University Scholars Exploration Series – The Psychology of Superheroes

Each semester, the University Scholars enroll in small-group, discussion-based seminars. In Spring 2016, recently graduated Scholar Amy Arndt ’16 taught the seminar “Psychology of Superheroes,” using the medium of comic books as an introduction to psychology. One of her students, landscape architecture major Phillip Hammond ’17, reflects on the class’s debates and fun.

By Phillip Hammond ’17

University Scholar Phillip Hammond '17
University Scholar Phillip Hammond ’17

After a studio dinner of popcorn or the stereotypical microwave mac n’ cheese, I would have to inform my remaining studio-mates left working on projects that I will be leaving briefly to attend my Monday night class for Honors. As they lament for me, saying “Phillip, what awful class must meet after 6 P.M. on a Monday?!” I just chuckle to myself, because this was not any old Honors class. THIS was Psychology of Superheroes!

Psych of Supes, as I like to abbreviate it for my own amusement and efficiency, was a University Scholar class in which I expected to learn – hmm, I don’t know – possibly something nerdy and fun but, more importantly, distinct and engaging!! Whether psychoanalyzing the stress-induced trauma that a vigilante faces from their nightly “hobby” or receiving education on the factors and behaviors of common social disorders with identification through well-known comic book heroes, I would most certainly have to relate this class to a similar phenomenon that occurs with the recent Marvel franchise: entering in with the knowledge that it is going to be excellent, but leaving with an even greater sense of reward and intense need for another one!

As we may know, the University Scholars tend to represent a population with little to no displays of violence. However, had there been the option, I believe that gladiatorial combat would not have been out of the question for a seat in Amy Arndt’s seminar. Luckily, just barely achieving priority for the class, I was honored, elated, and ready to start the semester, expecting that we would likely be reading comics and going through each and every popular superhero, like Batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, or Superman, to pick their brains for intriguing psychological characteristics. While Amy made certain to perfectly incorporate all the aforementioned fun, she managed to add even more, all the while revealing to us the functions within the human brain responsible for both sociological and psychological behaviors.

Along the way, we were brought on a journey through several different studies on the human psyche, which explained in a tangible manner the importance of identity in a reality shaped by our own perception, finding or relating to realistic experiences in fiction, representation through our heroes, and how good and evil cannot be simply trained into or isolated within an individual’s mind. The theories and scientific studies sparked several intense discussions on societal issues, such as the application of justice for criminals with psychological disorders or the complications of gender, ethnic, and sexual representation in media for token appeal versus proper relatability for the audience. Needless to say, we had a plethora of superheroes and supervillains to use as examples for these discussions and all our hypothetical situations.

All in all, after creating my own superhero, identifying myself as a superhero, learning which superheroes my fellow University Scholars view me as, taking the time to enjoy a few comic books more, and critically reviewing the most recent Superman movie as an official part of the seminar, I would most certainly say that my Monday nights were excellently spent in Psych of Supes. Now, I can’t wait for the next superhero University Scholar seminar, hint hint!

 Freshmen are recruited each spring to join the University Scholars program. To learn more, please see:


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