The Good, Bad, and Ugly Psychology of Comic-Con

San Diego Comic Con Logo 

When non-geeks find out I'm a geeky psychologist, we always end up talking about comic-cons.

"What's the deal with all those weird people who dress up?"

"You mean cosplay?" I reply. "It's a cool way to celebrate a character you love, kinda like Halloween. I cosplay as Captain Kirk all the time." 

"X-Men and the Avengers are cool but I'm not one of those loners who can't separate fiction from reality."

It always bums me to hear that, people discounting something they haven't tried.

"Comic-con people are actually really friendly. Some of the coolest people I know I randomly met at a convention."

And then there’s my favorite...

"There's got to be something wrong with people who go to comic-cons! Why would anyone stand in line for hours just to see a glimpse of a new movie?"

"People stand in line for all kinds of things they're excited about like a special sale, a new amusement park ride, their favorite band, or a big sports game."

Since this conversation keeps coming up, I wanted to set the record straight and share my guide to geek conventions. I present to you now the good, bad, and ugly psychology of comic-cons. 

What’s comic-con?

Comic book conventions are just one type of fan gathering. There are others – Star Trek conventions, Star Wars celebrations, video game and tabletop gaming expos, anime conventions, and many more. Regardless of the focus, they're all organized the same way. You can attend panels to learn about a topic, see celebrities, talk to artists and writers, shop at huge exhibit halls, and meet people who like the same stuff you do. 

Some of my favorite memories from past comic-cons:

What separates comic-cons from other fan gatherings is how popular they've become. Take San Diego Comic-Con for example. It started as a small meeting of 300 people in 1971 and grew to fit into the San Diego Convention Center in the 1990s. Everything changed in the early 2000s when X-Men and Spider-Man launched the superhero film genre. Soon after, Hollywood moved into San Diego Comic Con to promote their films directly to fans. As a result, San Diego Comic-Con has grown to become the largest fan gathering in the United States with over 130,000 attendees. It’s also expanded beyond comic books and focuses on all aspects of pop culture.

A beginner's guide to comic-cons:

San Diego Comic-Con's formula is being replicated across the world. While they vary in size and quality, chances are there's a comic-con happening near you sometime soon. For better or worse, we're in the middle of a comic-con explosion right now (read more about that at the SDCC Unofficial Blog).

The good: It’s all about people

The main reason most people go to a comic-con is to meet people.

Surprised? Don’t be. The stereotype that geeks are loners who don’t care about social interaction is completely false. Geeks love making new friends and comic-cons make it easy to find other people who love the same things you do. It’s like baseball fans going to a sports bar on game day.

Hanging out with my friends is always the best part of comic-con. San Diego Comic Con 2013.

Hanging out with my friends is always the best part of comic-con. San Diego Comic Con 2013.

Wanting to connect with people is hard-wired into our psychology. It might even be our most important evolutionary advantage as a species. The brain prioritizes social relationships so much that when it’s doing nothing, the brain’s default setting is to keep itself prepared for social situations. That’s why it’s so easy to strike up a conversation at a comic-con – our brains are always ready to talk about our geeky interests. 

That’s one of the coolest things about conventions – they lead to new friendships. From Geek Therapist Josué Cardona to Larry “Dr. Trek” Nemecek and film journalist Aaron Neuwirth, I’ve met a ton of cool people at comic-cons. We know friendships improve immune system functioning, increase lifespan, and are the most important part of recovery from traumatic experiences. I can personally attest to this because comic-cons helped me grow as a person.

Our social brains are also the reason why so many people are interested in seeing celebrities at comic-cons. We’ve evolved to stay up to date on what our friends and acquaintances are up to. Because we see celebrities on TV, films, and websites all the time, our brains think of them as being part of our social network. Sitting in on a panel with Robert Downey Jr. or getting an autograph from Zoe Saldana is just another way of connecting with people you care about.

But there’s more to the celebrity stuff. Comic-cons give you the opportunity to talk directly to content creators. If you sit in on enough panels, you’ll notice a pattern – fans talk about how much a particular story means to them. Battlestar Galactica, next to being one of the best scifi shows of all time, means a lot to me. It helped me cope with a stressful period of my life. I also use it in my lectures to talk about the psychology of gender, politics, war, and peace. That’s why I go out of my way to meet actors from Battlestar Galactica at comic-cons. I want to thank them for their part in creating a story that has brought me so much joy. 

Gratitude has been described as a “super emotion” that not only helps the person expressing it but also lifts up the mood of all those who witness it. In experimental studies gratitude has been shown to undo negative emotions, make positive emotions last longer, improve resilience to stress, increase helping behavior, and improve physical health. It’s not just attendees who experience gratitude at comic-cons, but celebrities too. Here’s what Joss Whedon had to say about attending San Diego Comic-Con:

Someone will say, “You helped me through a hard time in my life with this show.” For a long time I thought, “That’s so sweet and lovely they’re responding to the work.” And then I realized, “Oh, I was helping me through a hard time with that show, too.” I was a different version of them. We’re almost like a support group.

Part of collecting and cosplaying is also about expressing who you are in social situations. People buy stuff for 3 main reasons – to get tools, increase safety, or build an identity. Buying toys, t-shirts, posters, and collectibles communicates to the world who we are and what we care about (though sometimes we can get carried away). That’s also why people cosplay – it’s a public celebration of a character that means something to you. For more on that, check out Andrea Letamendi and Robin Rosenberg’s research on the psychology of cosplay

The Bad: Comic-cons exhaust your body, mind, and wallet

Comic-cons are exhausting experiences.

People are on their feet all day, walk miles across a convention center floor, and eat bad (and overpriced) convention center food. Lots of attendees get dehydrated because they just don’t get enough water. All of this makes people feel weak, dizzy, and confused.

Combine physical exhaustion with massive crowds and it makes sense why so many people feel stressed at comic-cons. Anxiety at comic-cons can be triggered by thinking that you have no where to escape to, feeling like it’s hard to breath, being stuck in a crowded space, and hot flashes or cold chills. People with an anxiety disorder, especially panic disorder or agoraphobia, might have an especially hard time (for a good discussions about this, check out Wil Wheaton’s blog).

The overall convention experience can wear you down. New York Comic Con 2010.

The overall convention experience can wear you down. New York Comic Con 2010.

Most of the time, if you stick with the situation long enough the anxious feeling will disappear. Sometimes all you need is a break, some water, or a snack. If the convention offers it (like PAX East did this year), take advantage of the wellness rooms for a break from the crowds. If the feelings don’t disappear and these types of situations are always hard for you, then you might want to consider additional help before your next comic-con adventure.

There’s also the horror of waiting in a lot of very long lines. Research has shown being bored while in line, not knowing how long you’re going to be in a line, and not knowing if you’re going to make it into the thing you’re waiting for makes people agitated. This stuff happens ALL THE TIME at comic-cons. I waited 2 hours at New York Comic Con to see a Walking Dead panel. I didn’t get in, was really upset, and felt like I wasted my afternoon.

Everything  at a comic-con has a long wait. WonderCon 2013.

Everything at a comic-con has a long wait. WonderCon 2013.

Turns out how you feel at the very end of a line is very important – if the line speeds up or it took less time than anticipated, you feel really good about the experience no matter how long you waited. If the line ends badly, you’re going to be very upset at the people responsible. Disney has mastered this kind of stuff – they advertise longer wait times than reality so you think the line went by faster than it did, their queues are full of entertaining stuff so you’re not bored, and the length of a line is always hidden so people aren’t turned off by the sight of an enormous slow moving line. Comic-cons could benefit from copying Disney’s tactics.

Want to avoid the drain of lines? Find something to occupy yourself (like comic books). Or better yet, make a friend by talking to the person next to you. Not only does is that person also excited about whatever you are waiting for, but lines feel like they’re moving faster when you’re with a buddy.

I cope with long lines by getting to know the people around me. San Diego Comic Con 2013.

I cope with long lines by getting to know the people around me. San Diego Comic Con 2013.

Some of the longest lines at comic-cons are to purchase exclusive products. These are usually collectibles that are in limited supply and only available at the convention. These situations make you feel scarcity, like you don’t have as much of something you need. Scarcity of anything, whether it’s a ticket to the convention, an exclusive action figure or a variant cover, literally gives us FOMO (fear of missing out). We believe exclusive items are very important, we constantly think about them, and our willpower drops when we are around them. Scarcity is part of our brain’s basic software – if something near us is important and rare, we’ve learned to take advantage of it now because this opportunity might not come again. It’s the same stuff that goes into the psychology of Black Friday (the biggest shopping day in America).

How do you attend comic-con without draining your wallet? Do you research and check out comic-con exclusives way before the convention. Make a list of what you really want and then set aside some extra money for impulse buys. If you want to stick to your budget, keep cash in your wallet and hide your credit card for emergency use only. When you’ve got everything on your list and you’re out of cash, leave the exhibit hall. 

The Ugly: People can do horrible things in large groups

It's easy to feel lost in a crowd at comic-cons. New York Comic Con 2012.

It's easy to feel lost in a crowd at comic-cons. New York Comic Con 2012.

People are capable of doing very ugly things when they feel anonymous in a large group.

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of discussion about harassment at comic-cons. At 2013’s New York Comic-Con, a TV crew harassed a series of mostly female cosplayers. Just a few months ago, a sexist t-shirt labeled “I like fangirls how I like my coffee – I hate coffee” was found at WonderCon. Then there’s the constant unwanted physical contact and verbal harassment that makes it unsafe for many women to cosplay. None of this is specific to comic-cons, it’s part of a larger sexism problem in the geek community (and it’s a lot worse online).

Check out Jennifer Landa’s awesome “fake geek girl” satire:

Why does this kind of stuff happen at comic-cons? Very large gatherings like the big comic-cons (San Diego & New York Comic-Con), concerts (Coachella), parades (Mardi Gras), and sporting events (World Cup) can lead to deindividuation. People feel anonymous, like they’re a part of a crowd and not an individual person. This makes it easier for people to do stupid things because they’re not worried about what other people will think of them. It also makes people very emotional and easily influenced by what others are doing. Deindividuation is a lot worse when drugs or alcohol are involved (which is a problem at concerts, parades, and sports, not comic-cons). Lack of sleep can also increase the risk of deindividuation (that is a problem at conventions).

Deindividuation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on what’s happening around you. If someone is in danger, a few people standing up to help could lead to a surge of support from a crowd. But if no one stands up against harassment, others will join in and the problem continues. For us to remove this ugly behavior from conventions, we have to engage the whole geek community and make it clear that harassment won’t be tolerated. The science here is definitive – all it takes is one person to speak up against harassment in a crowd to change the entire dynamics of the group. 

When it's good, it's great! When it's bad, it's still pretty good. 

Yes, bad things can happen and the whole experience of comic-con is exhausting. But when you read what people remember most about comic-con, they’re powerful examples of gratitude, altruism, and comradely. Comic-cons help people connect, be true to themselves, and grow. The best cons, like San Diego Comic-Con or DragonCon, expand to citywide celebrations. But even the small neighborhood conventions give you a chance to meet cool people. That’s why I love the current explosion of comic-con culture – they’re making the world a better place. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said:

“If Comic-Con people ruled the world, the future would be invented daily and warfare would be nothing more than bar fights with toy lightsabers. That is the world I want.”

For more on the psychology of comic-con, check out my live discussion with the Unofficial SDCC Blogdownload their audio podcast, or watch THE PSYCH SHOW 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 III Live at WonderCon 2014

The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars Episode III Live at WonderCon 2014

Join me and Dr. Andrea Letamendi (Under the Mask Online) as we bring our popular intergalactic sci-fi battle back to WonderCon for round 3! We'll step into the pop culture ring to debate the science behind the families, friendships, and relationships of science fiction's two legendary franchises. Special guest panelists include actors Chase Masterson (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Catherine Taber (Star Wars: The Clone Wars). Join a side and cast your vote as we crown one the winner! Refereed by Brian Ward (The Arkham Sessions).

Saturday April 19, 2014 7:30pm - 8:30pm Room 213

Episode I Recap 

Episode II Recap

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.

The Psychology of Star Trek vs. Star Wars Live at WonderCon 2013

Image via  marsrioting .

Image via marsrioting.

Boldly go where no one has gone before and explore a galaxy far, far away! Join me, fellow psychologist Andrea Letamendi, and genre experts Larry "Dr. Trek" Nemecek (The Con of Wrath, Trekland: On Speaker) and Hugh Sterbakov (Robot Chicken, City Under the Moon) at WonderCon March 29th in Anaheim, California! We'll engage in an epic sci-fi battle throwing down the science behind the heroes, villains, galactic governments, and even the fandom of Star Trek and Star Wars. Join a side and cast your vote as we crown one the winner of WonderCon 2013! Refereed by Brian Ward (Shout!Factory).

3/15/2013 Update:  Our panel will take place Friday March 29 from 1:30pm - 2:30pm in room 213 at the Anaheim Convention Center. Check out the official program schedule for more information.