Star Trek Continues is a Nostalgic Return to the Franchise's Social Justice Origins

For the first time, I'm exploring the psychology of a new episode of Star Trek. It might not be canon, but Star Trek Continues feels like the real deal. Not only is this fan-produced web series a nostalgic voyage into The Original Series, but it also returns the franchise to its social justice origins. 

A nostalgic voyage

Chris Doohan, the son of James Doohan, is Chief Engeineer Mr. Scott.

Chris Doohan, the son of James Doohan, is Chief Engeineer Mr. Scott.

The crew has done a brilliant job bringing The Original Series era to life. The writing, sets, costumes, sounds, music, visual effects, and cinematography feel just like a classic episode of Star Trek. While many fan projects have imitated The Original Series, this production feels like it picks up where the original left off.

A big part of that comes from the quality of the cast. Not only are they experienced actors, but they all share a deep love of the source material (watch them geek out on their Kickstarter video). Vic Mignogna leads the crew, both on and off screen, as Captain James T. Kirk and Executive Producer. Everyone loves to parody William Shatner's over the top moments as Kirk, but Mignogna's version reminds us that Kirk was also a tender and introspective man. Don't worry, Mignogna still whips out the trusty Starfleet clenched fist uppercut when needed.

Watching the first episode of Star Trek Continues, “Pilgrim of Eternity”, generated a lot of nostalgia for me. The episode is a faithful sequel to "Who Mourns for Adonais?" (The Original Series episode where the Enterprise meets the Greek god Apollo). It reminded me of how much fun I had watching The Original Series for the first time and the endless debates I had with my brother about the decisions Kirk made. We know nostalgia lifts our mood, reminds us of important social relationships from our past, and makes us want to connect with our loved ones in the present. That's exactly how I felt after watching Star Trek Continues – I was super excited to talk about the episode with all my Trekkie friends. 

A return to social justice

The second episode of  Star Trek Continues  focuses on Lolani, a victim of the Orion slave trade.

The second episode of Star Trek Continues focuses on Lolani, a victim of the Orion slave trade.

The second episode, "Lolani", dives deeper into what made The Original Series so important – social justice. The episode focuses on the story of Lolani, a female Orion slave who seeks refuge on the Enterprise. I won't spoil what happens next, but I will say Kirk has to choose between his morals and his oath to the Federation. It's a captivating episode, but more importantly "Lolani" brings attention to the issue of modern day slavery. 

Around the world, there’re 12.3 million children and adults in forced labor or prostitution. About 56% of these human trafficking cases are girls and women. Like Lolani, many victims of trafficking experience life-threatening physical and sexual abuse. Despite the gravity of this issue and it's global condemnation, human trafficking persists and is rarely discussed in media. That's probably why the American Psychological Association recently concluded that little is known about individuals who're involved in trafficking humans and major research is needed to understand how we can solve this problem.

The Original Series's  "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

The Original Series's "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

This type of social justice, bringing attention to inequality that is ignored by media, is a hallmark of the original Star Trek series. It was the first TV show to feature a multicultural cast, women in power, and had the first interracial kiss. The infamous "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", an episode about half-white/half-black aliens committed to destroying each other, is widely panned for being too obvious in its message. What everyone misses about this episode is that it’s not about social commentary – it's social justice. Check out what the Mission Log podcast had to say about it (Supplemental episode 12 at 58:55):

Ken Ray: "Anybody who thinks that 'Let That Be Your Last Battlefield' is a bad episode is drinking too much…or not enough."

Rod Roddenberry: "…they hit the nail on the head but that was perfect for the era it was out."

John Champion: "We got a great email from a listener saying this is a great example of Star Trek moving into the point of storytelling as advocacy. Instead of just saying 'oh hey look here is this interesting problem' here's a story that's saying 'no you are dumb if you will destroy yourself by these petty racially motivated violences that you carry out on each other."

Like "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", "Lolani" puts a face on an important issue and forces us to consider what happens if we ignore our conscience and let the injustice of human trafficking continue.

The psychological impact of human trafficking

Star Trek Continues Lolani Mind Meld

During my time at New York's Bellevue Hospital Center, I worked with a lot of trafficked individuals in the emergency room after they escaped captivity. Most were female, always on guard, and didn't want to talk about what happened while they were in captivity. This type of hypervigilance and avoidance are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Lolani" does a good job showing us these two symptoms of trauma. However, the ship's psychologist walks into a scientific minefield when conceptualizing her patient:

Dr. Elise MacKennah: "It's not uncommon for someone whose been traumatized to block out memories that are just too painful. It's entirely possible she's simply not conscious of everything that's happened."

The idea that traumatic memories could be forgotten for long periods of time and recovered later in therapy (or through a mind meld) led to a decade of "memory wars" in the 1990s. Cognitive psychologists showed that many people can “remember” doing something that never actually happened. On the other hand, clinical psychologists pointed to many cases in which recovered memories were backed up by police evidence. The issue is still controversial, but most psychologists would now conceptualize Lolani as avoiding her traumatic memories, not repressing them.

Despite my psychological nitpick, I'm still a huge fan of this project. Unlike the recent Star Trek films that retain the spirit of The Original Series but make significant departures in tone and style, Star Trek Continues faithfully restarts the original 5-year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I hope they continue to revisit iconic characters, promote social justice (awesome job with the female redshirts, now please give us a LGBT character), and boldly go where fan-production has gone before.

The Psychology of Spock: Past, Present, and Future


I recently caught up with a Trekkie friend of mine. He's a psychiatrist and I'm a psychologist, so of course we did a deep dive into the psyche of the latest film — Star Trek Into Darkness. Our conversation kept coming back to Spock.

"He's the most important character in the Star Trek universe," Dr. T said. "Spock has wielded more influence on the alpha quadrant than anyone else."

I never thought about Spock like that before, but Dr. T was right—he is the only character who's made an appearance in every era of Star Trek including The Original Series, The Next Generation, and J.J. Abrams’s new parallel universe.

"Why is Spock such an enduring character?" I asked. "What makes him so unique?"

Dr. T and I spent the rest of the night trying to understand Spock. After a small detour debating who would win an “Amok Time” fight — Leonard Nimoy or Zachary Quinto, we eventually decided that Spock's teaches us that the things that make us different, strange, and weird are the same things that make us awesome.

This is not only an expansion on my conversation with Dr. T., but an attempt to summarize 47 years of canon and 2 parallel universes into 1 comprehensive conceptualization of a character. I present to you the psychology of Spock — past, present, and future.

"Spock's Brain"


Who we are is the result of our biology, psychology, and experiences. So let's start our conceptualization of Spock by exploring his unique biology.

Spock is half human and half Vulcan. While we can't begin to imagine how the biology of an interspecies human would work, we can extrapolate based on what we've seen in Star Trek and know about science.

  • Spock is genetically diverse, making him more adaptive to new environments and less susceptible to genetic diseases (like his father's dementia).
  • Since Vulcans evolved in a harsher environment, Spock is stronger than humans. 
  • Vulcans are touch telepaths, giving Spock the ability to share thoughts through a mind-meld.
  • Vulcans experience powerful emotions, making Spock more vulnerable to very intense feelings.

The last point is key to understanding Spock's psychology. Here's how Spock's father describes Vulcan emotions in 2009’s Star Trek:

Sarek: "Emotions run deep within our race. In many ways more deeply than in humans. Logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience. The control of feelings so that they do not control you."

Since Spock has a nervous system that experiences powerful emotions (I.E. a very fast limbic system), he can make decisions very quickly. What about his human biology? The following conversation from Star Trek: Enterprise helps us understand the difference between humans and Vulcans:

Soval: We don't know what to do about Humans. Of all the species we've made contact with, yours is the only one we can't define. You have the arrogance of Andorians, the stubborn pride of Tellarites. One moment, you're as driven by your emotions as Klingons, and the next, you confound us by suddenly embracing logic.
Forrest: I'm sure those qualities are found in every species.
Soval: Not in such confusing abundance.

We humans are very flexible in our thinking — which explains why we can be so erratic and unpredictable. This is due to our prefrontal cortex, the region that coordinates our thoughts and decides what to do. It's also the area responsible for regulating our feelings. Because humans can entertain many different ideas at once, sometimes we’re logical while at other times we’re deeply emotional.

This is why Spock’s brain is so unique — he's got the flexibility of a human mind combined with the strength of Vulcan emotions. Yes, his human side might make it more difficult for him to control his Vulcan feelings, but the integration of the two gives him the opportunity to quickly think in very creative ways.

"A Child of Two Worlds"


The central psychological experience of Spock's childhood is growing up in a bicultural home. Not only is he a minority on Vulcan, he might be the only human/Vulcan child ON THE WHOLE PLANET!

The major challenge for bicultural children is to integrate their two cultures. People who are able to do this usually feel proud about being unique. Others find their cultures to be in conflict with each other and feel pressure to choose one over another. Psychologists call this the Bicultural Identity Integration construct. Kids who are able to integrate their cultures become very good at cultural frame-switching — being able to think, act, and feel like a human on Earth and a Vulcan on Vulcan. Kids who can't integrate their cultures don't have this flexibility and have more rigid personalities. 

This is one of the reasons I love 2009's Star Trek so much—Spock's struggle to figure out his identity is beautifully portrayed. In a pivotal scene, a group of Vulcan boys bully Spock for being half human and push him hoping it will make him mad. Since showing strong emotions is a big taboo in Vulcan culture, this situation created a lot of anxiety for Spock because he was afraid of confirming a stereotype (that he can’t control his emotions). That’s stereotype threat in action—anytime we worry about fulfilling a stereotype we usually preform worse. In Spock's case, stereotype threat contributed to him losing his cool and beating the crap out of a kid (who totally deserved it by the way).

Situations like that caused a lot of identity conflict for Spock. Look closely at the conversations he had with his father and mother after the fight:

Spock: You suggest that I should be completely Vulcan…?
Sarek: …Spock, you are fully capable of deciding your own destiny. The question you face is: which path will you choose? This is something only you can decide.
Spock: Should I choose to complete the Vulcan discipline of Kolinahr and purge all emotion, I trust you will not feel it reflects judgment on you.
Amanda: Oh, Spock. As always, whatever you choose to be, you will have a proud mother.

In both conversations we can feel the tension between Spock's Vulcan and human identities. It's clear that Spock was questioning who he is and who he wanted to become (“Should I complete Kolinahr?”). Rather than guiding Spock down one path or another, both of his parents encouraged him to make his own decisions. By allowing him to independently explore his identity they increased the chances of Spock integrating both cultures. This type of parenting is a core component in resilience — the psychological factor that keeps kids healthy despite chronic stressors (like constant discrimination for being a “green-blooded hobgoblin”).

"I Choose Not to Feel"


One of the key changes in the new Star Trek parallel universe is the destruction of Vulcan. Not only did Zachary Quinto’s Spock witness this trauma firsthand, he also lost his mother in the process.

After this terrorist attack, the Spock of the present was overwhelmed by powerful emotions. In response to his sadness and rage, Spock’s primary strategy became numbing himself to his feelings. After James Kirk ridiculed Spock for "feeling nothing" (another stereotype threat, “Vulcans have no emotions”), Spock attacked Kirk. After almost killing Kirk, Spock gave up his command of the Enterprise because he was "emotionally compromised".

Trying to numb powerful feelings and having uncontrollable emotional outbursts are common experiences after trauma. What becomes problematic is if such patterns continue long after a trauma has passed. This is exactly what happened to Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness. The events of Into Darkness take place about a year after the destruction of Vulcan. In the comic prequel, we learned that Spock has insomnia, nightmares about his mom and Vulcan’s destruction, and bursts of rage. In the film, it's very clear that Spock's trauma is impacting his relationship with Uhura. This exchange captured exactly how Spock has changed:

Uhura: At that Volcano you didn't give a thought to us, what it would do to me if you died, Spock. You didn't feel anything, you didn't care.
Spock: Your suggestion that I do not care about dying is incorrect. A sentient being's optimal chance at maximizing their utility is a long and prosperous life…It is true that I chose not to feel anything upon realizing that my own life was ending. As [REDACTED] was dying I joined with his consciousness and experienced what he felt at the moment of his passing — anger, confusion, loneliness, fear. I had experienced those feelings before, multiplied exponentially on the day my planet was destroyed. Such a feeling is something I choose never to experience again. Nayota, you mistake my choice not to feel as a reflection of my not caring. Well I assure you the truth is precisely the opposite.

The Spock of the present meets all major criteria for PTSD — re-experiencing traumatic events, avoiding situations, and becoming very sensitive to certain feelings. This isn't the resilient child we discussed earlier— this Spock is emotionally stuck, much like soldiers and veterans returning from service with PTSD. But this is not the man Spock is destined to be. 

"Cowboy Diplomacy"


The Spock of the future (the one played by Leonard Nimoy) isn’t emotionally stuck, he’s incredibly flexible. Unlike most Vulcans, this Spock rejected Kolinahr, deciding to pursue logic and emotions. He integrated both of his cultures, switching his perspective as needed depending upon the situation he’s in. He understood conflicting points of view, making him highly empathic and open-minded. That's why he was so good at negotiating peace between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets as well as the Vulcan High Command and Romulan Empire. Captain Picard even compared Spock's tactics to "cowboy diplomacy," an emotional comparison never made of any other Vulcan. When you think about his unique biology, bicultural youth, and supportive parents, it's easy to see how Future Spock came to be. 

What does this mean for the Spock of the present, the one who’s struggling so deeply with his emotions? Individuals experiencing PTSD can go down many different paths. While Zachary Quinto's Spock will never turn out exactly like Leonard Nimoy's (one experienced significant trauma, the other didn’t), Present Spock can learn to overcome his trauma and grow from the experience.

Post-traumatic growth is the positive change that happens to a person as a result of their struggle with a trauma. Trauma doesn't cause a person to grow, it's about the decisions a person makes as a result of their trauma. Many people who experience post-traumatic growth describe feeling changed by their traumatic experiences, feel more connected to others, become more resilient against crises, or have a greater appreciation for life (think Captain Picard in “Tapestry”). Growth doesn't mean people don't suffer; pain is a part of the process. Growth cannot happen until you to learn how to face difficult emotions and talk about the things going on in your head.

This is the challenge for Present Spockto overcome his emotional demons. I won't give anything away, but based on what happens at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, we're already beginning to see signs of growth in Spock (and a lot of it has to do with his friendship with Kirk—his new source of resiliency). 

A Reflection of Us

Ali Mattu Spock

Why is Spock such an enduring character? He is a reflection of who we are

Each of us has at one time or another felt different, strange, and out of place. As a child, Spock didn't completely fit in among Vulcans or humans. Yet he goes on to become the most influential officer in Starfleet. Growing up as a bicultural kid, I looked to Spock to give me hope that I too could overcome my “culture clash” and find confidence in myself.

The current Spock honors our experience of living in a world where we are constantly exposed to traumatic events (real or televised). While I’ve been fortunate not to be immediately impacted by a terrorist attack or natural disaster, I responded to the tragic death of my brother by avoiding my feelings. Watching Spock struggle with the loss of his mother in a similar way made me feel less crazy. 

Spock’s future reminds us that our differences are our strengths. That’s the ultimate lesson from the psychology of Spockif we can find a way to embrace all aspects of ourselves and approach life with an open mind, we are capable of great things.

March 5th, 2015 Update: Today on THE PSYCH SHOW I remember the life of Leonard Nimoy and celebrate the psychology of Spock.

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

Vulcan's destruction was a 9/11 event. 

Vulcan's destruction was a 9/11 event. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction #1: Starfleet Is Emotionally Compromised


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

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

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

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

Prediction #2: Xenophobia Will Rise


 Star Trek Into Darkness  may focus on Klingon xenophobia.

Star Trek Into Darkness may focus on Klingon xenophobia.

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

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

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

Prediction #3: The Prime Directive Will Be Challenged

Starfleet Command will debate breaking its guiding rule #1. 

Starfleet Command will debate breaking its guiding rule #1. 

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

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

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

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

Prediction #4: John Harrison Is Motivated By Humiliation


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

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

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

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

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

Prediction #5: Resilience & Altruism Flourish

Someone will sacrifice their life in  Star Trek Into Darkness .

Someone will sacrifice their life in Star Trek Into Darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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