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Bonding with Batman could make you stronger
Study participants were shown either a scrawny or buffed-up version of these comic book characters.
September 17th, 2012
01:19 PM ET

Bonding with Batman could make you stronger

It was hard to keep track of all the superheroes hitting the big screen this summer: Batman in "The Dark Knight Rises." Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor in "The Avengers." Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man."

And each character seemed to have bulked up for their latest comeback.

"Over the last few decades, superheroes' bodies have become extremely muscular with body dimensions that are impossible for most men to attain," write the authors of a new study that analyzes the effects of superheroes on male body image.

Past research has shown that seeing muscular figures can make men feel badly about their own bodies, similar to the way seeing stick-thin supermodels can make women question their weight.

But the same effect may not hold true for our favorite comic book characters.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests watching superheroes can actually increase males' self esteem - and might make mere mortals stronger.

The study

Researchers with the University at Buffalo asked 98 undergraduate males to rate how much they liked and/or were familiar with Batman or Spider-Man on a scale of 1 to 5. Participants who scored a 4 or higher were said to have a "parasocial" relationship with the superhero - i.e. a one-sided psychological bond. Those who rated less than 2.5 were put into a control group.

All participants were then shown a photo of either a scrawny or buff-looking Batman/Spider-Man. They were given one minute to look at the photo and then asked to rate their mood, self-esteem and body esteem (how they perceive their muscular strength, biceps, etc.)

The undergrads were then tested with a hand-held dynamometer to assess their physical strength.

The results

Participants who had a strong parasocial bond and were shown a muscular superhero photo recorded higher body esteem than those who didn't have a bond with the character.

On the flip side, participants who weren't familiar with the character who were shown a muscular photo experienced a lower body esteem than participants who were shown a scrawny superhero.

More surprising were the strength test results. The undergrads with a parasocial bond who were shown a muscular superhero were stronger than those in the control group and stronger than those with a parasocial bond who were shown a non-muscular photo.

The takeaway

"The thing that I find most interesting ... is the idea that these media figures have real psychological effects on the self," says study author Ariana Young, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University at Buffalo. "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 it’s not always in a bad way."

Young is planning another superhero study this semester where she'll analyze the effects of the characters on acts of heroism, or helpful behavior.


soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. Portland tony

    I think it's an interesting story, but after graduation how are these researchers ever ever gonna find a job to payback that student loan? Not much demand out there for this type of work....Maybe MacDonald's

    September 17, 2012 at 13:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • yaya@aol.com

      The ability to collect and analyze any type of data set is a very useful skill... far greater then all those with their mass com or art degrees.

      September 17, 2012 at 15:43 | Report abuse |
    • Pragmaclast

      They have a job. They're researchers.

      They probably could get a job at McDonalds, but it wouldn't be flipping burgers. More likely, it would be researching new ways to manipulate you in to eating more Big Macs.

      September 17, 2012 at 15:49 | Report abuse |
    • John

      Are you trying to be funny using the tired MacDonald's reference, the standard cliche of all low-level jobs implying these researchers aren't very smart? How does this topic or the scientists conducting this research have anything to with low-level qualifications for working at MacDonald's? Because, obviously, these researchers are smart. Although this research may seem silly to you and something you wouldn't waste you time on because you usually don't considered intellectual matters, why denigrate those who do?

      Look at the time! Looks like you're going to punch in late again, and you know what the shift manager will say. See, that's how you use your lame reference in an ironic way. You learn something every day.

      September 17, 2012 at 15:53 | Report abuse |
    • wcoast_naggy

      My firm has an entire office based on data and research. They do well.

      BTW, I was a comic book nerd, got an Art Degree and now I'm one of the 1%!
      Work hard, don't stop being creative in anything you do.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:07 | Report abuse |
    • J

      @yaya – I have that art degree, and am happily employed in my field providing well for a family of 5. Your metaphor is as outdated as the McDonald's one.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
    • Rick

      Data Analysis, Business Analysis and Business Intelligence careers are one of the fastest growing, well paying careers in the country. With all the technology companies have and how much data they collect about their processes, products and their customers, people (like myself) get paid very well to analyze and interpret it.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:23 | Report abuse |
    • GatorDude

      It shouldn't be too hard for them to find work. You found a job in Portland where you don't have to spell "McDonald's" correctly!

      September 17, 2012 at 17:13 | Report abuse |
    • Layne

      You don't think the military is interested in getting stronger soldiers on an investment of GI Joe comic books?

      September 17, 2012 at 17:27 | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      The researchers have jobs in their field. They are academic researchers, which is why the published the paper reported on in the article. They have already graduated, gotten their Bachelors degree and are working on a Masters or a PHD.

      September 17, 2012 at 17:59 | Report abuse |
    • Svenghooli

      BINGO.....total waste of my time

      September 17, 2012 at 21:01 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Stephen, the research assistants are probably the grad students you describe. The researchers most likely already have their PhDs or other terminal degrees and are employed by the university as professors, researchers, or both. In this case they would be salaried employees for the University of Buffalo earning somewhere around the 100k per year mark.

      September 17, 2012 at 22:33 | Report abuse |
  2. Capt. Awesome

    Just reading that article makes me feel stronger.. I'm going to break my desk in half right now! Peace out.

    September 17, 2012 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kaidokhan

      YEAH BABY!!! I KNOW HOW IT FEELS WHEN YOU READ "HULK SMASH!!!"

      September 17, 2012 at 15:43 | Report abuse |
    • bitnar

      Awesome!

      September 17, 2012 at 16:23 | Report abuse |
    • Major KickAzz

      Feelsbadman when you envision The Flash when bedding a female.

      September 17, 2012 at 17:03 | Report abuse |
  3. Islam4fools

    Unfortunately too much bonding (i.e. reading too much comic books or watching too many movies or playing too many games related to these superheroes) only makes our kids fat and lazy.

    So my suggestion to parents is for each half hour of comic books (or movies etc) make them play outside one hour and study 2 hours.

    September 17, 2012 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • rapierpoint

      Can you cite a study that supports your claims? I've found the average avid comic reader to be anything but lazy.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:14 | Report abuse |
    • punchka

      I also disagree. When i was a kid after I saw a Batman catrtoon or watched a superhero movie i wanted to go outside with my brother or friend and play. We would run around and pretend we were fighting crime. It was awesome. We got plenty of exercise and the caped crusader helped us.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:22 | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      So being interested in a character and knowing a thing or two about them makes you fat? Is this some sort of veiled implication that intellectuals who have the wherewithal to study a subject are somehow not worthy of your consideration or inclusion in your ideal society? Your fascism is showing, sir.

      September 17, 2012 at 17:37 | Report abuse |
    • matthewx

      Yes, and please explain how studying is some how more physically challenging than reading a comic (or any) book.

      September 17, 2012 at 18:11 | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      @matthewx, the books are heavier (sometimes, I have some pretty heavy hard bound comic collections, and overall a box of comics can be pretty heavy).

      September 17, 2012 at 18:15 | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      Forcing kids to be on strict schedules like that kills their childhood. I pity your children if you have them. If you want them to do their homework at a certain time, then make them, but don't go into all of this micromanaging crap where "for every hour that you do this, you'll do THIS." Makes everyday life seem like a punishment and takes away any sense of spontaneity.

      September 17, 2012 at 18:20 | Report abuse |
  4. Randy

    Tony, you need to think a bit harder about what this could mean for marketing. You don't think there is a HUGE demand for companies to be able to psychologically influence you to buy their products?

    September 17, 2012 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. MightyMoo

    Best Batman as of yet is still Adam West. No fake chests or over drawn exageration. His suit was all West all the time.

    September 17, 2012 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Yeah, with half the thespian abilities of William Shatner. By the middle of the third season he needed a heavier duty girdle than Shatner did on Star Trek (TOS). Of course, he was still better than either Val Kilmer or George Clooney!

      September 17, 2012 at 16:02 | Report abuse |
    • JeramieH

      > similar to the way seeing stick-thin supermodels can make women question their weight.

      I think most people looking at comics realize they're completely unreal, unlike the photos on fashion magazines.

      September 17, 2012 at 18:03 | Report abuse |
    • YoPeeps

      I think the skinny versions of Batman and Spiderman look better. Batman looks like Adam West and Spidey look like a science nerd teenager

      September 17, 2012 at 19:39 | Report abuse |
  6. Stephen Guptill

    Men who feel bad about their own body after looking at a cartoon of a muscle man, are not men; they are weak minded idiots.

    Also Batman looks proper with muscles, Spider-Man does not.

    I've been drawing both since I was a little kid, I know these things...

    September 17, 2012 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Read about the original drawings for Spider-Man. Stan Lee envisioned him as a scrawny high-school kid – the kind that kept getting sand kicked in his face. Jack Kirby kept making him too muscular (ala Captain America). That was why Steve Ditko was called in. He got the "skinny kid" look down pat that served for all 50 years of his publishing history.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:05 | Report abuse |
    • MrBo

      Precisely.

      Spider-man IS scrawny; he makes it up with his super powers. Batman is a buff mofo because he has to rely on his normal human body for the most part.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:08 | Report abuse |
    • Jerry

      But if Superman has all those powers he won't need big muscles.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:57 | Report abuse |
    • Jesse

      10 yrs ago and beyond comics were mostly geared towards young male readers. Today's movies have made them change some in order to sell to mass audiences, including girls. You have to have buff good looking men to attract women. That's the only reason for all the eye candy super heroes, story doesn't matter as much, why do you think 3 straight spider man movies were all the same love story? because it made spider man a sex symbol to the young ladies, and ticket sales went up.

      September 17, 2012 at 17:14 | Report abuse |
  7. mcg

    Low number statistics says "hi".

    September 17, 2012 at 15:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. lukos58

    Well, yes...but only the image on the right of Batman is an accurate reflection of his physicality, while Peter Parker, AKA your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, should be represented by the more svelte and scrawny representation on the left of the two Spider-Men. As everyone knows, Peter Parker is a young high school boy who is representative of his peers, vis a vis his size and insecurities. Now, buy or leave. This isn't a library.

    September 17, 2012 at 15:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Inane in the membrane

    To call this article useless would be an insult to truly useless articles.

    September 17, 2012 at 15:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Johnny 5

    Batroids and Spideroids are bad kids.

    September 17, 2012 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Diggle

    You're catching on to this trend a little late. You didn't even include any Liefeld art.

    September 17, 2012 at 16:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MrBo

      Those were totally deformed, and anatomically incorrect.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:07 | Report abuse |
    • lukos58

      Rob Liefeld is to comics what Rob Schnieder is to comedy. Nice guys, but neither should be allowed near their respective "art" fields.

      September 17, 2012 at 17:31 | Report abuse |
  12. epj717

    Are you trying to say that science has now proven that liking Batman makes you physically stronger?

    Finally. My insanity has been validated.

    September 17, 2012 at 16:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Argle Bargle

      That would depend on whether you like them, or whether you "LIKE" them.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:45 | Report abuse |
  13. Matt

    And yet another reason to save City of Heroes! #savecoh

    September 17, 2012 at 16:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Paul

    What would be the result of looking at images of Christ ? If ever there was a superhero it was He.

    What would be the result of meditating on a crucifix? What if one saw a picture of Jesus performing a miracle? Would one with a "parasocial bond" with Jesus feel more powerful?
    Would looking at a statue of Buddha meditating put one in a calmer state?
    Maybe there is a place for religious iconography after all. The 10 commandments forbid "graven images" because man can be tempted to worship the creature rather than the creator.

    Someone should try this study using religious images.

    September 17, 2012 at 16:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Argle Bargle

      I worship bananas. They've never let me down.

      September 17, 2012 at 16:42 | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      So, Jesus was a comic book character, good to hear that.

      But seriously, the point of this experiment was to say that iconic images have effects on a person's mood and mental state depending on the subject's bond with the character. So yes, religious iconography would have a similar effect on people who believe in the subjects of the icon in question. It also means that while you may experience love and some sort of holiness looking at a cross because of your experience, I can look at it and see a graphic representation of human sacrifice that I find disturbing and since I have learned everything I can about the character depicted and have decided that I can have no bond with it that makes me feel good, then maybe it would be best if others simply don't try to force it on me.

      I won't make you read Batman comics no matter how good I think they are as long as you clam up about your poorly written bronze age myths.

      September 17, 2012 at 17:50 | Report abuse |
    • stephen

      Wow. Someone says religion and suddenly it's being crammed down a passive reader's throat. Militant atheists are soooooo predictable.

      August 23, 2013 at 13:40 | Report abuse |
  15. Argle Bargle

    Who cares? If people want to set unrealistic goals for themselves and always end up being failures, that's their problem.

    September 17, 2012 at 16:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Jerry

    Bonding with a fictional super hero is infantile. Like the women say, "So many boys and so few men".

    September 17, 2012 at 16:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Stephen

      Yes, because every comic I've ever read was strictly for children.

      I don't know if you have noticed but comics are a form of art and literature and you show how infantile you can be when you trivialize them.

      September 17, 2012 at 17:54 | Report abuse |
  17. Oscar

    BALONEY! This doesn't prove a 1:1 correlation between a person's parasocial connection to a super hero and his body image or strength. In more general terms, you are better off assuming that those people who generally pay attention to superheroes tend to also want to be more heroic themselves. A desire to be like or having admiration for heroism in general is more likely to make you blast out that extra push up when considering your own responsibility for protecting those you love – such as your family.

    September 17, 2012 at 16:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. ron lambert

    BAN KAI -!!!!!
    Ichigo is way better than spiderman.

    September 17, 2012 at 17:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rob

      Ichigo is a tank, Spidey doesn't tank, he dodges

      September 17, 2012 at 22:27 | Report abuse |
  19. Makes sense

    Well, this article make sense to me. I mean Hollywood has seemed to know that fact especially since there have been so many real life super hero movies like KickA$$, Super, Griff the Invisible, Defendor, etc.

    September 17, 2012 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. cf

    Spiderman is supposed to be scrawny. That's the whole point of his nerdy kid persona.

    September 17, 2012 at 17:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. comic fan

    Spiderman is scrawnier, but is actually stronger than Batman. He has the proportional strength of a spider, which I've read means he can lift over 10 tons, some say it can be up to 25 tons now.

    September 17, 2012 at 18:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Eukannt Avmai Adey

    This study gives pseudo-science a bad name.

    September 17, 2012 at 18:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Guest

    Just go to my gym and you'll see that a large percentage of the young men (and even middle-aged men) prove the conclusions in this article. Why else assume the risks that come with roids?

    September 17, 2012 at 18:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Hoof-Hearted

    A simple explanation may be that Batman and Spiderman are masked characters, and that men are able to project themselves into the mask and feel empowered. I wonder if the scientists would get similar results with Superman, Aquaman or the Hulk.

    September 17, 2012 at 19:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. anon

    Pretty sure bonding with Batman in Aurora, CO made those people stronger. You know, just weeks after the government said a theater attack was going to happen. You can read the PDF at DHS dot gov where they talk about it.

    September 17, 2012 at 19:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. cryofpaine

    I wonder if there are similar effects on other traits. Does it work for mental traits like risk taking, or morality, or things like that? How would an interactive character rather than a static image effect the outcome? For instance, would you get more effect from playing Batman Arkham Asylum than you would watching a Batman movie? And does a more realistic image have any effect – like would the Batman movies have more or less effect than the animated Batman?

    Lots of fascinating avenues of study from this.

    September 17, 2012 at 19:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Francisco

    You don't have to be EXTREMELY muscular. It's not like you are Superman who have ALWAYS been muscular, or Thor as well. Transformed hulk is 3D graphic design, not a real body. So you don't need to be too muscular to make movies as male. Toby Mcguire was not huge. Neither is Christian Bale.

    But Superman, Thor, and Hulk(obviously), have always been huge.

    September 17, 2012 at 19:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Vern Sawyer

    If you read comic books for realistic depictions of the human body, either sex, you're looking in the wrong place.

    September 17, 2012 at 20:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Prince_Adam

    THis is why He-man is the GREATEST!!!! First
    1)his name is He-Man,cant get any more masculine then that!!
    2)he's HUGE!!!!!!!!
    3)He has a sword!!!!!
    He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is THE BEST!!! It's been scinetifially proven!!!!

    September 17, 2012 at 20:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Martha Cornog

    So guys who affiliated with these superheroes liked them drawn more bulked up, and these guys actually turned out to be stronger than guys who didn't affiliate. You're suggesting they got stronger because of liking superheroes. But it could have worked the other way, you know. The guys felt affiliated to the superguys and liked them bulky because the GUYS THEMSELVES were already strong and bulky. We tend to like people whom we perceive as similar to ourselves

    September 17, 2012 at 20:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • maya

      i understand this study,
      it affects both the psychology and physicality of a human,

      take my children for example, 6 and 1 they both love Batman and spider man, my 1 yr old second word was Batman, the truth USA they have bonded on a psychological level, they admire the heros
      thus they admire strength and heroism and my six year old constantly wants to use my pull up bar, or do push UPS, he wants to wrestle to be stronger and he lives helping others, when mean kids pick on others he steps in...

      my one year old is daring and bold, he takes risks and is confident in his strength...

      parenting has some to do with it, but i'm sure admiring and surrounding themselves with these idols has conditioned their mind and bodies...

      September 18, 2012 at 18:38 | Report abuse |
    • maya

      i'm not buff, i'm thing and slender, but i associate with spider man and Batman, i'm scrawny but strong and it doors make me feel good seeing these characters perform amazing feats, it gives me confidence in myself that i can do so if i too condition my body with a proper diet and exercise

      September 18, 2012 at 18:41 | Report abuse |
  31. FredR

    Speaking of Batman:

    September 17, 2012 at 20:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Leo

    Always be yourself.

    Unless you can be Batman. And then, always be Batman.

    September 17, 2012 at 21:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Ben

    Funnily enough, Spidey is SUPPOSED to be scrawny. That's part of his shtick – he's the 98-pound weakling who's secretly able to bench-press a Buick.

    September 17, 2012 at 21:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Eric

    This is cool but conducting one study on 98 is not enough research imho.

    September 17, 2012 at 21:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Steve

    But if they were comparing anatomically impossible female superheroes they would be going on about how it hurts women's self esteem. Interesting how it is the exact opposite with men. What a crap study.

    September 17, 2012 at 22:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Jeremy

    this is true whenever im at the gym, i picture Vegeta training in 1000x gravity and it pushes me pass my limits

    September 19, 2012 at 03:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Alex

    Wow, not only did I enjoy this article, it sorta boosts my self esteem, in a way... I've always loved Spiderman and knowing that he may be a scrawny 100 lbs kid that can lift cars kinda shows me that you don't have to be ripped BAMF to show you have strength, its how you show it...

    September 19, 2012 at 19:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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  39. Dr. B

    98 people does not a conclusion make. No study with that small of a population sample can be taken for anything but preliminary. The testing group is already pre-selected by only choosing undergrads at a university, which is already a small percentage of the population at large, and definitely not a cross-sampling. When they grab a much larger, random sample of various ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, and health conditions-then I will pay attention to their conclusions.

    I get so sick of the press reporting on these small studies as if they were somehow definitive.

    September 29, 2012 at 23:01 | Report abuse | Reply

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