BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Batman's awesome power may come not only from
his ability to defeat the likes of Mr. Freeze and the Joker, but
from the fact that his mere presence makes his devoted fans feel
strong and physically fit.
So says Ariana Young, University at Buffalo doctoral candidate
in psychology and the principle author of a first-of its-kind study
on men's relationships with their favorite superheroes.
Young and fellow UB researchers Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate
professor of psychology, and Jordan Hollar, an undergraduate
psychology major found that if a man has a parasocial relationship
(a one-sided psychological bond) with a muscular superhero, it not
only protects him from the typically negative effects of exposure
to muscular media ideals, but actually makes him physically
The study, "Batman to the Rescue! The Protective Effects of
Parasocial Relationships with Muscular Superheroes on Men's Body
Image," is in press for an upcoming issue of the Journal of
Experimental Social Psychology. It is currently online at the
Young points out that body dissatisfaction is a growing problem
among men and suggests that this may be partly caused by
hyper-muscular ideals rampant in the media.
"Studies show that exposure to muscular media figures contribute
to men's body dissatisfaction," she says. "Men tend to feel bad
because, by comparison, their own bodies seem scrawny.
"Although the effects of muscular superheroes on men's body
image had not yet been directly examined, it seemed reasonable to
assume that superheroes, too, would provoke body dissatisfaction,"
"However, we thought it would also be important to consider
men's parasocial relationship status with these superheroes. Many
people have parasocial bonds with media figures, either real
celebrities or fictional characters, and we know from previous
research in our lab that identification with these figures can
favorably affect how we feel about ourselves," she says.
"People tend to take on the traits of their favorite media
figures," Young says. "That is, a person may come to see himself as
being more like a favored media figure following exposure. In this
case, we thought men might feel stronger after being exposed to a
"So we hypothesized that the negative effects of exposure to a
muscular superhero might be attenuated, even flipped, if men had a
parasocial relationship with that superhero," she says.
The researchers conducted two versions of the study -- a Batman
version and a Spider-Man version -- to ensure outcomes were not
specific to one particular superhero.
During a pre-testing session, potential participants indicated
how much they liked and how familiar they were with Batman and
Spiderman (separately). Their responses were then averaged and
served as an indicator of their parasocial relationship status with
each superhero. Participants with high scores (meaning they had a
parasocial bond) and low scores (meaning they did not) for each
superhero were recruited for the study.
Ninety-eight male participants later came in to the lab and
viewed a profile of Batman or Spider-Man as part of what they were
told was a memory task. The profile included a general biography
and a full-body picture of the superhero. The images were
manipulated such that some participants saw a muscular version of
the superhero and some saw a non-muscular version.
The participants were then asked to indicate their current
satisfaction with their own body parts or functions (muscular
strength, physical condition, chest, biceps, etc.). Finally, their
physical strength was assessed using a hand-held dynamometer,
which, when squeezed provides a digital reading of the maximum
achieved grip power in pounds.
"Consistent with previous research, men exposed to a muscular
superhero with whom they did not have a parasocial bond felt worse
about their own bodies," Young says. "However, men exposed to a
muscular superhero with whom they did have a parasocial bond not
only experienced no harmful effects to their body satisfaction, but
also displayed greater physical strength," she says.
Young says, "It would be unfortunate if, as previous research
suggests, the thrill of watching a beloved superhero swoop in to
save the day inevitably made men and boys feel bad about their own
"This study shows that this is not always the case, and
suggests that the popularity of superheroes may come in part from
men who identify with them, and thus experience the psychological
benefits of exposure."