The Psychology of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Could a Stormtrooper Become a Hero?

John Boyega’s Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: No big spoilers here, at least nothing beyond what’s shown in the trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and what occurs in the first 15 minutes of the film. 

The essential psychology of the Star Wars saga is mindfulness. “Using the force” is all about embracing the present moment. That’s what Yoda taught Luke and it’s something Anakin never picked up from Obi-Wan. 

Mindfulness continues to be a part of J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I can’t get into specifics because things would get spoilery, but it’s safe to say the climax of the film is a moment of mindfulness. We also see new characters develop meaning in their lives, just like Han Solo did in the original trilogy. The way The Force Awakens honors the past mythology (and psychology) of Star Wars while also refreshing it for a new generation is a big reason why I’m a fan of the film. 

My favorite thing about The Force Awakens is how it approaches good and evil. Star Wars has always been a fairytale about people being tempted by the dark side. What’s new in this film is seeing people being tempted by the light side. That’s why John Boyega’s Finn is a compelling addition to the Star Wars universe — he’s a stormtrooper who disobeys an order to kill innocent civilians. In doing so, Finn teaches us that we don’t need supernatural powers to become a hero. 

Could this happen in real life — an average person standing up against an evil organization, risking their life, all to help innocent people? Yes, absolutely! Here’s how. 

The First Order and the Psychology of Evil

The First Order in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Before we look at Finn’s heroism, we have to understand why his actions are so heroic. 

The First Order, and the Galactic Empire before it, are basically space Nazis. Like real Nazis, the villains in The Force Awakens use everything we know about social psychology to create an organization that is built on following orders and making it easy to hurt others. 

How does The First Order do this? By manipulating one of the most basic human desires — our need to fit in. In the classic Stanley Milgram experiment on obedience to authority (and a recent follow up), most everyday Americans followed orders even if it meant hurting someone else. Like the Nazis during the Nuremberg trials, Americans in this experiment didn’t feel responsible for their actions because they were “just doing what they were told”. The stronger the authority, and the less interaction there is with the victim, the more likely we are to follow commands that harm someone else. The First Order carries out a strong obedience to authority through Captain Phasma, the woman who commands all stormtroopers.  

The First Order combines obedience with conformity and anonymity. This is very dangerous and “greases the slippery slope of evil” according to psychologist Phillip Zimbardo. When we’re in unfamiliar situations, we look to others to see what to do. Again, we want to fit in. If everyone is doing something that’s wrong, it becomes extremely difficult to do what’s right. People are also more likely to kill, torture, or mutilate if they feel anonymous. Stormtrooper armor makes conformity easy and eliminates anything that could identify who's wearing the helmet.  

This is what you need to remember — people aren't born good or evil, everyone is capable of doing good and evil. Situations can pull us in one direction or another. 

Finn and the Psychology of Heroism

Finn and Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This is why Finn’s actions are such a big deal — he was “raised to do one thing”, follow the First Order. After a lifetime of obedience, he disobeys Captain Phasma's order to destroy a village of innocent civilians. By putting himself at great risk to save lives, Finn transforms from an ordinary person to an extraordinary hero. 

We’ve never seen a character like this in Star Wars. Sure, Luke has a traditional hero’s journey and Anakin’s story is a tragic fall to the dark side, but we’ve never seen a bad guy turn into a good guy. Finn, more than any other Star Wars character, brings to life the psychology of good and evil. 

What is it about Finn that helps him resist the First Order? We don’t know yet. The Force Awakens doesn’t reveal much about who he is. Similarly, we don’t know too much about the psychology of heroes. A lot of heroes end up dying, which makes them difficult to study. But we do know some basics:  

Each of these elements of heroism fight off the psychology of evil. Acting on impulse gets around worries about fitting in. Being comfortable with conflict makes it easier to stand up to authority. Having imagined what you would do in a dangerous situation reduces bystander apathy and diffusion of responsibility — two of the biggest barriers to helping others. We see some of these qualities in Finn and more will be revealed in Episode VIII and IX

A Hero’s Journey for the Rest of Us

John Boyega’s Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hollywood is full of superheroes. But you and I can’t fly or lift objects with our mind. 

That’s why Finn’s story is so important. It shows us that heroism is normal, something any of us can do. Like Joe Darby, the U.S. Army Reservist who exposed the torture occurring at Abu Ghraib despite being embedded in a "First Order" like environment. Or Wesley Autrey, a New Yorker who jumped onto subway tracks to save a stranger. Whistleblowers Cynthia Cooper, Sherron Watkins, and Colleen Rowley who exposed fraud and incompetence at WorldCom, Enron, and the FBI. And Satwant Singh Kaleka, a Sikh temple president who died protecting his congregation from a skinhead gunman. 

Can a stormtrooper become a hero? Absolutely! This stormtrooper might even help others become real-life heroes. Preliminary data suggests you can increase heroism by teaching people that situations are powerful, we can grow our ability to resist social pressures, and acting when others are passive can turn you into a hero. With Finn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has the potential to help all of us begin our own hero’s journey. 

For some spoiler thoughts on Finn and Rey, check out my reaction to The Force Awakens. I like AV Club's criticisms of the film. Vox has a harsher critique and Mashable's got a nice defense. Nerds of Color also has a breakdown of why Finn is so awesome. 

The Martian Teaches Us Why We Help Each Other

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in Andy Weir and Ridley Scott's The Martian

Ridley Scott’s The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an Astronaut who gets trapped on Mars. Based on Andy Weir’s super nerdy book, the story focuses on Watney’s struggle to survive on the red planet and NASA’s quest to bring him home. 

The book is a celebration of science, critical thinking, and being a smart-ass. It gets dense in parts and could have benefitted from more editing, but if you’re a space geek like me it’s a must read. 

A Faster, More Cinematic Story


What’s awesome about the movie is it combines the best of Weir’s original story with the cinematic vision of Ridley Scott. Just like Alien and Blade Runner, everything feels real! From the viral marketing that includes a fake Neil deGrasse Tyson documentary, to the astronaut banter, and all the scenes on the Mars terrain, it's easy to get absorbed into this movie. 

Things move quickly in the film, and whether you like that depends on how you felt about the book. The tension and excitement of staying alive for another Sol doesn’t hit you as hard as it does in the book, but at the same time you don’t have to read pages and pages about the science of growing potatoes. 

Speaking of science, there’s a lot of psychology we could dive into here but I want to focus on NASA’s story - the responsibility they feel to rescue Watney. 

We see NASA mission control and the crew of the Ares debate how much they should risk in an attempt to save Watney? How many more lives should be put in danger? Should the future of all missions to Mars be jeopardized all for one person? 

NASA decides to move forward with a rescue mission because of altruism

Why People Help

Social psychologists have long known that for altruism, helping behavior, to occur, three things must happen: 

  1. You see someone in urgent need of help. 
  2. You feel a personal responsibility to them. 
  3. You know how to help and can help. 

NASA knows Watney can’t survive on Mars alone, they feel responsible for mistakenly leaving him there, and their rescue plan have some chance of success. NASA is moving forward with a rescue plan because all of these criteria are met.

The same thing happens to you and me every day. Get a frantic text from a friend asking for a place to crash and if you have room you’ll let them. If someone asks you for directions, and you know where they’re going, you’ll respond. When there’s a natural disaster, your sense of responsibility to your neighbors increases and you’re more likely to share your resources.  

But the less responsible you feel, the less likely you are to help. Ever been in a situation when someone fell down in front of a group of people and no one did anything? What happened is responsibility became diffused and spread out across everyone there. No one knew who should act. 

Knowing what to do is a big barrier to altruism. Most of us keep walking past a homeless person in the streets because we just don’t know how to help them. The more this happens, the easier it becomes to ignore the issue of homelessness. 

Supporting NASA, Again

Over the past few decades, that’s what happened with the space program - we stopped caring. Maybe that’s changing. COSMOS showed us how we fit into the rest of the universe. New Horizon’s gave us our first clear look at the mysterious Pluto. And now we know water is flowing on Mars. Maybe The Martian will remind us of our responsibility to future generations and the importance of investing in science, space, and exploration. 

For more space psychology, check out my article on the 3 Things Astronauts Need to Survive in Space. What did you think about The Martian? Let me know in the comments below. 

Can 9/11 Help Us Understand Star Trek Into Darkness? 5 Non-spoiler Predictions From the Psychology of Terrorism.

Vulcan's destruction was a 9/11 event. 

Vulcan's destruction was a 9/11 event. 

Some Trekkies believe J.J. Abrams's first Star Trek film didn't include social commentary, that it didn't tackle the issues of our time. But that's just not true. Vulcan's destruction was a 9/11 attack against the United Federation of Planets. It occurred by an unknown terrorist, brought an end to feelings of safety, and seismically changed what it meant to be a citizen of the Federation - just like 9/11 in America. 

This isn't my idea. I got it from Damon Lindelof, one of the guys who produced Star Trek:

“We often referred to the destruction of Vulcan as the 9/11 moment of [Star Trek]. There had to be an event that was so significant that it allows you to change the Trek universe, not just for the purposes of the first movie, but moving forward. The idea of saying, if you did something that huge, what would be the effect of that rippling outwards?”

This week we get to see the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. It's clear from the trailers and interviews that the new film continues the 9/11 thread of the first. Here's how Chris Pine (Captain Kirk) described the movie:

“It’s about terrorism, about issues we as human beings in 2013 deal with every day, about the exploitation of fear to take advantage of a population, about physical violence and destruction but also psychological manipulation. John Harrison is a terrorist in the mold of those we’ve become accustomed to in this day and age.”

Since we have over a decade of research on how America changed after 9/11, I wondered if I could we use the psychology of terrorism to predict the events of Star Trek Into Darkness? This is my attempt to do just that.

A quick note before we get started. Even though Star Trek Into Darkness is already out in many parts of the world, I don't know what actually happens in the film. I did get a spoiler over the weekend (which led to a rant about how spoilers are evil), but that spoiler wasn't related to the larger plot of the movie. My predictions are purely based on my knowledge of psychological science as well as exposure to canonical content (e.g. Star Trek Into Darkness trailers, Countdown to Darkness graphic novel, and Star Trek: The Video Game). There are no spoilers in this article, just my educated guesses.

Prediction #1: Starfleet Is Emotionally Compromised


Their is clear scientific consensus that 9/11 increased rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even people who weren't directly exposed to the devastation of the attacks were at risk for trauma, leading some scientists to question the way we diagnose PTSD. While rates came down to normal a few years after 9/11, the two groups that continued to be at an increased risk for PTSD were first responders and immediate victims of the attack. First responders had multiple exposures to trauma while survivors faced years of chronic stress as they rebuilt their lives.

These findings make two groups at risk for PTSD in Star Trek - Starfleet officers and Vulcans. Starfleet, the Federation's first responders, witnessed the destruction of their fleet and the genocide of the Vulcan people. Many of them were also probably involved with humanitarian efforts after the attack, furthering their exposure to trauma. We know about 10,000 Vulcans (out of 6 billion) escaped the destruction of their planet. Every surviving Vulcan has been impacted by this attack, lost loved ones, and saw their home destroyed (through a viewscreen or on the news). Many Vulcans were exposed to additional trauma when the Gorn attacked New Vulcan (see Star Trek: The Video Game).

The person most likely to develop PTSD symptoms in Star Trek Into Darkness is Spock. Spock witnessed his mother’s death, saw his planet destroyed, identifies as a member of "an endangered species", and has a history of struggling with emotions (he attacked kids who were teasing him for being half Human/half Vulcan and attacked Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise). We've already seen him re-experiencing the trauma of Vulcan's destruction in Countdown to Darkness. The movie will give us a deeper look into how Spock is responding to these traumatic events.

Prediction: We'll see Spock re-experience the trauma of Vulcan's destruction, try to numb his pain, and lose complete emotional control (and probably beat the crap out of someone).

Prediction #2: Xenophobia Will Rise


 Star Trek Into Darkness  may focus on Klingon xenophobia.

Star Trek Into Darkness may focus on Klingon xenophobia.

Discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americas skyrocketed post 9/11. Between 1998 to 2000, there were less than 10 incidents of Anti-Arab/Muslim hate crimes. Compare that with the 700 reported in the first 9 months after 9/11. Since the terrorists involved in the hijackings couldn't be brought to justice, many Americans took out their anger on those they thought looked like the enemy (which was based purely on prejudice and stereotypes).

I don't think we'll see the Federation become prejudiced towards Romulans (they look just like Vulcans). Instead, the Federation is going to become highly cautions of unknown alien threats in the galaxy (probably the Klingons, since they're in Countdown to Darkness). This post-Vulcan Federation won't be as inclusive and welcoming as the old – it’s been changed. To paraphrase Jack Beatty, this Federation has been "expelled from Utopia".

Prediction: Starfleet will act with extreme prejudice against the Klingons (for no reason) and see them as a threat to the Federation.

Prediction #3: The Prime Directive Will Be Challenged

Starfleet Command will debate breaking its guiding rule #1. 

Starfleet Command will debate breaking its guiding rule #1. 

Research into the political aftermath of 9/11 is messy. Studies have revealed different, sometimes conflicting, findings. Some saw an increase in American conservatism after 9/11. Others identified a polarization of existing politics - liberals became more liberal, conservatives more conservative.

One of the most interesting, experimental, findings was the relationship between artificially created anxiety and anger in political decision-making. People who felt anxiety about terrorism endorsed opposition to aggressive domestic and foreign policies (e.g. increased homeland security, war against Iraq, etc.) while anger strongly increased support for war aboard. This makes sense - anxiety makes us exaggerate dangers and avoid situations while anger reminds us that we've been wronged and pushes us towards conflict. Even though anger and anxiety waxed and waned in the 2000s, American politics led to an erosion of individual freedoms in the interest of national security.

Star Trek Into Darkness will explore a similar theme. The focus won't be on civil liberties. Rather, the Federation may break its general order number 1: the Prime Directive. Countdown to Darkness is all about a character ignoring the Prime Directive for the sake of saving innocent lives. We're going to see a similar debate in this movie. Maybe even Section 31, Starfleet's covert intelligence agency, will be involved.

Prediction: A new terrorist attack will enrage the Federation, leading it to break the Prime Directive in the interest of protecting its citizens.

Prediction #4: John Harrison Is Motivated By Humiliation


Its been difficult to study the factors that influence individuals to engage in terrorism. This isn't exactly a population that's interested in contributing to research. 

Most of what we know is based upon retrospective studies and field research. Some surprising findings indicate that most terrorists don't have religious education. Instead, many are college-educated professionals. This helps terrorist groups like al-Qaeda retain skilled agents. Terrorist become radicals in their late teens/early 20s, have incomplete knowledge of their religion, and aren't motivated by religious factors or poverty. 

Terrorists are motivated by their social network (i.e. peer pressure), the belief that a foreign power has interfered with their country, an ingroup/outgroup identity (it's us versus them), and a sense of national humiliation. The humiliation is a big deal - feeling as though their people experienced problems under a foreign occupation (like marginalization), experienced chronic frustrations, and lost significance are good predictors of radical terrorism. 

The villain in Star Trek Into Darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison. Who Harrison is, what he does, and what motivates him has been the topic of intense debate on the internet. Some think he is Khan, Star Trek's most iconic villain. I don't think he is Khan, but I do think he's a genetically augmented human like Khan, potentially one of Khan's allies. Like most terrorists, Harrison will be motivated by strong humiliation. Harrison will discover a plan by the Federation to persecute his people (augmented humans) and he will strike back with a campaign of terrorism. 

Prediction: John Harrison, a Section 31 agent, discovers a Federation plot to kill augmented men, women, and children. In retaliation, he attacks Starfleet Headquarters. 

Prediction #5: Resilience & Altruism Flourish

Someone will sacrifice their life in  Star Trek Into Darkness .

Someone will sacrifice their life in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Americans met the challenge of 9/11 with resiliency and altruism. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, people felt closer to one another, made blood donations, volunteered, contributed to charity, and increased trust in their communities. Character strengths of gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork also significantly increased. Why did this happen? After large disasters, our sense of responsibility to each other increases, thereby encouraging acts of altruism. What was unique about 9/11 was American's strong desire to learn more about Islam - the Quran became a bestselling book and many efforts were put into place to increase religious understanding between different communities.

Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek is an optimistic future. Therefore, Into Darkness will demonstrate humanity at its best. The crew will face immense challenges, but they’ll remain resilient in the face of traumatic stress. The Federation might engage in questionable moral actions, but Kirk will correct the Federation's mistakes. Someone will demonstrate ultimate altruism by sacrificing their life to save Earth.

Prediction: Kirk will do the right thing, even if it means losing his command. A member of the crew (not Spock) will sacrifice their life to save Earth.

This wraps up my countdown to Star Trek Into Darkness. Come back Sunday for my initial non-spoiler review of the film and check back in a few weeks for my analysis of the psychology of Star Trek Into Darkness. 

How Bane & Hurricane Sandy Increased Teamwork and Altruism in Gotham City

Hurricane Sandy came and went. While I escaped the storm safe and sound, some of my friends and family were not so lucky. Many are still without power, some experienced flooding, and two had extensive damage to their property.  

Walking around New York City post-Sandy was surreal. Above 40th street, New York felt like Metropolis under the watchful eye of Superman with folks brunching and kids trick-or-treating. Below 40th, it was Gotham City under the occupation of Bane with limited resources and a crumbling infrastructure.

REUTERS/Gary Hershorn/Eduardo Munoz, Lower Manhattan before and after Hurricane Sandy, via  Washington Post .

REUTERS/Gary Hershorn/Eduardo Munoz, Lower Manhattan before and after Hurricane Sandy, via Washington Post.

Yet, despite these horrible conditions, New Yorkers across the city rallied around each other, shared what they had, and reached out to those who couldn't help themselves. 

We've seen this before, both in science fiction and reality. In this summer's The Dark Knight Rises, Gothamites came together to fight the brutal forces of Bane. A similar phenomenon was observed in the real Gotham City post 9/11/2001 - New Yorkers put their differences aside to ensure their neighbors were safe. 

A major theme in the Dark Knight trilogy is the rise of Gothamites from an apathetic population to one that takes responsibility for its city. 

A major theme in the Dark Knight trilogy is the rise of Gothamites from an apathetic population to one that takes responsibility for its city. 

Psychologists Christopher Peterson (who sadly passed away last month) and Martin Seligman, pioneers in the field of positive psychology, investigated this exact observation in a 2003 study. Peterson and Seligman used the Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Strengths (you can take it yourself here), a scientific assessment of positive traits that exist across cultures, to determine if New Yorkers were experiencing a change in character strengths before and after the events of 9/11. What they found was post 9/11, the character strengths of gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork had significantly increased. Furthermore, these strengths remained elevated 10 months after the attacks. 

What is going on here? The authors provide the following explanation: 

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, people behaved differently by turning to others, which in turn changed their social worlds so that the relevant behaviors were rewarded and thus maintained.

In other words, following 9/11 people were more likely to help each other, which in turn reinforced altruistic character strengths in the short and long term. 

While there are some problems with Peterson and Seligman's 2003 study (it was cross sectional, not longitudinal, and could suffer from a sampling bias), it did empirically demonstrate a trend that is often observed in the aftermath of traumatic events - people help each other.

The murder of Kitty Genovese, and the  ironic myth  of bystandard apathy in her case, ignited research in the field of altruism. 

The murder of Kitty Genovese, and the ironic myth of bystandard apathy in her case, ignited research in the field of altruism. 

But why does this happen? We know from social psychology that individuals are more likely to engage in altruism if they: 

  1. See a situation as an emergency.
  2. Feel personal responsibility to the other person (i.e. don't see themselves as a bystander).
  3. Have the ability to plan and implement a course of action. 

Given the above, it's likely that in these large scale disasters, most individuals feel an increased personal responsibility to their neighbors, friends, and relatives. Additionally, seeing news, blogs, photos, and tweets about the disaster increases a sense of urgency while reports of locals helping each other shows us how we can provide assistance. 

Living in a part of NYC that had power this week, I did feel a personal responsibility to provide refuge to friends who were not as fortunate. However, that responsibility only developed after reading about their suffering through Facebook updates. When displaced friends did come over, it felt good to help them (altruism is highly reinforcing). 

Peter Foley returned to Gotham's aid because of a sense of responsibility to his friend. 

Peter Foley returned to Gotham's aid because of a sense of responsibility to his friend. 

Getting back to The Dark Knight Rises, when Bane created a sense of emergency it was through teamwork and collective responsibility that Gotham rose against him. Bruce Wayne returned as Batman only after John Blake and Commission Gordon reminded him of his responsibility to protect the city. Later, Commissioner Gordon used a sense of personal responsibility, based upon their past partnership, to convince Peter Foley to stop hiding and assist in the resistance against Bane. The ultimate hero of the Dark Knight trilogy is not Batman, but the citizens of Gotham who finally accepted responsibility for fighting injustice.  

While I would never wish a disaster upon anyone, psychology has demonstrated that good things can come out of traumatic events. We can all capitalize upon these findings (e.g. create a sense of urgency, personal responsibility, and describe a course of action) to promote altruism before impending disasters, in their aftermath, and during times of personal crisis.

To learn more about how you can help those affected by Hurricane Sandy, click here for more information.