. Also, because of the way she grew up she was always surrounded by people, handmaidens or bodyguards, therefore she valued moments when she was alone or just with Anakin. I totally agree that if you become so isolated that you can’t trust anyone and share your feelings, it makes hard to reach out and get help.

Ali: There’s actually research on that – the more lonely people are, the more threats they see in the environment. If you contrast the prequel and Clone Wars stories with the original trilogy, wait what are we going to call the new films…there’s the prequel trilogy, original trilogy, and the sequel trilogy? I don’t know…but if you look at Luke, Leia, and Han their friendship develops in a different set of circumstances and they have each other to rely on. I don’t think Leia experiences the type of loneliness that Padme does because of the circumstances in which they meet. And then there’s the weird stuff with Luke and Leia…but we don’t need to get into that. I just want to put it out there.

Brian: Ouch…you had to go there!

Round 5: Bullying

Star Trek's Spock, Star Wars's Anakin and Watto

Brian: Let’s jump outside the franchises. Something that’s very important to everyone on this panel is something we as fans deal with quite a bit so we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about bullying. Does everyone know Katie the “Star Wars girl”? She was bullied for taking a Star Wars water bottle to school. Cat saw this story online and made it her mission to gather people and support Katie. Chase has teamed up with Katie’s mother, Carrie, who wrote a fantastic booked called Bullied: What every parent, teacher, and kid needs to know about ending the cycle of fear. The two of you have teamed up to create the Anti-Bullying Coalition. Everyone on this panel works with children on a regular basis, including the two doctors, and deals with the problem of bullying. Let’s talk about this problem.

Andrea: It’s not a new problem but what is new is the internet and the bullying process. I grew up in a time when people said, “suck it up, get over it, get a thick skin, this is a right of passage, everyone goes through it.” But when you see the true impact of bullying, there’re long standing psychological repercussions including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I do want to be clear bullying happens in a different way because of the internet. The anonymity of the internet can generate more bullying behavior. It’s a struggle to identify it and intervene with it.

Brian: Andrea you’re a trainer and Ali you work with this on a case by case basis. Talk about your experiences with it.

Ali: My experiences are both professional and personal. I got into Star Trek with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country around 4th grade. I didn’t realize that Star Trek wasn't cool. I thought it was very cool! I used to bring my Star Trek stuff to school all the time. When I got to middle school, there was a group of students who came to school with their Star Trek shirts and were bullied. I stood by and I did nothing. I did nothing because everyone did nothing. I learned a lesson that day – Star Trek isn’t cool. Don’t talk about it otherwise you’ll get beat up. Moving forward, I was at high school and reading the Star Trek 30th Anniversary Magazine at a bookstore. A bunch of guys came in, started yelling at me, and said a bunch of derogatory things to me. It took years and years and years to undo that psychological damage until I was able to talk about Star Trek. It wasn’t until my fiancée over there [points at audience] was able to help me…wait, I should mention her name, Nhu-An Le is your name and I love you, until my fiancée was able to encourage me to be a proud geek and then the good doctor over here [points to Andrea] helped me figure out how to weave these things together – that’s how this panel came to be. The way we change this is by changing the culture. Make it unacceptable to see bullying and just stand by. We know the research on conformity – it only takes one person to stand up and change the situation. That’s exactly what Cat and Chase are doing here. They’re creating awareness and making it cool to stop these things from happening.

Brian: Cat and Chase let’s talk about your thoughts on bullying.

Chase: This is the type of program that needs to happen at conventions –the real world meeting the shows we love. I’m excited about our coalition. Our mission is to let people know that there are choices when you see someone being bullying or when you are being bullied. There’re strategies to reduce the chances of being a victim to this. How many of you guys have been bullied? [Audience raises hands] See it’s the overwhelming majority. We want to show kids that there’re options. Most bullying stops if there is just one person that intervenes. There are ways we can support each other and help people know that things get better. It’s like the Star Trek quote, “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Wait did I just go to the dark side?

Ali: Yeah that’s a Star Wars quote. But judge you by your words I do not.

Chase: I’m sorry!

Cat: The reason I responded to this is because it breaks my heart to think that a little kid would feel so bad for no reason. I wanted Katie to know that I think she’s cool and a lot of other people think she’s cool too. It’s not just about talking to kids who are being bullied, it’s also about talking to kids who aren’t being bullied. We need to make sure we teach our kids that if someone is being mistreated it doesn’t take a huge gesture to help. It can be as simple as saying “hey that’s not cool”. That can stop bullying. If we’re kind to each other and stick up for each other then the bad guys don’t stand a chance. That’s one of the things I love about Star Wars – you have this group of a ragtag people coming together fighting for good. I believe that good always wins. But of course I am light side. Empowering kids to stand up for themselves and for each other is what we need to do. Of course when things get dangerous you have to involve adults and with the internet today that can happen quickly. Even with Instagram one of my nieces was telling me how people post comments about pictures being ugly. I think it would go a long way if people said, “hey that’s not cool.”

Andrea: Microaggressions are a form of bullying. It’s when someone says something that sounds harmless but it’s actually demeaning. They’re often race or gender based statements. We need to fold microaggressions into the concept of bullying. For example, sometimes people have met me and said, “your English is really good” or “you sound very articulate”. It’s kinda like a backhanded compliment. I talk about microaggressions a lot when it comes to female geeks because a lot of times I’m asked “oh are you buying those comics for your boyfriend or kids?” Each time I have to say, “Oh no I don’t have any kids and those action figures are for me.” When I write about this topic I point to both sides as being responsible for this interaction. The person implying that my entry into the geek world is because of a male is an accusation that doesn’t sit well with me. But did you notice I get defensive and I’m very quick to get back at him? That’s not me. Because of this microaggression, the interaction became intense and I didn’t get the chance to tell the person “actually I’m a big fan of Batman: The Animated Series, let’s talk about that”. I could potentially connect with that person and correct his idea that I’m not there for me. It’s a two way street.

Ali: Let’s think about the idea of microaggression. You might be thinking “well that’s just one little comment.” But think of the cumulative impact of that. Let’s say people continue to claim you’re a “fake geek girl” and that happens all the time in lots of situations. That’s going to have a huge impact on you down the road, where you go, what you do. The other thing Cat was talking about with social media and Instagram, one of the biggest challenges we have is the way a lot of these technologies have evolved is that they strip us of our humanity. It turns out that one of the most important ways of having empathy for someone else online is through eye contact. How much eye contact do we have on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? It’s very easy to do stupid things online with social media. A lot of the comments that become bullying happen very quickly, spiral out of control, and have a huge impact on people. This’s why I love places like this where we can come together and build a community to support each other and take some action again this. That’s how we’re going to solve this problem.

Chase: Another important part of this is not just that we need to form a culture of tolerance. We need to form a culture of love. Just true grit supportive yay you wherever you are love. Support for each other and celebration of each other’s differences.

Ali: We have four words in Trek: Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations.

Brian: What does Star Wars have?!?

Cat: “The force is strong with you.”

Episode IV

Andrea and I are currently developing the next phase of the panel and hope to continue the debate with Episode IV later this year. Got a topic you want to see us debate? Let us know in the comments below.  

For more highlights from this convention, check out the WonderCon 2014 episode of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour.