Pop Culture Psychology: What Your Favorite Superhero Can Say About You
It’s October and the leaves are turning – Halloween is creeping up, and it’s time to start thinking about your costume. Vampires and zombies are always popular, but you’ve probably noticed a trend in the last few years: superheroes are where it’s at. We love our pop culture characters, and from Luke Cage to Spider-Man, we’re able to relate to superpowered people. So now the question is, which superhero do you choose?
At the San Diego Comic Con this summer, a few nerdy psychologists from Marshall University asked this question. They weren’t curious about Halloween costumes, but rather personality, and especially how your personality might influence your favorite characters. If we can predict your favorite characters from certain personality traits – and vice versa – maybe we can use that information to aid clinical psychology. Drs. Keith Beard, April Fugett, Elijah Wise, and grad student Britani Black presented the panel “Bam! Whack! Boom! Psychological and Personality Influences on Pop Culture”, highlighting a fun little study they’ve been working on to connect personality traits with favorite characters, and why this information might be useful in the future.
Can an individual’s scores on a personality test predict their favorite and least favorite sci fi and fantasy characters?
Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, these psychologists recruited a random group of participants to take surveys about characters in pop culture and fill out personality trait assessments. Nearly 900 people participated – mostly women, mostly white, and mostly heterosexual (and the authors are working to address the lack of diversity) – and the researchers got some interesting results.
For this particular project, they decided to look at the Big Five personality traits. Also known as the five factor model, these are essentially a way of categorizing personality based on certain traits that tend to co-occur. It provides five broad categories that can be used to describe an individual’s personality . Each of the Big Five can be considered on a low-to-high scale, and the pattern of an individual’s responses says something about their personality in different personality dimensions. Positive scores for each of these traits can be described with the acronym “OCEAN”:
- Openness to experience – people who score highly in openness tend to be adventurous, imaginative, and creative. People who are low in openness tend to be more conventional and practical.
- Conscientiousness – people who are highly conscientious tend to be self-disciplined, organized, and high-achieving. People who are low in conscientiousness tend to be more spontaneous and less self-controlled.
- Extraversion – people who are extraverted tend to be enthusiastic, energetic, and highly social. People who are introverted tend to be more quiet and low-key.
- Agreeableness – people who are agreeable tend to highly value social harmony and are kind, generous, and trusting. People who are low in agreeableness are generally more self-interested and skeptical of others.
- Neuroticism – people who score highly for neuroticism tend to be easily susceptible to stress and emotionally reactive. People who are low in neuroticism tend to be calm and emotionally stable.
The five factor model is not without criticism; it’s an empirically based method of categorization, not a theory of personality . It was generated with data from primarily Western samples, and it’s unclear how well it translates across cultures. Each category is broad, and the utility of the tests are limited. Generally, however, it’s considered a useful way to group character traits and gain a little bit of insight into an individual’s personality.
For this research, participants first did a Big Five self-inventory, ranking how particular traits applied to them (take one for yourself!). Then, they were asked to score their favorite sci fi and fantasy pop culture characters on a scale of 1 (“strongly dislike”) to 5 (“strongly like”), with the option to say they didn’t know the character. This survey included a broad swath of characters from Marvel, DC, Disney, network television, well-known books, and so on – and for every hero, they tried to include a villain. The goal was to include characters that nearly all participants would be familiar with, and to avoid biasing in favor of “good” or “bad” characters.
Though these surveys are still ongoing, statistician April Fuggett has been analyzing some of the results over the last three years and pulling out some interesting correlations between certain personality traits and which characters participants tend to like and dislike. It’s important to note that the characters included on the survey have changed since the research began in 2014 – most notably expanding to include Disney characters and characters from cable shows like Game of Thrones and Outlander.
Some characters are liked by pretty much everyone, and are relatively stable despite pop
culture trends – for example, Batman and Katniss Everdeen are in the top 10 favorite characters every year. But cultural trends do show through – in 2014, when the last installment of The Hobbit was released, Gandalf was the #1 favorite character – while in 2016, Spiderman is ruling the roost. Most of the favorite characters are “good guys”, but participants do have their favorite villains – Harley Quinn, Magneto, and The Joker are all popular bad guys.
And some characters are universally hated – Jar Jar Binks and Bella Swan (from Twilight) have shown up in the bottom 10 every year! Other most hated characters include Joffrey Barantheon and Dolores Umbridge – the worst of the worst.
When the researchers looked at the Big Five traits, some interesting correlations emerged. People who score highly for openness tend to like fantasy characters – like Gandalf and Legolas. They also like morally ambiguous characters, like Lando Calrissian and Maleficent. Agreeable people tend to be drawn to DC characters like The Flash, Batman, and Poison Ivy – as well as other agreeable characters, such as Luke Skywalker, Peter Pan, and BB8.
When looking at multiple traits, even more interesting clusters appeared, and some of them make a lot of sense – for example, people who are highly agreeable AND neurotic love Disney characters, while those who are not very open prefer the classic, archetypal superhero, Superman. Highly agreeable but not very conscientious like the cheerful but morally questionable Deadpool, and those who are extroverted relate the enthusiastic Spiderman. The favorite characters of people who are open AND neurotic are Harry Potter characters, except for Harry Potter himself. And when three traits are combined? The favorite characters of people who are conscientious, agreeable, AND neurotic love Winnie the Pooh and his friends.
These are just a few of the correlations noted by the researchers so far – and as the project continues, more patterns may begin to emerge.
Can we predict a person’s favorite characters from their scores on a personality inventory? Well, not quite – but when personality tests are paired with surveys about favorite characters, some pretty neat things pop up. It’s not very surprising that kind, conventional people love the classic, selfless Superman – or that open, imaginative people are drawn to fantasy characters.
What’s the utility of research like this? The scientists were particularly interested in understanding why individuals sometimes identify strongly with certain characters. They hope that this project might be useful in a clinical setting – a therapist might be able to ask a client about their favorite characters as a way to break the ice, build a relationship, and provide some insight into their personality at the same time. As the body of work grows, they believe it may also be useful for pop culture marketing and even for job inventories – your favorite characters could be an indicator of what kinds of jobs you might enjoy. It’s still too early to know exactly how useful this work will be, but it’s definitely fun to see the emerging trends in the data, and I hope to hear more from Drs. Beard, Fuggett, Wise, and Britani Black next year at Comic Con!
For more about the cool science panels at Comic Con this year – including an interview with Drs. Keith Beard and April Fuggett about another project correlating Dark Triad personality traits with pop culture characters – check out this video over on Neuro Transmissions:
 Digman, John M. (1990). Personality Structure: Emergence of the Five Factor Model. Ann. Rev. Psych. 41:417-440.
 Srivastava, S. (2016). Measuring the Big Five Personality Factors. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
For more information about the project, you can contact the researchers through Marshall University’s website.