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. 

COSMOS tells a great story, but it forgets to explain the science of denying science

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey  is presented by FOX Sundays 9/8c and National Geographic Mondays 10/9c

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey is presented by FOX Sundays 9/8c and National Geographic Mondays 10/9c

I've been anticipating COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey ever since it was teased at last year's San Diego Comic Con. Carl Sagan's original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was a big part of my childhood and, along with Star Trek, it made me believe that science would create a better future for humanity. Knowing that COSMOS was returning in one of the biggest television rollouts of all time with the coolest modern scientific communicator (Neil deGrasse Tyson) made me a very happy nerd.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's got the right stuff to take on  COSMOS .

Neil deGrasse Tyson's got the right stuff to take on COSMOS.

The first episode explains Earth's position in the universe and introduces the cosmic calendar to a whole new generation of people. Both had the effect of making me feel impossibly small & completely inspired. What was unexpected was the story of Giordano Bruno, a man who argued that the Earth orbits the Sun in an era when most believed the Earth was the center of the universe. Bruno died for his beliefs and in telling this story COSMOS makes a clear case for the scientific method of questioning everything. The episode tells a great story, but it forgets to explain the science of why people deny science.

Stories are persuasive

A history of the universe, condensed into an easy to understand story.

A history of the universe, condensed into an easy to understand story.

What made COSMOS so effective is Tyson's mastery of storytelling. He's been doing this for years at the Hayden Planetarium, on Capitol Hill, and across television networks (probably because he was inspired to follow Sagan’s example). Tyson easily translates complex ideas into straightforward language that gets people excited about understanding space. Most scientists can't do this and have a hard time sharing their ideas with people who aren’t in their field. Check out Tyson at his best in the "We Stopped Dreaming" speech.   

Stories aren't just entertaining. They’re an essential part of our psychology. The brain creates a story of who we are based upon the experiences we’ve had. These stories are simplified versions of reality (cognitive biases filter much of what happens to us). We're also biased to remember supernatural things like singing frogs (remembering things that are unusual helps us stay alive). But regardless of accuracy, stories are important because they have a huge impact on how we think, act, and feel.

The key stories from the first episode of COSMOS include:

  1. The Earth is a tiny part of a vast universe.
  2. Humanity didn't always believe this and people like Giordano Bruno were killed for asking too many questions.
  3. Humanity has existed for a very small amount of time compared to the rest of the universe.

Each of these stories is backed by science, with the exception of Bruno's story. COSMOS fails to explain why people rejected Bruno’s ideas and why many continue to deny modern day scientific truths (like climate change).

We attack information that conflicts with our stories

Cognitive dissonance explains why Giordano Bruno was attacked for his views of the universe.

Cognitive dissonance explains why Giordano Bruno was attacked for his views of the universe.

The best explanation for why people deny science comes from Leon Festinger's study of "The Seekers". Festinger infiltrated a cult led by Marian Keech who claimed to be receiving messages from aliens telling her the world would end on December 21st, 1954. Keech also claimed that she, along with her followers, would be saved at midnight prior to the end of the world. Her devotees left their jobs and stayed with Keech for the week leading up to the 21st. Midnight came and went – nothing happened. Instead of coming up with a rational explanation for why they weren’t beamed up by aliens, the seekers believed that God was so impressed with their prayers that he saved the world.

Festinger tested this experience in the lab and developed cognitive dissonance theory. Basically, we try to be true to the stories we tell ourselves. When there's a clash between our beliefs and new information (The Earth is the center of the universe but this guy is saying the Earth moves around the Sun), we unconsciously find information that fits our personal stories and end the conflict (He’s a crazy heretic). Cognitive dissonance is another part of the psychological immune system that keeps us feeling good about ourselves and the choices we make. Chris Mooney summarizes it nicely:

…our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts...That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment…We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

The brain attacks information that might challenge our beliefs the same way antibodies fight viruses. We unconsciously morph new information to fit in with existing stories (Sure, smoking isn’t healthy, but I don’t smoke that often and when I do they’re lights). Research has also shown that the harder you try to change someone’s perspective on an emotional topic, the stronger their existing point of view becomes. That's why debates on abortion don’t go anywhere and just make people mad.

How do we get around the problem of cognitive dissonance? New information has to be communicated in a way that fits in with someone’s existing stories. That's one of the reasons why many Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in the big bang – it’s consistent with many religious stories about genesis and creation. It’s also why some people of faith have a hard time with evolution – the cosmic calendar doesn’t align with many religious texts.

COSMOS  doesn't look like any documentary we've seen before.

COSMOS doesn't look like any documentary we've seen before.

COSMOS, a big budget primetime miniseries that looks more like a science fiction blockbuster than a science documentary, is perfectly positioned to get around the barriers of cognitive dissonance because it tells a cool story. I’m bummed it didn’t explain why people rejected Bruno’s convictions, but I believe it will inspire a new generation to love science.

Rating: 9/10

To learn more about the science of science communication, check out Kyle Hill’s article at Discover Magazine

Ender's Game Captures the Best of the Book, but Not Enough to Make It a Good Film (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

Ender's Game movie film poster

I never heard of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game as a kid. One of my friends tried to get me to read it in college, but with so many textbooks to digest I wasn't interested in any pleasure reading. I started reading sci-fi again in grad school because I welcomed the escape, however when I learned about Card's anti-LGBT views I pushed Ender's Game to the bottom of my reading list. I finally decided to read the novel last month because I can't call myself a science fiction psychologist if I haven't read one of the genre's most beloved novels.

The book's a great fast read. I can see why so many people like it. Anyone who’s felt excluded as a child (like I did) will immediately love Ender Wiggin. There’s also a lot of psychology in Ender's Game. I can’t do the book justice in a non-spoiler review of the film, but I will allude to some of my favorite psychological ideas from the book:

The book also brings up interesting questions about using video games to recruit soldiers (something we do now), drone warfare and its impact on pilots (drone pilots struggle just as much as combat pilots), and the ethics of preemptive strikes (like the Iraq war).

Battle School in  Ender's Game  .

Battle School in Ender's Game .

Most of these ideas are brought to life in the big screen adaption. The film does this with an impressively diverse cast, smooth aesthetic, and cool technology.  

This isn't enough to make Ender's Game a good movie though. The book explores the humanity of the kids – Ender's empathy, his sister's compassion, and his brother's callousness. These themes never get fleshed out in the film. Besides a bully, everyone in Battle School is pretty much the same disposable kid. Gone is the book's bathroom humor, which made the kids sound like kids. I enjoyed the book but didn’t care for the people in this film. This is a huge bummer since the cast is very talented and could have done so much more with these roles.

Despite the cast's credentials, the characters don't have much emotional depth.

Despite the cast's credentials, the characters don't have much emotional depth.

In addition to the boring characters, there’re also technical problems with Ender’s Game. Things happen way too quickly, especially at the end. If you haven't read the book, you'll probably leave the theater confused or unsatisfied. I also had a hard time believing the film's zero gravity scenes, but that's probably because Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity spoiled me.

Who should see the film? Fans of the book and anyone who enjoys sci-fi set in space. Otherwise, save your money and wait for Thor: The Dark World or Hunger Games: Catching Fire instead.

Rating: 6.5/10

For a much more positive review of Ender's Game, check out the LA Times. I agreed most with AV Club's review of the film.


Gravity Is No Masterpiece, but It Is Awe-Inspiring (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

Gravity movie poster.

I can't tell you how much I've been anticipating Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity. Over the last 10 years, Cuarón has become one of my favorite directors. He brought a beautiful sense of visual storytelling to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men is considered to be the most important science fiction film of the last decade. While Gravity didn't turn out to be the masterpiece I was hoping for, it’s awe-inspiring and that’s an achievement in itself.

I saw the film at a sold out opening weekend screening at New York City's only true IMAX theater. Throughout the 90 minute run time, the theater was completely absorbed—no one spoke, no text messages were sent, no one left for the bathroom. We were all mesmerized by the film's evolutionary 3D, Cuarón's thrilling tracking shots, and the realistic depiction of space physics. I wasn't just pulled in because of Gravity's eye-candy, it was also Cuarón's "show, not tell" style. I loved reading his rational for this at io9:  

I think much of mainstream cinema are films that you can watch with your eyes closed. You enter the cinema, buy your popcorn, sit down, close your eyes, start eating your popcorn the movie begins and the movie ends you didn't miss one thing because they told you everything. As opposed to you experiencing the film and seeing visual information.

Gravity is a cinematic sensory experience I've never had before. This must be what it was like to see Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time back in 1968. 


Gravity is, however, an entirely different film from 2001. It doesn't have as wide of a scope, nor does it make any grand statements about humanity. This film is a simple story of survival and terror in the impossibility of space. It also has flaws that prevent it from rising to the same level of Kubrick's masterpiece. The characters are simplistic—George Clooney plays a "Buzz Lightyear" veteran astronaut opposite Sandra Bullock's fish-out-of-water scientist on her first space mission. Both characters feel clichéd at times. I love that Cuarón fought to keep the film's lead a female, but Bullock's character acts and talks in a way that sometimes feels like a gender stereotype. There's also a major scientific plot hole in the movie, but that doesn't bother me too much. Cuarón's first draft of the script was 100% scientifically accurate, but it was probably too slow to work for the big screen. The final product is a nice blend of reality and fiction.

Despite its flaws, Gravity is a cinematic achievement. Look at some of the other films from this summer—Oblivion was beautiful and Star Trek Into Darkness suspenseful, but neither inspired awe. Critics are saying Gravity has "rewritten the rules of cinema" and "shows us the glory of cinema's future". This is true, not because the film will change Hollywood, but because audiences leave Gravity wondering how the film was made and how the physics of space exploration work. Just like 2001, kids will be inspired by Gravity to become the next generation of filmmakers and our future scientists.

Rating: 9/10

I agree completely with AV Club, both in their non-spoiler and spoiler reviews. Another worthwhile read is astronaut Buzz Aldrin's take on the film. Be sure to check out my article on the psychology of space exploration (which the film gets mostly right).    

3 Things Astronauts Need to Survive in Space

Space Shuttle Endeavor and the International Space Station. Image by NASA.

Space Shuttle Endeavor and the International Space Station. Image by NASA.

For one year in college I had the job of my dreams—working as an intern at the NASA Ames Research Center. Even though my day was full of grunt work like scheduling appointments, running experiments, and maintaining a database of research participants, I was honored to part of an organization that I believed in so deeply. Interning at NASA felt like the closest I would get to the final frontier and I savored it till the end.

The coolest part of the internship was getting to learn about the psychology of space exploration. While my team was responsible for human-machine interfaces (like the redesigned Space Shuttle glass cockpit), they also taught me what it takes to keep astronauts alive in space (beyond the obvious stuff like oxygen and radiation shields). Since we’re all eagerly awaiting Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, a film about survival in space, I thought this would be a great time to revisit NASA’s lessons about space travel—build an effective team, create Earth-like conditions, and develop rapid brain and behavioral feedback.

1) Build An Effective Team

The multinational crew of the Columbia STS-107 tragedy was one of the most diverse in NASA's history. Image by NASA. 

The multinational crew of the Columbia STS-107 tragedy was one of the most diverse in NASA's history. Image by NASA. 

After overcoming Earth's gravity and the vacuum of space, the next biggest challenge astronauts face is being part of an effective team. Imagine being stuck in a cramped area with a small group of people for a long period of time without any privacy or escape. No, it's not prison—this is what space exploration feels like. Astronauts work in suffocatingly small spaces, have very stressful schedules, and rely on each other to get their jobs done. Small conflicts between the crew can quickly escalate into serious life threatening problems. Living and working well together, despite differences in personalities and perspectives, isn’t a lofty goal – it’s critical to survival in space. 

NASA takes team building very seriously. Much of the research from NASA’s National Space Biomedical Research Institute has focused on team cohesion. We now know that mixed gender crews work better than all male or female crews (at least in remote research facilities, the military, and NASA). When it comes to multinational crews, the biggest barrier to cohesion is working with machines and procedures that are unfamiliar. This can be easily overcome if different nations work together when designing machines, developing procedures, and training their crew.

Based on these findings, NASA created a comprehensive team training program. Using classes, simulations, and virtual reality, NASA trains astronauts to effectively communicate with one another, work across cultures, make decisions, take care of each other, lead and follow, manage conflict, and deal with unexpected situations in space. Probably the most important part of the training is the subtle stuff that comes along the way—the crews get a chance to spend time together before missions, get to know each other, create a common language, and develop trust for one another.

Space agencies have done a pretty good job of building effective teams for Apollo, Space Shuttle, Mir, and International Space Station missions. But these missions have had the benefit of regular communication with Earth, support from ground crews, and shorter durations. The real challenge will be sending a team to Mars where communication with Earth will be delayed and the flight there and back could take years.

2) Create Earth-like Conditions

There's not much room for sunlight in the ISS. Image by NASA.

There's not much room for sunlight in the ISS. Image by NASA.

 Our biology developed to survive within Earth's atmosphere and gravity. That's why spaceships have ample supplies of oxygen and why astronauts spend so much of their day exercising.

The same is true of our psychology—it developed to function on Earth, not in the vacuum of space. This becomes a major problem for our internal clock—the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN regulates circadian rhythms, which wake us up in the morning and make us sleepy at night. Because the SCN is located right next to the optic nerve, sunlight has a big impact on it. The more sunlight gets into your eyes, the more alert you feel. As the sun sets and our surroundings become dark, the SCN gets your body ready for bed.

The problem with space exploration is astronauts don’t get the same exposure to sunlight and darkness that they’re used to on Earth. Take the International Space Station—it orbits the Earth every 90 minutes with varying exposure to sunlight. The SCN isn’t built for a 90-minute orbit; it's used to a 24-hour cycle. Being on the International Space Station is kinda like having perpetual jet lag. Combine that with the loud sounds of machinery and it’s no wonder so many astronauts suffer from insomnia and chronic drowsiness during simulations and space missions.

Insomnia and drowsiness is a huge problem for anyone operating machinery. Driving a car while drowsy is just as bad as driving drunk. You can imagine how much of a problem this would cause astronauts working with multimillion-dollar equipment in life-threatening situations.

The solution is replicating as many Earth-like conditions as possible. NASA plans to replace the International Space Station’s fluorescent lights with a new LED system that creates blue, white, and red light. A combination of these colors creates light that’s similar to what we get on Earth during mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Then, mission control will time the lighting to correspond with a 24-hour cycle. It’s a similar solution to light boxes which are used to treat seasonal depression.  

3) Develop Rapid Brain and Behavioral Feedback

Sensors, like those in this space suit, will one day include brain and behavioral measures. Image by NASA.

Sensors, like those in this space suit, will one day include brain and behavioral measures. Image by NASA.

We get a lot of feedback from the people we interact with every day. Coming home from a rough day at work, our loved ones might ask us how we’re doing and give us an opportunity to vent about whatever happened that day. This type of feedback helps us maintain good mental health. Improving awareness of our thoughts and feelings is also a major goal of all effective psychotherapies.

This type of feedback is rare in space. Sure, the crew might notice some changes in your mood, but what if they are also experiencing the same problems as you? They could also be the source of your frustration, leading you to isolate yourself. Some of the sleep research I discussed earlier has already shown that astronauts think they feel better than mission control's data indicates. 

This is why NASA is developing remote brain and behavioral feedback systems to augment the current monitoring of an astronaut’s physiology. The goal is for ground crews to intervene with problems in space before they impact mission goals or compromise team cohesion. A group of psychologists are developing tools to measure interpersonal behaviors between crew members. Heart-rate, speech, and distance between crew members will be monitored using a badge. Ground teams will be alerted if there are altercations between the crew or if anyone is isolating themselves. Psychologists have also developed a psychomotor vigilance test that measures mood and depression. Saliva tests and facial recognition software can also be used to measure an astronaut’s stress and mood. All of this information will one day be integrated with computer software that can provide remote therapy to help astronauts get back on track. 

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy taking a photo from the ISS's cupola viewport. Image by NASA.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy taking a photo from the ISS's cupola viewport. Image by NASA.

Building team cohesion, creating Earth-like conditions, and rapid feedback systems are important to survival in space. But it’s not enough to just survive. Space exploration is a deeply moving experience for many astronauts. They spend most of their free time in awe of the Earth (just look at these beautiful photographs from astronaut Chris Hadfield or watch his heartfelt goodbye to the International Space Station). Some astronauts return to Earth completely changed by what they saw in space. I wonder what would happen if we could all experience space flight and see our pale blue dot from the vastness of space?

This is why I love NASA. It represents the most optimistic branch of our government—an organization solely dedicated to exploration, science, and helping humans thrive in the most impossible situations. I hope Gravity will increase our appreciation for the resiliency of astronauts and the awesome enterprise that is human space exploration.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of space psychology. For much more check out NASA’s free ebook, The Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective.