Who is your favorite superhero? Although rattling off an answer to that question without a pause might appear nerdy on the surface, research concludes that having a hero has emotional and physical benefits.
The recent influx of comic book movies—about one per month for the past year—awoke curiosity in psychology and fitness researchers. (Catch up on some recent films, View With Your Crew: The Amazing Spider-Man.) When transforming a comic book hero to a silver screen sensation, producers generally augment the hero’s muscle mass and physicality. Questioning the effects this Hollywood trend has had on young men who identify with the comic book heroes, scientists decided to run a few tests on male undergrads.
The study, titled “Batman to the rescue! The protective effects of parasocial relationships with muscular superheroes on men’s body image,” took place at the University at Buffalo. Ninety-eight male undergrads were asked to rate their familiarity with Spider-Man and Batman on a scale of one to five. Those who answered four or five were said to have a “parasocial” relationship with the superhero. Those who rated the superhero below three were placed in the control group.
(Want another great superhero flick? The Dark Knight Rises.)
Once the participants were placed in their appropriate categories, they were asked to view an image of either a scrawny or buff Batman or Spider-Man. After looking at the image for one minute, they were asked to rate their mood, self-esteem and body-esteem.
Results showed interesting benefits from bonds with comic book legends. The students who were highly familiar with a hero found encouragement and esteem in looking at brawny images of their favorites. Students who did not identify with any character not only had lower body esteem, but were also intimidated by the buff images.
The effects went beyond mood. It seems the “parasocial” participants tested stronger than the control group. Scientists ultimately concluded that certain media figures have quantitative psychological and physical effects. According to Ariana Young, a doctoral candidate in psychology and author of the study, “it’s not just mind-numbing entertainment. The bonds that we form—and we do form real bonds—they affect how we feel about ourselves. And not always in a bad way.”
So if you like superhero movies, maybe all that on-screen action is doing you some good! If you don’t have a favorite superhero yet, find one and add some motivation to your life.
Photo: Experimental Social Psychology