Monday, November 22, 2004

Isn't Superman dead?

Okay, so I had assumed/ hoped that this article would remain below the radar of The League's readership. But the Leaguers are a wily lot, and as such, Jeff Shoemaker has thrown down the gauntlet.

Here is the gist of the article, stated in the opening paragraph:

Superman is too good a role model. Fans of the man from Krypton unwittingly compare themselves to the superhero, and realise they do not measure up. And as a result, they are less likely to help other people.

Strong words. So how does the League defend the indefensible?

To begin with, the general populace lumps Superman in with Chefboyardee and Mr. Potato Head as a sort of universal pop-culture constant. Superman is okay, but he's a boyscout and boring (he's no XXX, stickin' it to The Man!). People basically know who Superman is, and can make general assumptions about the character, so, obviously the researchers were able to wrangle up an excellent sample of Superman fans for their study. Or, you know, sorority girls with Superman emblems on their halter tops.

The article is sketchy with details of the research or the purpose of the actual research. One part of the study basically asked people (the article doesn't define the population outside of "students") to list characteristics of either superheroes in general or Superman in particular.

Then, three months later, the subjects were asked to appear for a volunteer program. Apparently fewer of the Superman "primed" people appeared and judged "less likely to help people."

I just don't feel like there's much information here to go by.

The author's posit: Superman is an impossible imaginary figure to live up to, so instead of trying, fans interested in Superman, or who identify with Superman, cannot get over the psychological trauma of being human, and thusly, cannot summon the will to help others.

But here's the important part: Despite the opening paragraph, note that the article doesn't state that the folks who didn't show up to volunteer are actually fans of Superman. The subjects of the study were average "students" who were "primed" with Superman one way or another instead of a more generic ideal of superheroes. Not once does the article indicate that anyone involved was predisposed to enjoying Superman comics, cartoons, movies, etc... Not even those sorority girls in their Superman halters.

The conclusion drawn by researchers relating to the actual study is as follows:

The reason (ed. insert: Superman fans didn't show), believes Nelson, is that asking people to compare themselves to an exceptional individual makes them realise their shortcomings. Whereas thinking about a general category encourages people to identify the strengths they have in common.

I can't disagree with what the researchers said in the above statement.

Point to the Founding Fathers instead of superheroes. In general, we think of those bewigged patriots as noble, if eccentric, men of destiny. We know as a group that they had foibles and shortcomings. But once you mention George Washington or Ben Franklin, unless you're an historian or take more than a Gov't 101 passing interest in history, you shine a divine light upon these people. It's much easier to imagine being one of many patriotic minded folks in a general powdered wig sort of way than to imagine being the same guy who won fought in the French-Indian Wars, crossed the Delaware and stuck it out at Valley Forge. Founding the world's greatest Republic is tough marker to measure up to for Joe and Jane Public.

But does it affect whether or not people show up to volunteer?

The article is in short supply as to details. Of those people who made it to the volunteer event, were there 80% fewer Superman primed folks, or 1%? What were the people asked to volunteer for as the mock follow up? How many people were asked in total to participate? What was the expected standard deviation? Did any of the Superman primed folks have an excuse why they didn't show? Was it raining that day? Did the semester end? Were Superman primed and superhero primed people asked to appear for separate events? Were any other superheroes included in the list? What was the control of the study? What would have happened with, say... Groucho Marx or The Bangles versus Superman? What if more people showed up who volunteered and were given "Groucho" to describe? And wasn't the volunteering for the experiment in the first place a sign that the Superman populace was willing to volunteer?

I obviously am missing something about the experiment and the journalist's conclusions. However, it's not to hard to imagine the journalist getting a full report of the experiment and saying "Oh, so Superman fans won't help people? That IS interesting! Man DOES bite dog!" It's lazy journalism.

Imagine an article on a "scientific" study being published reading "Fans of Basketball are unable to assist others because they can never be Karl Malone." Or, to make an exact parallel regarding what the hero figure DOES versus what the fans feel they cannot DO: "Fans of the Beatles are unable to play the drums because they feel that their greatest effort shall never surpass that of Ringo." Or "Lawyers feel Clarence Darrow too good of an attorney for them to compare selves to. Lawyers less likely to do jobs adequately."

The most irritating aspect is, of course, that you can't argue with something once it's in print. There's now conclusive scientific proof that Superman fans are losers. Hurray. If I received this article already a few times today, it's going to be one of those things relatives bring up for the next few years at Thanksgiving dinner when they see my Superman watch. "I heard that people who like Superman won't help people."

It's going to be the new "Isn't Superman dead?"

No comments: