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 Psychology of Fan Outrage or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck is Batman.

The internet was the forum for global fan outrage this week when Warner Brothers announced Ben Affleck will star as the Dark Knight opposite Henry Cavill's Man of Steel in 2015's Batman Versus Superman movie.

Fans have been complaining about two things.

1. "Ben Affleck has been in really crappy movies, including his last superhero movie – Daredevil." Check out exhibit A:

2. "Ben Affleck can't pull off Bruce Wayne/Batman." Exhibit B:

Rough stuff (and there's plenty more of it out there). At least one person stood up for Affleck:

 

I was also surprised by this announcement and texted my Batman friends to vent. They eventually calmed me down and when I really thought about it, this whole debate didn't make much sense. We have nothing to judge Affleck's portrayal as Batman (they haven't even started filming yet). We also can't go by his past performances because they've been inconsistent (Gigli was stupid but Argo rocked).

But what we can dive into is the psychology of the Batfleck backlash, which was pretty much summed up in this tweet:

 

Patterns of fan outrage like this happen all the time – people get invested in something, feel betrayed by changes, and eventually come to terms with it. It's all because of the anonymity of the internet and a psychological safety mechanism called cognitive dissonance.

All This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again

Heath Ledger as the Joker.

We've seen this type of outrage before – critics didn't like Michael Keaton's casting as Batman. "A comedian can't play the cape crusader!". Yet he did a pretty good job and (along with Christopher Reeve's Superman) paved the way for our modern age of superhero movies.

Fans were also pissed when they heard Heath Ledger, star of the teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You, was cast as the Joker. They loved Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the same character and doubted Ledger had the talent to bring to life Batman's archenemy. He went on to win a posthumous Oscar for that role.

Fan outrage isn't unique to Batman. Many longtime Trekkies hated Star Trek Into Darkness, despite its critical acclaim and blockbuster success. People were hostile when the new Battlestar Galactica reimagined the cigar smoking Starbuck into a female character. We see this when video game sequels make big departures from their predecessors (which has led to a wave of discrimination against game developers). Similar stuff happens in sports. Patriots fans mocked Tim Tebow when he was signed on to the team. Even Facebook users ballyhoo each and every interface change the social networking website makes.

(Anger + Anonymity) - Eye Contact = Internet Trolls

dark-knight-sonar.jpg

Regardless of the product, fans spend a lot of time, energy, and money investing in the way things are. For a lot of people, anger is a natural reaction when we think something we love is changing for the worse.

While there are a lot of reasons why people get mad, it all comes down to feeling wronged – something has happened that was not okay (like having your foot stepped on in the subway, someone cutting in front of you in a line, or having your wallet stolen). Anger warps our thoughts, jumpstarts our body, and makes us want to break something. Whether or not we act on our aggressive urges depends on the circumstances of our anger.

Me and my favorite Bruce Wayne - Kevin Conroy from  Batman: The Animated Series   &  Arkham City.

Me and my favorite Bruce Wayne - Kevin Conroy from Batman: The Animated Series  & Arkham City.

Batman fans have invested a lot in the superhero. Take me for example. I fell in love with the character after seeing Batman: The Animated Series. Batman gave me hope that I too could grow from difficult experiences and develop the skills I needed to overcome my own super-villains. I own all of the movies on Blu-ray, have met my favorite Batman (Kevin Conroy), and nearly wet my pants when I saw the epic San Diego Comic-Con reveal of the Batman VS. Superman movie. I've been waiting my whole life to see Batman and Superman appear together on the big screen. The Affleck casting made me question if Warner Brothers was taking the movie as seriously as I was (yes, fans feel like they have a personal ownership over this kind of stuff).

When you take that type of anger and combine it with the internet, very bad things can happen. The internet loosens our inhibitions (kinda like alcohol) because we feel anonymous. A recent experimental study supported this idea and found that lack of eye contact with other people is one of the most important predictors of crazy online troll behavior. In other words, the things that keep us civil towards each other (like looking at someone face-to-face) are often stripped away on the internet.

Anger doesn't last forever — it comes and goes (just like all emotions). But we feel impulsive when we're angry and the internet gives us a way to quickly act on our impulses. Without face-to-face contact, we feel like we can say heinous things and get away with it.

We Want to be Consistent

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Psychological science has demonstrated time and again that humans aren't rational beings. We feel first, think and act later. That's why we do things that don't make logical sense like smoking when we know it's bad for our health, procrastinating on our work even though it'll make things harder later on, and avoiding difficult conversations which end up prolonging our stress.

Sometimes our emotions lead us to do things that conflict with our beliefs. We might think we're generous people but then we avoid beggars on the street. That's where cognitive dissonance comes in. Our mind strives for consistency between our beliefs and actions. When there's an inconsistency ("I'm a good person but I didn't give money to that poor person"), our mind either changes our behavior ("I'll volunteer at a soup chicken") or modifies our beliefs ("If I gave that beggar money, they'd just spend it on beer or drugs"). These types of mental gymnastics happens all the time without any conscious awareness.

What does this have to do with Batfleck outrage? Cognitive dissonance helps us understand what's been going on inside the minds of fans after their initial anger has worn off. Here's an example:

Belief 1: I love Batman.
Belief 2: I hate Ben Affleck.
Dissonance: Ben Affleck is the new Batman!

We want to be consistent and these two beliefs just don't mesh with each other. To reduce our conflict, we might change the first belief and say "Affleck will never be my Batman" or "This isn't a serious Batman movie with Zack Snyder at the helm." Others will change their second belief – "Ben Affleck isn't that bad" or "Far worse actors have played Batman". Again, this is a stealthy process that happens without us even realizing it.

I wish the conversation about our new Batman was more civil, but with the way most of the internet works (no face time), that’s not going to happen. Knowing what we do about cognitive dissonance, Cap. Steve Rogers is right — people will get used to this news and see the movie anyway.

At the end of the day, it's good that people are reacting so strongly. Emotional reactions mean people care about Batman and are invested in the franchise. The moment fans stop caring is when a franchise dies (Exhibit C: George Clooney's Batman & Robin). Will Batman VS. Superman go down the path of Batman & Robin or Batman Begins? It’s just too early to tell.

November 21st 2013 Update: Listen to Geek Therapist Josué Cardona and I discuss Ben Affleck and Nerd Rage on the Geek Therapy Podcast

December 22nd 2014 Update: Watch the Nerd Nite version of this article.