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. 

Mindfulness is the Essential Psychology of the Star Wars Universe

Star Wars Complete Saga

The next phase of the biggest science fiction franchise just started with the premiere of Star Wars: Rebels. Continuing the proud tradition of the animated Star Wars: Clone Wars, this new cartoon will fill in the gaps between the prequel and original trilogy and set up 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII.

Rebels is a triumphant return to the Galactic Empire. Fans of the original Star Wars films will find a lot to love in Rebels. There are also some fun Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy influences sprinkled throughout the show. It’s clear that the force is strong with Disney, the new caretakers of the Star Wars universe.

Since we’re beginning a new era in a galaxy far far away, I wanted to see if it was possible to distill the entire saga down to a single psychological idea (just like I did with Star Trek). This was quite a challenge since my buddy Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I keep finding new ways of psychoanalyzing Star Wars. After rewatching the films and the best of Clone Wars, it’s clear that the essential psychology of the Star Wars universe is all about mindfulness.

“You must feel the Force around you.”

"You must feel the force around you."

Star Wars is a story about good versus evil set against the backdrop of the Skywalker family. Originally with Luke and later with Anakin, we learn that the Skywalkers are deeply attuned to the power of the Force. What exactly is the Force? Here’s how it’s described in the original Star Wars film:

Obi-Wan: The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.

While our understanding of the Force evolves with the prequel films (you know, with Midichlorians), the main idea behind it remains the same – with practice, Jedi gain a heightened awareness of the present moment, enhance their physical and mental abilities, and develop cool supernatural powers.

All the greatest moments in Star Wars involve the Force. But if you look closely, it’s not the Jedi mind tricks or Force jumps that get all the screen time. A heightened awareness of the present moment is the power we keep seeing throughout the saga. It’s how Luke destroys the Death Star, the skill Yoda emphasizes in his Jedi training, and what helps Darth Vader turn against Emperor Palpatine. In the prequels, this power helps Qui-Gon discover Anakin and is how Yoda and Obi-Wan unravel the threat of the Sith. It’s also the ability we see Ahsoka develop in Clone Wars and what we’re seeing Ezra learn in Rebels. There’s a name for this skill in psychology and it’s called mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

Star Wars mindfulness

Mindfulness is based on an ancient Buddhist meditation that has only recently been studied by scientists. Think of mindfulness as “the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way.” It’s not just about concentration – mindfulness helps you to fully live in the present moment and accept it for what it is.

While it might sound like an abstract idea, you've probably been immersed in a moment many times in your life. People are often highly focused when they’re only doing one thing at a time (like watching Star Wars in a movie theater), doing something for the first time (constructing a new Millennium Falcon Lego set), or experiencing strong emotions (when someone tells you Star Trek is better than Star Wars).

But to achieve mindfulness, you have to ignore the stuff that takes you out of the present. That means shifting from judging a moment (“I hate the prequels”) to describing it (“The prequels are different from the films I grew up with”) and restricting emotions (“Don’t even say the words Star Wars Legends!”) to accepting them (“It’s okay to mourn the end of the Expanded Universe”).

Mindfulness will help you become a better Star Wars fan. You’ll be able to watch The Phantom Menace without cringing at the sight of Jar Jar Binks, finish building a Millennium Falcon Lego set despite the frustrating small pieces, and listen to a Trekkie's arguments against Star Wars even though you want to force choke them. It’s also good for your health. Mindfulness improves memory, refines focus, helps people cope with strong emotions, increases creativity, and boosts the immune system.

This is what I love about Star Wars – throughout every iteration of this franchise we return to the basic idea that if you fully experience the present moment, amazing things can happen. “Using the force” isn’t a skill unique to Jedi Knights – it’s something anyone can master with a little practice.

What about the Sith? Do they practice mindfulness? Quite the opposite...

Avoidance is the path to the dark side

Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith

To understand the dark side of The Force, we need to get back to the Skywalkers. Both Anakin and Luke go through similar experiences. They’re raised away from their parents, are blocked from doing the things they want to do, experience traumatic events like the murder of family members, and are thrust into galactic war without completing their training. Why does Anakin become a Sith while Luke remains a Jedi? Anakin desperately avoids painful experiences while Luke has mastered mindfulness.

Anakin struggles with something called experiential avoidance (the opposite of mindfulness). It’s hard for him to live in the present moment, feel emotions, and remember painful memories. By avoiding, controlling, and restricting experiences, Anakin initially feels relief. But this causes long-term problems. He starts to get nightmares, acts impulsively without thinking of any consequences, and becomes obsessed with protecting Padme because he never wants to feel grief ever again. Darth Sidious capitalizes on Anakin's obsession with avoidance and that's how this Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.

There’s a good reason why Anakin struggles with experiential avoidance. He was enslaved at an early age and probably suffered a lot of physical and verbal abuse. We know kids who experience these types of traumas feel powerful emotions and have a hard time managing them. By comparison, Luke had a relatively normal childhood with two stable caregivers.

I don’t want you to think shutting down uncomfortable sensations will make you want to wipe out a bunch of younglings. Avoidance here and there is okay. But long-term experiential avoidance causes a lot of problems and it might be one of the root causes of all mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

Yoda was wrong when he said, “Fear is the path to the dark side.” Fear just prepares us for dangerous situations. But George Lucas nailed it when he created a story about the consequences of experiential avoidance and virtues of mindfulness. 

Developing mindfulness

Star Wars Jedi Training

How does one begin their Jedi training and learn mindfulness? There are lots of resources available on and offline. Andy Puddicombe’s TED talk is a great introduction to living in the present moment, the Mayo Clinic has a nice list of quick mindfulness exercises you can start right away, and Jonathan Kaplan’s Urban Mindfulness is a concise book about practicing mindfulness in the most chaotic of environments.

I recommend starting with short awareness exercises. You could go out for a walk and focus on the world around you. Or perhaps drink some tea and pay attention to the color, temperature, smell, and taste of the beverage. You can also concentrate on what each part of your body feels like in the exact position you're in at this moment. Throughout all of these exercises, just make sure you embrace the experience fully and if you become distracted by thoughts or feelings make a mental note of them and return to the task at hand. Once you become more mindful during these exercises, you'll be able to integrate mindfulness into other parts of your life.

Some words of caution. It takes years for a Padawan to become a Jedi. While it won't take you that long to learn mindfulness, it's definitely something that requires a long-term commitment. It's also something that can't be applied 100% of the time. Do you see a Jedi use the Force every moment of every day? Of course not, that would be exhausting! Mindfulness works the same way. Use it when you want to increase your awareness or reduce experiential avoidance. Lastly, one of the pesky problems we have in this galaxy is the mindless culture we live in. Our always-connected technology makes it easy for us to escape the present moment. When you're practicing mindfulness, put away your smartphone and turn off nearby screens.

A New Dawn

JJ Abrams X-Wing Star Wars Episode VII

The prequel and original Star Wars trilogies tell essential stories about psychological distress and health. We don’t know what ideas will be explored in the sequel trilogy, but we do know that J.J. Abrams has always been immersed in the Star Wars saga. I'm confident he'll honor its psychology in Episode VII, just like every iteration of this awesome universe.