Why do we love a Superhero?
The Hancock household is eagerly awaiting the release of Avengers: Endgame in less than two months (current release date April 26th).
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say my entire family are hooked on the whole superhero genre. And we’re not alone. All over the country there are regular debates about whether Superman would beat Thor in a fight, or why Iron Man is two words while Batman is only one.
Our kids dress up like them and carry packed lunches in plastic boxes emblazoned with their images (actually some adults do this too.) But why?
According to recent research from Kyoto University in Japan, our love of superheroes starts before we can talk. In a series of experiments, infants as young as six months were shown short animations in which one figure chased and bumped into a second. Meanwhile, a third figure watched from afar. In version A, the third figure steps in and prevents the collision, while in version B it runs away without intervening.
After watching the clips, the infants were presented with replicas of both the intervening and the non-intervening third figures. They consistently preferred the one who saved the day. These results suggest that babies are capable of understanding and recognising heroism.
Further experiments showed that extremely young babies couldn’t tell the difference between a saviour who was simply in the right place at the right time, and one who actively stepped in to help. They didn’t grasp the nuances. But by just 18 months old they did understand that difference and preferred the hero. This suggests that our concept of justice, and heroism develops very early on.
“But by just 18 months old they did understand that difference and preferred the hero. This suggests that our concept of justice, and heroism develops very early on.”
As we grow up superhero stories seem to resonate with us. We identify with the themes, with the dilemmas and problems that superheroes face, and we aspire to their noble impulses and heroic acts. We identify with them because often they are created in our image, albeit a larger than life version of that image.
It helps that most superheroes are flawed. They are not bloodless examples of ‘goodness and virtue’ but real individuals who are prey to their emotions and environment yet who strive to overcome their foibles and triumph anyway.
Some characters like Batman and Iron Man have overcome trauma to become superheroes. In psychology this is called post-traumatic growth and it gives us hope that we too can overcome difficulties in our lives and become stronger people.
There is something both empowering and uplifting about watching your favourite superhero emerge victorious at the end of a story, which is why I will be queuing at the cinema on April 26th with Mrs. Hancock and all the little Hancocks. See you there.
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