As anyone who has attended a Comic Con—or even seen news footage of one of those colorful conventions—can attest, plenty of people have bonded with superheroes. The more extroverted among them proudly affirm their identification with the character by wearing his or her cape, tights and/or mask.
Arrested adolescents? Not so fast, you dastardly deprecator. For men, it turns out, close identification with a superhero can have psychological benefits—and perhaps even physical ones.
“Muscular superheroes change men’s body image,” a research team led by University of Buffalo psychologist Ariana Young reports in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Whether that shift is in a positive direction largely depends on the man’s psychological connection with the character.
Young and her colleagues studied 98 male undergraduates (mean age 19). They were first asked how familiar they were with, and how much they liked, Batman and Spider-Man.
Then, “ostensibly as part of a memory task,” they viewed a profile of one of the two superheroes. It was accompanied by a full-body photo, with showed the character as either extremely muscular or having a normal physique.
The participants then rated their satisfaction with their bodies, filling out a 33-item form in which they rated such elements as their biceps, chest, muscular strength and overall physical condition. Finally, they demonstrated their strength by squeezing a device that registered their grip power.
Those who felt no emotional connection the hero in question gave lower ratings to their own bodies after seeing the image of a muscular Batman or Spider-Man. They apparently compared their own bodies to those of the fictional character and judged themselves as lacking.
This effect vanished when the participant felt an emotional link with the superhero. Rather than seeing themselves as less than their brawny hero, they apparently adopted his manly aura.
What's more, those who identified with a particular superhero, and saw the muscular version of the character, exhibited greater strength on the hand-grip test than their fellow devotees who either (a) viewed the non-muscular image, or (b) viewed the muscular image of the alternate hero. Seeing the figure they identify with as strapping inspired them to their own feat of strength.
In the researchers’ words, this suggests “one possible explanation for the overwhelming popularity of superheroes in our society is that, for some men, they may fulfill an important psychological function: making them feel better about their bodies.”
These results complement another study Young authored, which was published earlier this year. It found women who felt an emotional connection with a thin model felt better about their bodies than those who did not. Like the men identifying with the muscular superheroes, they apparently identified with the svelte professional rather than comparing themselves negatively.
So if you’re surrounded by media images of unobtainable perfection, whether beefy heroes or wafer-thin actresses, one way to retain your self-esteem—which is a good thing for a variety of reasons—is to form an emotional bond with these fantasy figures. Comparing yourself with sculpted perfection can only lead to disappointment and despair; better by far to imagine yourself in their superhero shoes.