Best of the Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars

It's San Diego Comic Con week! THE PSYCH SHOW celebrates by looking back at the best moments from the Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars Comic Con panel series. Watch Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I debate Data VS. C3PO, explore failure and regret, discuss love in the final frontier and a galaxy far far away, and breakdown the psychology of the Federation and Galactic Empire.

Thank you to Brian Ward for moderating and our panelists for being so awesome:

Be sure to check out Episode V of our panel later this week at Comic Con!

The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode IV at San Diego Comic Con 2014 (Recap)

Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode IV at San Diego Comic Con 2014

Last week, Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I brought our intergalactic scifi battle, The Psychology of Star Trek Versus Star Wars, back to San Diego Comic Con! Producer Rod Roddenberry (Trek Nation) and actor Sam Witwer (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) joined the discussion with Brian Ward returning as referee.

While Episode III focused on the science behind family, relationships, friendships, and bullying, for Episode IV we discussed what it takes to reach your full potential and what happens if you fail to achieve it. 

If you couldn’t make it, download the audio, watch the full panel, or check out the highlights below. 

Round 1: Realizing Your Full Potential

Star Trek 2009's Kirk facing Enterprise; Star Wars: A New Hope Luke twin sunset.

Brian: Whether it’s realizing that your more than a kid from Iowa or a moisture farmer on Tatooine, both franchises deal with self-actualization quite a lot. Psychologically speaking, which franchise handles it in a more healthy manner?

Andrea: We know that Star Wars is about self-actualization, the journey to your fulfillment, your purpose, your meaning, everything you are living for. We know through many characters in Star Wars that their individual journeys are very important. Star Trek deals with that, but within a societal/psychosocial themed universe. It’s more about building social relationships and trying to get along and all that.

Ali: Star Wars has a great story about self-actualization with these individuals – that’s nice. Star Trek is about humanity, the whole species. There are 3 basic things Star Trek is about when it comes to psychology – overcoming prejudice, promoting tolerance, and working together. We have some Andorians here – they helped us bring the Federation together. The Federation is about groups of people overcoming their prejudice and working together on large goals. That’s what Star Trek is about, something that’s larger than just individual people.

Sam: I’m going to have a real hard time here guys. Much like the two sides of Darth Vader warring with each other, I also feel like Spock in that I have my Star Trek side and my Star Wars side. I’m disagreeing with everyone at this point! So [turns to Andrea] are we supposed to win here, is that how this works?

Andrea: I would ask you to embrace your anger, give in to the dark side.

Sam: [Turns to Ali] Let’s talk about those individuals you said suck. What’s wonderful about them in Star Wars is they have more in common with mythic archetypes. You go all the way back to people like Odysseus and ah all those folks and even…ah…[audience laughs]…I’ve read stuff! I’m trying to stay away from the Greek gods because Star Trek did that as well, right? Like, “Oh we had Apollo in our show…”

Ali: In every other episode of The Original Series, yeah.

Sam: Yeah, exactly! Anyway, [Star Wars] has more to do with large myth couched in this wonderful fun popcorn Buster Crabbe Flash Gordan stuff. It makes those lessons really digestible to young folks. I remember in high school, a lot of situations where as a young person I was trying to figure out what’s right and wrong. You’d say, “I could do this, but that’s the dark side, the quick and easy path.” Those movies provided us with that vocabulary, to help us digest the world around us in terms that are a lot more fun than sitting around and mashing your teeth about being a young person. 

Rod: I grew up on Star Wars, believe it or not, I saw it in the theater 10 or 20 times. My intellectual maturity wasn't really developed. However, when it did…

[Audience laughs]

Sam: I’m on your side, pal! I’m on everyone’s side!

Brian: This is why they keep inviting us back!

Rod: Listen, I love both sides. I’m just trying to dig the knife a little bit, just to stir things up. I grew up on The Next Generation, that was my series. For Mission Log, I just started watching it again. The first season may not be the strongest season, but every episode dealt with an issue. The Next Generation was already that better humanity. It was hard for certain people to identify with those humans because they were what we could be one day. I think a lot of what is in Star Wars is very familiar to us. The behaviors, the basic right and wrong, good and bad. I’m really not downing it, but it’s just easier to understand – black and white. Star Trek is a bit deeper, for me, because it’s a better humanity already. It makes me feel good. That’s the world I want to live in. That’s the future I want to live in. I don’t necessarily, although it might be fun, want to live in the Star Wars world.

Ali: But if you want a war, watch Deep Space Nine. We’ve got a war too! It’s a really big one, with Changelings and stuff.

Sam: Let me ask everyone here - what’s darker? This is me actually asking. I have a friend I showed a whole bunch of Star Trek to and a whole bunch of Star Wars. She felt Star Wars was a lot darker.

Rod: Deep Space Nine is pretty dark show.

Sam: Yeah…let’s lie and get the Romulans into the war. Spoiler alert!

Ali: Ah…best episode ever! Sam, that’s my favorite episode of Star Trek right there – “In the Pale Moonlight.” You just earned points!

Sam: Star Trek is all about we fire on you, but then you fire on us, and then we come to an understanding afterwards. If I decide to go to war with you guys, Darth Vader don’t take no prisoners man! I’m just saying, it’s in your nature to be forgiving. I don’t want to take the gloves off.

Round 2: Failure

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace Darth Maul

Brian: You could have been genetically bred to conquer the Earth and be the best of the tyrants, but sometimes you get only get a quarter of the Earth under your possession before they jettison you into space. And you could have been given away to a lord of the Sith to be his apprentice and just before you got to realize that potential you were cut in half. Let’s talk about these two franchises and what it means psychologically to nearly realize your goals and having them taken away.

Ali: This question is pretty awesome.

Brian: I know.

Ali: My favorite part about Phantom Menace is Darth Maul. I thought he was such a cool character. To see him brother back in Clone Wars was so exciting. We too on the Star Trek side have Khan and he was brought back too…but we don’t have to talk about that. What we are talking about is what happens when you have a goal. Both of these individuals were bred for one purpose. Darth Maul, from an early age, without much choice was raised to be a dark Sith assassin. Khan was engineered through eugenics to become a superhuman. In “Space Seed” they say he was “the best of them”. Both of these individuals have a singular purpose. Khan wanted to rule the world. He didn’t really do a good job, sorta led to World War III. Darth Maul was bred to kill Jedi and he was cut in half. Both of these characters become consumed with revenge. Khan wants it against Kirk and Maul wants it against Obi-Wan. The psychology here comes down to this – “I’ve done far worse than kill you. I’ve hurt you! And I want to go on hurting you!” Revenge is all about having a wound and hoping if you get back at that person it’ll somehow fix the would. What we know about the psychology here is at first revenge feels good. “Revenge is dish best served cold”, with a little bit of sugar on top because it feels good in the moment. But what the research has shown is the more you’re stuck on revenge and ruminating on these thoughts that pain, your wound, how angry you are at Obi-Wan and Kirk, it just festers. Compare this against Luke and Kirk. Kirk lost his son to Klingons. Throughout The Undiscovered Country, Kirk is going through this process of forgiveness and trying to find empathy for the Klingons. Luke had his hand cut off by Vader and the Emperor is telling him to give in to the dark side and he doesn’t. Both of those characters are able to find forgiveness. Both develop empathy. They’re not saying it’s okay that these things happened, but they are able to find a way to move on. [Maul and Khan] are not.

Andrea: While I understand Khan’s feelings of revenge, biological and neurologically they’re superficial. We keep ending the story when Darth Maul is cut in half. What happens after that? There's this recovery process, an interesting and realistic psychological transformation that we see unfold in Clone Wars. Actual neurobioloigcal research has shown us that when we have that type of severe psychological and biological injury, there are changes in the brain. When we hear the phrase trauma causes brain damage or the body never forgets, that's what we're seeing in the encounter on Lotho Minor. He's completely psychologically disorganized and dysfunctional. He's nearly psychotic. I want to recognize Sam for characterizing that level of psychopathology. You could really feel that level of dysfunction. That speaks to the neurobiology of the experience of failure, trauma, and stress. It's hard to watch but I thought it was very realistic.

Sam: Thank you. First, I'm just going to say this, I'm the worst teammate ever. I'm going to reveal something here that is going to give Star Trek fans a lot of glee – so I'm sorry. What you said [Andrea] was beautiful and what you said [Ali] is where I'm going to go with this.

Rod: This is great! I really don't have to do anything.

Sam: When we were talking about Darth Maul, we talked about his whole arc before we recorded anything. One of the things we kept touching back on was, "I've done far worse than kill you, I've hurt you." So when we first meet him he's in crisis and then he gets his stuff back together and all he wants to do is beat up Obi-Wan and kill him real quick. He wins, he beats Obi-Wan but then lets him go because he doesn't feel any better. Maybe it wasn't big enough. Maybe the revenge needs to be larger, bigger. So he starts raising an army, doing all these things, figuring out who Obi-Wan cares about and then eventually finds Satine. Spoiler alert here, but he ends up hurting Obi-Wan in a very major way. Obi-Wan demonstrates his superiority by not seeking revenge, which is disappointing to Darth Maul but we never get to that point because suddenly we get to Darth Sidious and there's a whole other revenge plot that happens there. It's an endless cycle. I'm certain if we had seen Khan more in the TV series or movies we would have seen a recurring revenge cycle because it's a wound that never heals. The only way that you can heal it is by forgiving your enemy, by offering a compassionate response, by offering mercy. It's no mistake that the first thing we hear Darth Maul say in that garbage pit is mumbling to himself about how mercy is a lie. The last thing we hear Darth Maul say is him begging Darth Sidious for mercy, and Darth Sidious doesn't give it to him. So thank you Star Trek, thank you Andrea, thank you everyone for feeding that response. I suck at this.

Andrea: Remember the rule of two – it's usually broken. There's usually a 3rd party in the rule of two. I'm okay with that.

Sam: I'm betraying my own kind!

Ali: The Sith should really drop that rule of two, it hasn't worked out too well for you all.

Rod: I come at this from a slightly different point of view. There's a lot of respect for Khan in “Space Seed” and the latest movie. There's a lot of depth to the character. I didn't know much about Darth Maul except what I saw in the movie. I learned quite a bit right now. Khan, I have respect for him. He loves his family. Those 72 other people are his family. He has compassion. He has a heart. His views are a little screwed up, but I find him to be a more intriguing character to me whereas I think Maul was more one-dimensional but I know more about Khan than I do Maul. Sometimes you can look at someone who has the wrong point of view but you can still understand them and appreciate where they're coming from. That's where I live with Khan.

Sam: One of the primary differences with Star Trek and Star Wars is that Star Wars paints in more primary colors. It's louder and bigger. Star Trek likes to get really nuanced in very specific ways. That's why I love both of them.

Rod: It's hard to do that with theatrical versus television.

Sam: Right! That's absolutely true. It's nice to see that in those 6 movies they had a lot of success with that nuance, especially with Khan. Star Wars performances don't work if you do them subtly. Star Wars is better when it's bigger and faster and operatic and giant. Star Trek is better when it has subtle moments with the characters – Kirk, Spock, and Bones talking a problem out.

Rod: It makes me want to know more about Darth Maul though. I want to sit around a coffee table with him, have some other characters surround him like Luke and they just talk philosophy. [Asks audience] Who would win in a fight -- Khan or Darth Maul?

[Crowd mostly screams Khan]

Ali: I don't think Khan would win against Maul! I'm going to give an assist to Dr. Letamendi over there...what beat Khan in The Original Series? A BIG PIPE! Come on! Maul has a lightsaber.

Sam: Oh no no no no my friend, I saw Kirk at one point take both of his fists and combine them into one fist and strike him several times. That's what I saw. One fist can do a lot of damage. Two fists are like square root of fist.

Brian: But these two would never meet because Star Trek is in the future, Star Wars is a galaxy a long time ago.

Rod: Yeah but they got really at warp speed! They can go back in time.

Sam: Slingshot effect, come on man let's do this! 

Round 3: Rule of 2 and Number 1

Star Wars Rule of 2, Star Trek Number 1

Brian: Rule of two and Number One. Talk about mentoring and apprenticeship. Whether it is Captain Picard and Riker or Sidious and Maul. Let's talk about what we know about training and education and which system is better.

Andrea: Folks know what the rule of two is? Usually there is a master and apprentice. A lot of times with the Sith this is violated. There's a secret other apprentice who kills one of the other two. Despite that there's a classic relationship where the mentor is trying to instill some intellectual, emotional, and physical ability in the mentee and there's a need to make the mentor proud of them. With Star Trek, there are times when Riker was offered his own ship and he didn't immediately take that opportunity...

Sam: You get paid less if you leave the show.

Ali: The economics of the future are a little different.

Sam: You guys wanted Riker off the show? I didn't. Don't take the ship! Stick around. He's got a cool beard now.

Andrea: There's something weird about their relationship. There's too much enmeshment or attachment. When the bird's ready to fly, leave the nest.

Sam: Let's talk about the master and apprentice relationship between Ben and Luke and Ben's replacement – Yoda. There's a real thing that happens in Star Wars where Luke is impatient. He doesn't listen to everything that's told to him. Yoda's trying to say, "Hey, chill out, relax, people can take care of themselves. It's not all about you." Luke can't see that point of view. In fact, The Empire Strikes Back really is about respecting your elders. Luke doesn't do that. Because he doesn't do that he goes off trying to rescue his friends and his friend end up having to rescue him. He almost blows the entire plan. He almost loses the entire movie series for us in that one impatient move. Then the next movie is interesting because it's about the opposite. It's about rejecting your elders. Move past your elders. You become the man or woman. You've grown up. You're actualized. Ben says, "You must face Darth Vader again."

And he's like, "You're saying kill him?"

"Well...face him."

“You know he's my dad?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Yoda, what do you think?"

"You must confront Vader."

Luke's like, "You guys are dicks! What is wrong with you people?!?"

"We saw him kill a bunch of children, he's a terrible husband, and he’s in this total Goth phase. We just want you to take care of him."

"No dude! I don't know what my solution is yet but I'm going to figure something out."

So the next movie is about rejecting your elders, the opposite message of the previous movie. Luke is now an adult, a man. He's grown past that mentor relationship. Now he's ready to make his own decisions. What does he find? He figures out a solution that no one thought of! A compassionate solution. A Star Trek solution. Through that we get a very satisfying ending. A brave ending. It makes Darth Vader a sympathetic character and Luke someone who's brave enough to have compassion.

Rod: I just learned so much!

Brian: Ali and Team Trek?

Ali: How do I follow up any of that?

Brian: It's got to be psychological torture.


Sam: There are five.

Ali: So...ummm...I agree with both of you so let me take this into a different direction because I need to do that. This question is really one about training and education. How do we create the next generation of Sith, Jedi, and Captains. Both series have an academy and a mentor type relationship. If we look at the psychology of education, it actually shows that a lot of the lecture style of teaching that happens in academia, well there's not a lot of evidence to support that. What works really well is learning from your peers and having some type of mentor available to clarify and go through the stuff you're learning. Both series do that well. We see it with Luke, Wesley, and Nog. But Star Trek does it better. Both series have aptitude tests, like the SATs. In Star Trek, we've got the Kobayashi Maru. Star Wars, you guys have an aptitude test as's a blood test. It's looking for midichlorians and we know tests like that aren't as successful. In Star Trek the tests are character based – how do you respond to this situation. Star Trek's about integrity, equal opportunity. You don't have to be off the charts on your midichlorians. You can be a Ferengi and still be in Starfleet.

Sam: That was extremely offensive, racially. "You can still be a Ferengi." REALLY?!?

Ali: Technically they're not members of the yeah.

Sam: Wow.

Rod: I might agree with Star Wars a little bit. I love your response [Ali], so I'm on your side, but the one thought I really had was if you're a member of the Federation you have to abide by Federation laws, Starfleet has rules and regulations. With Riker and Picard, there wasn't much growth in the characters. Not as much as Luke and Leia. They don't have to abide by any set rules. They understand that everyone's going to have a different journey while the Federation regulates.

Ali: Hold on, Rod. Riker grew a beard, how much more growth do you want?!?

Rod: Yes, yes he did.

Sam: Star Trek taught me a lot about patience in that process you're talking about. There really was a feeling that you must have a great deal of experience before you captain a ship. Even when you captain a ship you are looking to your friends who are your subordinates but you're treating them as equals because they have knowledge that you don't. They have wisdom that you don't. You add that to yourself before you make a decision.

Rod: Yoda had 900 years of wisdom.

Sam: There's that. Star Wars is more about how the relationship with your father and your parents is not what you hoped it would be and can you forgive them for it? There are two different types of learning there and both are very useful for young minds.

Audience Member: Switch seats!

Sam: We're trying to bring balance to the force dude!

Rod: Without dark there can be no light.

Round 4: The Creators

Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry, Star Wars's George Lucas

Brian: We've talked about the visions of these two franchises, but I want to talk about their creators. Gene Roddenberry and his vision for Star Trek and George Lucas and his vision for Star Wars. What do these two franchises say about their creators? Let's start with Team Trek.

Ali: I'm going to allow my estimated colleague Rod RODDENBERRY to take the lead on this question.

Rod: Obviously I wasn't around for The Original Series, but I did learn a great deal about my father since then and I do every day in terms of his philosophy. I can tell you that the difference between The Original Series and The Next Generation was a difference in my father. You see the cowboy Kirk versus the Picard who just wants to shepherd ambassadors from place to place. I know that came out in a derogatory way.

Sam: Yeah I like Picard.

Rod: I actually like Picard too, but the action wasn't there. That's the difference between my father in his 40s and his 60s. My father had an incredible life. He was a World War 2 pilot. He was a LAPD officer. He wrote speeches for the chief of police when they were trying to bring the police and the community closer together. He was thinking about those things then. He saw the worst that humanity had to offer and he saw the best humanity had to offer. It was with that perspective that he was able to build these philosophies. Everyone puts my father on a pedestal. He did create Star Trek but he also had help shaping it. There were so many others who were involved that made it what it is. This is why I brand everything Roddenberry. Well, first CBS won't let me use Star Trek. But I'm in love with the philosophy. I love what the series teaches us. I think it teaches us all something different, but it does teach us that we need to accept each other and find beauty in the differences between us. That's something that resonates so powerfully with me. It's something I work on every day. I might see someone and hear them say something and I'll say, "They're full of shit." Then I have to think, "What a second, they might have a point." That's how we grow as a species – hearing something that is contrary to our thoughts and being willing to accept them. That's my father, that's Star Trek, and what I see in the show. If anyone changes that in future movies or TV shows I'm going to be really pissed off.

Ali: The story of Gene Roddenberry is the story of resilience. This is an individual who did go through and see a lot of horrific things, whether it was in World War 2 or working as a police officer. He was able to survive those things, to endure them, and to grow as a person. That experience must have in some way influenced the story of Star Trek, which is a story about resilience and working to better ourselves.

Brian: Team Wars?

Andrea: I completely agree.

Brian: What is wrong with this panel!?!

Sam: Hold on, you're asking us to get competitive when we're sitting here next to the guy's kid?!? I don't get it.

Rod: Hey listen, I just said it, I want to hear contrary ideas. I want someone to tell me Star Trek sucks and tell me why.

Andrea: I don't think it sucks! What you said is completely valid. I feel the same way. I actually hate the "versus" things. I know it's the title of the panel, but I think both Star Trek and Star Wars are meaningful to us in different ways. I hate the idea that people think Star Wars is just a space opera with cowboys in space. George Lucas had an idea to create these worlds out of escapism. To get outside of where we are and who we are. To be in this fantasy world. To get excited and hopeful. To get lost in it. It wasn't meant to be a prediction of where we're going to be. It's a way for us to get outside of where we are in order to cope with what's going on. Star Trek has messages about a universe where we can collaborate and coexist. Folks who are currently disenfranchised and disempowered and feel that they are overlooked are hopeful that one day we'll get there. That's completely meaningful to us in a different way. I need to watch Star Wars to not think about the fact that we're not there yet.

Sam: There's an interesting contrast, and I'm speaking completely out of school here. I don't know this for a fact at all, but I'm going to say it anyway because I'm wearing a tie. It seems to me that your father when he wanted to make Star Trek had some things to say. He wanted to slip it into these sugar pills and get the audience to digest it without knowing what they were consuming. George Lucas, I don't think when he started had that ambition. All artists feel compelled to create something. We don't exactly know why, we just do. The deeper the artist is, the more interesting things slip into that creation. It's like the difference between Alien and Prometheus. The thing about Alien is it was just a bunch of dudes getting together and saying, "Let's make a horror film!" But they were deep dudes and ladies. And suddenly these things slip in to that horror film and we go, "Oh my God, look at what they were doing and saying!" They didn't quite know it at the time. It was almost an accidental process. With Star Wars, Darth Vader was supposed to die at the end. Did you guys know that? George Lucas has some kind of instinct, "Ah you know what can we do a take where he just spins off into the distance? Because if we can't you're fired." Then around the time of Empire Strikes Back, he's sitting in a hotel room...

Rod: Watching Star Trek.

Sam: Watching Star Trek. He's got a script in front of him that he's rewriting. Anakin Skywalker is a ghost talking to Luke Skywalker about Darth Vader. Then around a certain date Anakin Skywalker disappears from the script. Then no one's talking about Anakin Skywalker the same way. Suddenly, there's misinformation. At some point he was sitting in his hotel room writing and he calls up his wife, "Hey ahhh...Anakin's Darth Vader...I think I just made us a million dollars." The point is George Lucas, the things he was putting into those movies were incidental to what he was doing. George has things that he thinks about, George has things that are important to him, and if you're going to make a fun popcorn movie those things are going to slip in. Roddenberry was more considered. That's exactly why both of these franchises engage both sides of the brain. Both are hugely creative and hugely intellectual. I think Star Trek is a little bit more left brain and Star Wars is a little bit more right brain.

Rod: There’re also hundred of hours of Star Trek.

Ali: Just give Disney a few years...

Rod: While Paramount and CBS sit on their assess.

Sam: It's interesting that the difference between these two men might have been that –one man wanted to make a fun popcorn movie and go by instinct and the other had some things to talk about.

Q & A

Star Wars Death Star Run, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Runabout Wormhole Aliens

Since our panel was the last of the day, the convention staff were very generous and allowed us to go over our allotted time. This opened up the opportunity for a dialogue with the audience on topics such as self-actualization in the rebooted J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, why Star Trek appeals to individuals in the military, portrayals of strong female characters in Star Trek and Star Wars, and the impact George Lucas’s personal life might have had on Star Wars. The highlight of this discussion was the following question:

Audience Member: What is your favorite aspect of the series you are not currently defending?

Rod: Ewoks. I'm one of the three who loves Return of the Jedi. I love the Ewoks. I want one as a pet.

Sam: You saw them as pets!?! Even an Ewok can join Starfleet! To pick one thing about Star Trek that I love is too difficult.

Rod: But you spent all of tonight defending Star Trek.

Ali: The whole idea of using the force, during the Death Star run, in that moment Luke has to find mindfulness, completely being present in the moment, letting whatever judgments he has like "you can't do it Luke", let that go away, embrace the moment, and trust your instinct. Man that had a huge impact on me when I saw Star Wars. I saw Star Wars first before Star Trek and I thought it was really cool! Scary, but cool. It paved the road for me to see Star Trek and embrace it for what it was.

Sam: Kirk. The fact that the Klingons really messed him up but even with the guy who killed his kid, Kirk had an instinct to try to help him even when he had an advantage.

Rod: I want to say the same thing about Luke and Darth -- he never gave up hope.

Andrea: I really hate Ewoks. I had to say that. I really like Star Trek and its ideas on inclusion. I absolutely love watching The Original Series, The Next Generation, and I just started watching Deep Space Nine. I've said this before on a previous panel, but the pilot episode of Deep Space Nine is incredible. I love that they didn't bring in a human psychologist or psychiatrist to tell the story of living in the past and trying to recover from trauma. It's an incredible way for us to think about our own journey when we are stuck with terrible things that can happen to you. The way the wormhole aliens teach us that is incredible. It's a great psychological lesson done in a very cool way.

Ali: You know what else I like about Star Wars? It helped bring Star Trek back. And now we're returning the favor.

Episode V

Andrea and I are currently developing the next phase of the panel and hope to continue the debate with Episode V in 2015. Got a topic you want to see us debate? Let us know in the comments below. 

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.

The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode II at San Diego Comic Con 2013 (Recap)

Psychology of Star Trek Versus Star Wars Episode II San Diego Comic Con

Last week, Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I brought our popular intergalactic scifi battle, The Psychology of Star Trek Versus Star Wars, to San Diego Comic Con. We were joined by special guest panelists John Champion (Mission Log: A Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast) and Bryan Young ( with Brian Ward once again serving as referee.

While Episode I of the debate focused on heroes, villains, and androids, for Episode II we expanded to broader themes of emotions, humanity, morality, inclusion, and galactic governments.

If you couldn’t make it, watch to the full panel and check out some of the highlights below. Thank you Patricia Bailey for the fantastic photographs and Brian Ward for the awesome video!

Round 1: Vulcans VS. Jedi

Vulcans Jedi

Vulcan and Jedi culture both harness emotions. Which path leads to a healthier way of life?

Andrea: The Jedi are doing it right...they’re regulating their emotions. They’re using their ability to cultivate and embrace positive emotions for pro-social reasons. They do experience negative emotions like anger, hate, fear...if you operate on those negative emotions it leads to the dark side which could be antisocial behavior. They manage negative emotions, they don’t totally avoid them. They recognize them, identify them, and then manage them. Whereas the Vulcan folk…Vulcans? The Vulcan folk…
Ali: They’re a species, Andrea, they’re not a folk.
Andrea: Their culture avoids and represses all emotion. We know as psychologists when you repress emotion and inhibit emotions they can build up. It makes sense that after a long time that can lead to distress. This whole Pon Far business is an example of how crazy things can get if you don’t allow yourself to experience emotions.
John: Don’t knock Pon Far until you’ve tried it! We have to understand that Vulcans are seething with emotions. They learned a long time ago to work actively to keep their emotions repressed or it would lead to their undoing. Look at all they’ve accomplished – Vulcan has never been conquered and they have advanced in sciences. And this is a theme I’m going to keep coming back to – science is greater than magic. There is some voluntary aspect to [the Vulcan way] – we know that Spock decided not to go through Kolinahr, found out it wasn’t for him, he had a more balanced life when he embraced his emotional side.
Bryan: When you look at Jedi versus Vulcan because they are completely different species they’re not a very good model for people to try to glean lessons from because we’re not built biologically or physiologically like they are. Jedi are human, presumably, but anybody can be a Jedi of any species. They’re much more inclusive. That line of thought is much better.
Ali: Let’s back up a second – why do we even have emotions? Emotions give us information, very quickly. Anger tells you you’ve been wronged, anxiety warns you about danger, sadness tells you that there’s been some type of loss. Here, Dr. Letamendi, is my issue with the Jedi. You just said repression is a very bad thing we shouldn’t do this. Who said this - “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering”? One of the biggest problems we see with our patients is an intolerance of emotions, intolerance of thoughts that are aversive. The Jedi come out and say “yes, be mindful, be in the present moment, but not when it comes to negative emotions.” Vulcans have very powerful emotions. They use a logic based meditation to manage their emotions. What does that mean? I really don’t know…But here’s the thing – mindfulness, being fully in the present moment, being able to tolerate whatever thoughts and feelings you’re having good or bad is the best way to handle your emotions. There is one character in both franchises who is the embodiment of mindfulness – it’s not a Jedi, it’s not a Vulcan, his name is Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Round 2: Borg VS. Sith

Borg versus Sith

The Borg and Sith – which villain is a greater threat to humanity?

Ali: A threat, anxiety, or danger tells us two things – there’s uncertainty somewhere and our lives are in danger. No one represents that better than the Borg. They’re complete uncertainty. We don’t know what they’re going to adapt to, you don’t know where they're going to come from, what they’re going to be doing. We’ve seen Borg in real life – losing all sense of identity and independence, we’ve done it to ourselves. They were called lobotomies. We thought you take people with extreme mental illness, you cut off part of their frontal lobe, and now suddenly they’re behaving fine – but they were complete zombies, they weren’t able to do anything.  There’s nothing more terrifying than that, taking away our sense of humanity, the very part of ourselves that is so different and unique from every other animal species.
John: The Borg are relentless. There is no stopping them. If you stop some, they will make more and come after you. They will come after you in different guise because they can assimilate any species with any characteristics. That is terrifying. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve got, they’re going to assimilate you. No matter what, they’re coming after you. In the process they strip away your humanity, your individuality, everything that makes you you in order to become a cog in a machine. I’ll finalize this again by saying science…greater than magic.  
Bryan: How many movies ended with the Borg winning? As a species, we’re very very excellent with dealing with acute threats to our society. The Star Trek movie is a good example of how we meet the threat of the Borg. The problem with the Sith is they are absolutely insidious and from behind the scenes are decaying our society or any society they are involved in from within. When you have them making these moves we can’t see, making slow incrementally steps toward our doom, when they finally react with order #66 no one is prepared whatsoever. It’s a much more insidious threat and I say that with no pun intended whatsoever.
John: Tell that to the guys from Wolf 359.
Bryan: Oh you mean like Sisko? He seemed to come out of that okay. And the force, just because we don’t have an explanation for it doesn’t mean it’s magic.
Ali: Isn’t the explanation…midichlorians?
Bryan: Midichlorians are a microscopic life form that allows the Jedi or people attuned to them to better communicate with the force.
Ali: What does that mean?!?
Bryan: Do you want to know what a symbiotic life form is, Doctor?
Andrea: Let me piggyback on what everyone is saying. Of course the Borg are a major threat by assimilating entire cultures and societies. When it comes to humanity, that is the biggest threat. However, the Sith not only are operating on anger and hate but it consumes the individual. You have this individual destruction of humanity. If someone were to say the destruction of an individual does not impact humanity well it can because as you can see Anakin can wipe out an entire Tusken raider village just based on anger.

Round 3: "Let them die" VS. "Wipe them out"

 "Let them die" versus "wipe them out all of them"

A direct order to kill all the Jedi versus a passive suggestion to let the Klingons die - what are these two guys going through and what’s the difference between them?

Andrea: Some can argue that there isn’t really a difference whether it’s active or passive. It’s still genocide. Is [letting the Klingons die] really any different from order 66 or destroying Alderaan? If you want to talk about morality, that decision-making sounds the same to me and makes me wonder about this character Kirk, it’s an inconsistency with someone who is supposed to be a hero.
Bryan: With Kirk and the death of the Klingons, he’s obviously a very damaged individual. Sidious is after power, we understand that, but Kirk has a petty vendetta for the death of a son that he didn’t even care about or know about until six months before his death. For that he wants to avenge himself against all Klingons. He’s not a balanced individual at all.
John: There’s an important piece of context here that we’re missing – Sidious, the angry old emperor who goes around being angry (that is he job), we can pretty much say that’s the expected reaction out of him. If he wants somebody to die he will kill them. Most of you remember the scene of the emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi when he’s just shooting lighting out of his hands because that’s what he’s good at. But here’s the important thing about Kirk - Kirk has not only spent a lifetime chasing Klingons around the galaxy because they were the threat at a certain time but they also killed his son. Of course that’s going to damage his perspective of the Klingons. But Kirk learns from experiences. Kirk has a team around him, particularly with McCoy and Spock and the rest of the crew, opinions that he trusts. Even though he says, “Let them die” it’s immediately Spock who puts him back in line and says, “Only Nixon could go to China”. If anyone here can make a difference it has to be you. [Kirk] makes the idea of galactic peace his single driving point in that movie - that’s admirable.
Ali: A lot of this is in how we see the situation. When you’re driving down the freeway and someone cuts you off you’re like, “oh that guy is a bastard” right? But when you do the exact same thing you’re like, “oh I’m so sorry, I’m in a hurry”. It’s a concept in psychology called the self-serving bias. When it’s stuff about us or people we like we make situational explanations – I cut someone off because I’m in a hurry. When someone else does something, we say it’s that person’s fault. A lot of what we’re seeing here has to do with how we see these characters and whether we like them or not. We all like Kirk so we’re making a situational observation – it’s not really genocide. It’s like Batman– “I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t have to save you”. It’s kinda the same thing. We’re rationalizing in our head and not seeing it as murder or genocide. And just like [John] said, Kirk actually goes and tries to save [the Klingons].
Bryan: I think this is totally slanted toward Kirk – you guys need to defend Kirk and you guys need to defend the actions of Darth Sidious.

Round 4: Quark's Bar VS. Mos Eisley Cantina

Quark's Bar versus Mos Eisley Catina

Which of these franchises dealt with inclusion and diversity better?

Ali: We’ve got this idea in Star Trek – “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”. This idea pervades all of Star Trek. What’s the psychology of infinite diversity in infinite combinations? We know exactly how you overcome prejudice. There was a great meta-analysis which basically means a big study of a bunch of studies that have been done, about 500 to be specific. What they found is overcoming prejudice comes down to three things: 1) learning information about another group of people; 2) having exposure to another group of people; 3) developing empathy for other people. We saw this happen in America with desegregation and there are fantastic Star Trek episodes about this. There’s a Next Generation episode called “The Enemy” where Geordi and a Romulan are trapped on a planet. They’re supposed to be these enemies but they learn about each other and develop empathy for each other and overcome their prejudice. There are so many episodes that go on and on about this. That’s strike number one against Star Wars. Strike two comes in representation. What we see in Star Trek is breaking these barriers of inclusion. Star Trek had an African-American female and an Asian-American male, characters that wouldn’t be seen on other shows, doing important things. Going on to Star Trek: The Next Generation you have Beverly Crusher serving as the doctor, Deep Space Nine has the first African-American Captain, and Voyager with the first female Captain. However, here is a strike against Star Trek. I don’t normally debate against Trek but I have to do this. Here is where Star Trek has failed. Where is the LGBT Star Trek character? We're about 30 years too late on this. That’s an absolute failure. I don’t hold Star Wars to the standards because they only have six movies while we have over 500 hours of produced Star Trek. The time has come, a long time ago, for a LGBT character on Star Trek – it’s the final frontier of inclusion that we have to cross.
Andrea: In the Federation flagship, where are all the aliens? Most of them are human. You’ve got one Vulcan who can pass as a human, and they’ve covered his ears up to pass him as human. Whereas in Star Wars you have a lot of different aliens and species in positions of power and influence. You have Yoda, Yaddle, Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar. In the context of the Star Wars universe you have fantastic diversity across aliens and planets. What I like about that it doesn’t stop to tell you a story [about people with] half a face painted white and half a face painted black, it shows you that these different types of people are actually coexisting and doesn’t have an explanation for it. Maybe that’s what the future is like.
John: Producing TV is very different than producing movies. When you get into movies you have more truly alien characters. There are Federation ships based on Earth that have primarily human crews, there are Federation ships from Vulcan with primarily Vulcan crews, there is crossover and we don’t always get to see all of that. Let me point out something about these images you’ve chose Brian – like a lot of different bars and restaurants Quark’s looks very inviting on Deep Space Nine with all kinds of species and creatures from everywhere. I’m a little worried that on the Cantina I run a very high risk of losing a limb or being shot. And I believe if I could quote directly from that scene – “He doesn’t like you. I don’t like you either”. This is not the most welcoming way to bring people into a bar. Star Trek is about diversity, about humans and any other species growing beyond their limitations and embracing diversity.
Bryan: One thing I would say about the bars is that you’re looking at two very different classes of clientele that come into these bars. You’ve got Tatooine which is at the ass end of space. It’s literally the worst place in the galaxy. Obi-Wan tells Luke before he goes in, “this place is awful, we really have to go here but we shouldn’t be going here.” Quark’s is an affluent bar with clientele full of well educated science officers which isn’t terribly representative of the general populous in the United States whatsoever. The cantina is a ruff and tumble blue-collar hangout. It’s more charming. I mean look at the bar McCoy went into in Star Trek: III - that’s the epitome of terrible bars.
Brian: Why are we arguing about bars?
Ali: It’s late on a Friday.
John: Yeah.
Ali: I will say that DS9 is on the new frontier. Julian Bashir went there because he wanted to practice frontier medicine. It is out there, no one wants to be there.
Bryan: Except for all those Starfleet officers like Bashir.
Ali: Yes, besides him no one wants to be there.

Round 5: Federation VS. Empire

Federation vs. Empire. 

The United Federation of Planets versus the Galactic Empire – what is the psychology of each government?

Andrea: Do we have two hours for this question?!? Psychologically speaking, there are some important reasons why the Empire would be more realistic. So if you’re sitting here thinking how would they be able to execute order 66, how are these people able to blow up an entire planet, what is the psychology behind that? Has anyone heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment? So I don’t have to go through all that but you know there is this idea in psychology of deindividuation – masks and helmets that influence the ability for others to recognize you. When you have anonymity you are more likely to engage in transgressions, abnormal behavior, and sometimes aggressive behavior. It’s not just anonymity but also being in an organized group [versus] a weaker alliance of those who cannot protect themselves.
Bryan: Both series are really good at showing us something that we need to learn. Star Trek is really good at showing us how we can be our best when we put aside greed and capitalism and pursue what’s highest among us as a species. I think that’s admirable. But I think it’s a little pie in the sky. The Empire illustrates something that is much darker but more realistic. The Empire maneuvers with moneyed interests, with lobbying efforts, with all of these horrible things that we’re watching playing out in the news day after day. Regardless of who is in power, there is a giant machine working behind the scenes to benefit them and to harm us. The lessons learned there with how the Empire is portrayed and how you watch the best of intentions of someone like Anakin Skywalker turning into the evil Darth Vader is a much more valuable lesson. It’s nice to see what we can achieve but it’s also important to learn how we can [avoid] the path to evil.
John: What you just said reminded me of the opening crawl of [Star Wars:Episode I and as soon as they started talking about taxation my eyes rolled into the back of my head. There is something about the Empire that is absolutely terrifying and appeals to a authoritarian streak so I guess if you totally devalue your individuality and really have an hankering for oppression then sign up for the Empire today - they have some lovely white armor. The Federation is modeled after the establishment of the United Nations. There can be a better future where we can celebrate diversity, we can maintain individuality and cultural identity, and we can also work together for the bigger things that are worth working towards.
Ali: I really loved what Bryan said – they’re both very complimentary to each other. They’re both in extremes but they’re both important messages and they’re two sides of the same coin. Who here has seen Trek Nation? Everyone go watch it on Netflix. Rod Roddenberry, the son of Gene Roddenberry, did this fantastic documentary. He interviews George Lucas and it’s a fantastic interview because George Lucas talks about how much he liked Star Trek until he got to the point where he couldn’t say he liked Star Trek because he did Star Wars. There’s also an interview with Gene Roddenberry talking about how much he liked Star Wars. These are two very complimentary stories about the Federation and the Empire. When you look at the Empire, just like Andrea was saying, obedience to authority and the Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment is definitely playing out here. You also have a lot of conformity – there is a reason why all the stormtroopers where white. Going back to Star Trek, one big psychological idea is superordinate goals. There is a classic study in psychology, the type of stuff we can’t do anymore because now we have institutional reviews boards that say this stuff unethical, but there was a psychologist who got kids and made them hate each other. And there was violence and aggression and all of that. Then, on of the later days, he made them work together on a goal that they couldn’t achieve separately. They had to collaborate. When they were forced to work on a superordinate goal, those problems of prejudice, violence, and conflict they all disappeared. That’s the United Federation of Planets. It’s focusing on these big goals that we need a lot of people to contribute to and work to achieve. That’s why the Vulcans, humans, Tellarites, and Andorians all came together to form the Federation. Both [stories] work together and are important.

Q & A

Photo by  Patricia Bailey .

Photo by Patricia Bailey.

Since our panel was the last of the day, the convention staff were very generous and allowed us to go over our allotted time. This gave us an unprecedented 20 minutes for a dialogue with the audience on topics such as family relationships, why LGBT characters haven’t been included in Star Trek, racism via Ferengi and Jar Jar Binks (including an epic defense of Jar Jar by Bryan), the “magic” of Q, an obligatory evoking of Doctor Who, and the developmental psychology of Data. After our panel’s very own redshirt moment, the highlight of this discussion was the last question, from friend of the panel Lowen Baumgarten, which ended things on a wonderful note:

Lowen: One of my favorite moments in Star Wars is when Han Solo swivels around and says “Now I owe you one”. One of my favorite moments from Star Trek is when they all go camping together in Yosemite…and then the rest of the movie is awful. Which franchise do you think does friendship better?
[Panel is speechless]
Bryan: Luke Skywalker in the Empire Strikes Back. He’s training on Dagobah. He’s told that the entire fate of the galaxy is on his shoulders. If he leaves, because he sees a vision of his friends hurt, the entire galaxy will unravel almost undoubtedly. And he says, “You know what? My friends are more important.”
Ali: Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain. Spock has super-powered shoes. Kirk is falling and is caught by Spock. They’re reminiscing about it as they’re eating McCoy’s brandy beans and Kirk says, “I knew I wasn’t going to die today because I knew my friends were here.” And then he dies with Picard, and they’re not friends, so it holds up in continuity.

Episode III

Team Wars won this round, tying the series 1-1. We hope to continue the debate with Episode III at 2014's WonderCon or San Diego Comic Con. Got a topic you want to see us debate? Sound off in the comments below.  

The Psychology of Star Trek vs. Star Wars at WonderCon 2013 (Recap)

Star Trek vs Star Wars Wondercon.jpg

I had a blast last week at WonderCon 2013 geeking out about science fiction, fantasy, and comics. The highlight was a panel I developed with my colleague, Andrea Letamendi, on the psychology of Star Trek versus Star Wars. Not only did we have some fantastic panelists including Larry "Dr. Trek" Nemecek (The Con of Wrath, Trekland: On Speaker), Hugh Sterbakov (Robot Chicken, City Under the Moon), and Brian Ward (Shout!Factory), but our audience was AMAZING - people were so engaged that we were encouraged to resubmit this panel for San Diego Comic Con.

If you couldn't make it, check out a full video recap of the panel on YouTube:

Yahoo has a summary of the panel up at their Sideshow Blog. I've also highlighted some of my favorite moments below.


After discussing how both franchises have impacted our own psychology, Andrea and I discussed what's unique about each series.

Andrea: The story of Star Wars is about…self-actualization…fulfilling your own potential, being everything that you were destined to be.
Ali: [Star Trek has] shown us how as humanity we can improve…with science and knowledge we can overcome a lot of the differences we have.

Round 1: Villains

Star Trek Wars Villains.jpg

Brian started the debate with a question about nature versus nurture of Darth Vader and Khan.

Andrea: [Star Wars has] a sophistication of understanding risk and vulnerabilities in a person's development to show that there are many factors that go into making a person destructive, evil, and anti-social…[Anakin] wasn't necessarily born this way…he experienced extreme adversity, loss, and trauma…as [his story] comes full circle we are reminded that humans are complex - we have good sides and evil sides.
Ali: [Khan] demonstrates one of the most dangerous things in social psychology - when you dehumanize other people, it is so easy to rationalize insane things that you do to them. We see this in every war - the very first thing propaganda does is dehumanize [your enemy]…the moment we start to dehumanize people and think of them as less than us, like we do in every conflict, you get things like the eugenics wars and the nazis.

Round 2: Resilience

Anakin vs Spock.jpg

Next, Brian asked about how trauma, strength, and resilience are portrayed in both franchises.

Ali: What's beautiful about Star Trek is that its demonstrated strength and resilience in all phase of [trauma]. You take Star Trek (2009)…and how Spock's lost all control of his emotions…that's what trauma looks like in its most infant stages…You take my favorite episode of Deep Space 9, "In the Pale Moonlight", you look at [Captain Sisko] and his rationalization process…the transformation that's happening in his thinking, that's what happens to a lot of people who experience trauma who do things that he might not actually have wanted to in war and other situations and how they come out on the other side…And you take [Captain Picard in "Tapestry"]…you see a traumatic event, an attack from nausicaans that takes out the Captain's heart…that touch with death changed his life. That's a concept in psychology called post-traumatic growth - just because you experience trauma doesn't mean necessarily you're going to be someone who's traumatized. The struggle after trauma can lead to growth.
Andrea: Star Wars does handle trauma and adversity with sophistication…There are multiple trajectories after trauma…There is a complicated presentation of that in Star Wars that really embodies what those complicated mechanisms are in all of us. For instance, maybe back in the day we thought of something called the main effects model where one thing leads to one result. So one gene leads to schizophrenia…Psychologists think of a more complicated, transactional, ideological model of normality and pathology. Darth Vader had experienced risk and protective factors…things like having a mother who is very caring, strong attachment, and let's say, can I say midichlorians? Let's say, as an example, that midichlorians represent some genetic code…he has a combination of genetic and environmental factors that interact in a complicated way to determine whether he will experience a normal or pathological future…

Round 3: A.I.

Data vs C3PO.jpg

The most spirited round of debate focused on Brian's question about artificial intelligence in Star Trek versus Star Wars.

Andrea: The difference between how these two universes deal with this has to do with how androids and robots are presented and how humans interact with them. There is this intersection of robotics and psychology that deals with something called the uncanny valley…the uncanny valley refers to non-human beings like androids and robots. The closer they start to represent human form, the more revulsion and disgust we humans feel…This is a biological response…The closer you get to human form, the more negative emotions people feel…If you think of R2D2 being purely robotic and not trying to be anthropomorphic, not trying to emulate human form…Star Wars understands that humans and andriods/robots need to work together with a clear distinction…whereas we have someone like Data who you would think would instill this disgust and revulsion because he's just a little too close to being human, but you've got [Star Trek's] universe interacting with him and loving him as if it's not weird. 
Larry: Everything you said is very true…That reaction is completely what happens in Trek…you've got stories like "What Are Little Girls Made Of"…they're all disgusted when Dr. Korby turns out to be an android…it's the same thing with "I, Mudd"…Star Trek over its own eras…has a spectrum of how it treats artificial intelligence…There were plenty of people…who didn't like Data…it's a complex question in the Star Trek universe and its constantly evaluating.
Hugh: Star Trek really glosses it over and they're almost afraid of it. If you look at Battlestar Galactica, that's humanity reacting to artificial intelligence or robot kind that could wipe us out, that could take our jobs. Star Trek never deals with unemployment…Some schmo is not on the Enterprise because Data is. You gotta figure somebody somewhere has some ambition in Star Trek, I don't know where they are, but someone is losing their job to Data right?
Larry: …that's the core of "The Measure of a Man". Guinan finally gets to Picard about the secret to defending Data in their trial and says, "Oh yeah a whole army of Datas, that'll be just the ticket." The subtext is slavery.
Ali: You're both right…What Star Wars does beautifully…is it deals with emotion really well. The droids have emotion and personality. R2D2 has personality and all you hear from him is BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP…with Data the reason we don't have the revulsion…is because he doesn't have emotion…that's why people aren't scared of him to the degree psychologists would predict because we don't see him as completely like us. 

Round 4: The Test

Kobayashi Maru versus Dagobah.jpg

The Kobayashi Maru versus the Dagobah cave - what does each test say about its hero?

Andrea: Both tests represent pieces of [A Hero's Journey]. The Dagobah Cave is a more emotional...It's almost a projective test…of all the deep emotional stuff Luke is dealing with…It is a test of his ability to balance [emotions], just like the Jedi way of balancing positive and negative emotions.
Ali: The Dagobah cave is a great test of fear. Something that we do as psychologists is exposure therapy. People come to us with fears…and we slowly have people learn that they can ride out their fears and the urge to want to run away from [their fears]. The Kobayashi Maru test is test of heroism - we know heroes put their lives in danger and make a decision that might risk their life for the benefit of other people…how do you respond to that when you're in this no-win scenario?

Be sure to watch the full video for much more including lots of jokes about lightsabers, the Borg, Star Wars prequels, and a great debate on the Death Star versus the genesis device!

Stay tuned for more panels on the psychology of science fiction at future conventions.