I’m Batman! (Well, maybe… )

From popping up in The Big Bang Theory‘s conversations and raking it in at the box offices, comic book superheroes and villains are inextricably part of our collective consciousness. But when your world view has to accommodate immortality, shape-shifting and telekinesis, perhaps your perspective gets a little skewed?

About 2,000 people were asked about their perceptions of their own personalities, and that of their favourite superheroes and villains. Using the OCEAN (also called The Big Five) personality model, respondents rated their characteristics, and those of superheroes and villains, on a 1-100 scale. OCEAN is shorthand for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Ranking high or low for a particular trait is neither good nor bad, and subjective concepts like “good” and “evil” don’t exist.

Most people saw themselves as similar in personality to their heroes (such as Batman or Wonder Woman), which makes us wonder if people were focusing more on their personal aspirations and devotion to a particular character than the true meaning of the traits. Villains (like  Poison Ivy or Loki) don’t seem to get a fair shake, possibly indicating a bias in which respondents matched negatively connoted traits with the bad guys.

Let’s see how the results stack up.

Perceptions versus (a hypothetical) reality


Creativity and curiosity

Average rankings
Self: 79
Favourite Superhero: 70
Favourite Supervillain: 64

Surely lab-dwelling superheroes like Beast or Mr Fantastic rank high in openness, but on the whole, comic book heroes and villains are creatures of habit and therefore not open to new experiences. Brooding in your cave again, Batman? Another overly complicated plan to enslave humanity, Lex Luthor? So. Predictable.

If you were to wear a red cape on a regular basis, a generous way to describe you would be “creative”. But with superheroes, it’s just another indication of their rigid, unchanging ways.


Organisational skills and persistence

Average rankings
Self: 70
Favourite Superhero: 75
Favourite Supervillain: 59

Respondents crafted a positive correlation between heroism and conscientiousness. And while saving Gotham from one of the Joker’s elaborate schemes requires some attention to detail on Batman’s part, shouldn’t the Joker get credit for concocting such a plan in the first place?

Basically, you can be evil but still really good at planning things. In fact, it’s a necessity. Remember that villain whose plans went belly up before the hero even appeared? Nope, neither do we.


Chattiness and sociability

Average rankings
Self: 66
Favourite Superhero: 64
Favourite Supervillain: 53

Introverts get a bad rap, and we think that’s why villains ranked just on the side of extraversion. While there’s nothing wrong with a little me time and a good book (Seriously, lay off the introverts. It’s okay to not want to go to a party), who’s really more likely to do that? Superman hides out in a fortress of solitude. And isn’t Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk just his way of saying, “I’d really prefer to be left alone, thank you very much?”

As for the bad guys: even though we know they’re going to poison us with a specially-brewed airborne contagion, we go to their parties anyway. We can’t help it. They flirt, ooze charm and give bold speeches. It’s what makes us sometimes secretly root for them.


Friendliness, willingness to compromise

Average rankings
Self: 73
Favourite Superhero: 67
Favourite Supervillain: 26

Interestingly, scoring low on agreeableness can make you a good leader. Magneto is selfish and unwilling to compromise, and by sticking to his myopic view he garners an army of followers who support and protect him unquestioningly.

Superheroes are a bit more complicated. They wouldn’t bother saving the world on a regular basis if they didn’t have massive amounts of empathy. But for every self-sacrificing, “yes, professor” Jean Grey there’s a snarling Wolverine questioning the plan and hitting on her in front of her boyfriend.


Emotional instability and irrationality

Average rankings
Self: 40
Favourite Superhero: 42
Favourite Supervillain: 64

The mood swings, the violent outbursts, the sudden desire to level an entire city. How different would our superhero stories be without the neurotic villain? Sometimes being neurotic works – it can be a driving force to simply getting stuff done.

With the obvious exception of the Hulk (who tends to… overreact), we’d agree that superheroes tend to be less neurotic than villains. Superheroes that work in groups can be prone to the occasional hissy fit, but that’s more a team dynamic thing.

Remember that being neurotic isn’t the same as being mentally ill. Plotting genocide and wearing nothing but underpants in public does not automatically make you neurotic. We’ll just say that some people who score high on neuroticism could benefit from the occasional therapy session.

KA-BOOM! They’re just like us!

Though we still question the impartiality of the respondents in this study, we think the overarching result is spot on. Perhaps the perception of similarities isn’t a case of self-aggrandisement, but simply accepting the superheroes – from the furry to the immortal – as imperfect humans. Both our heroes and villains have fears, insecurities and hang ups. They have memories that haunt – and drive – them. They become more real because of their flaws and that’s perhaps what draws us to them. If Spiderman gets tongue-tied around his crush, then it’s okay for us to as well.

What do you think?

Where do you think your favourite superhero and villain sit on the OCEAN scale? Join the conversation on Twitter:  #SuperheroPsychology

Comic book aficionados: come at us with your best examples/repudiations. You know you want to tell us where we went wrong.

Haven’t had your personality assessed using OCEAN yet? Try our Who am I? personality quiz.

Source: Langley, Travis. (2013) Our Superheroes, Our Supervillains: Are They Really All That Different? In Robin Rosenberg (Ed.), Our Superheroes, Ourselves. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.