I use fictional stories in general, and superhero characters and stories in particular, to illustrate what psychological research about human nature has revealed. I know, and you know, that superheroes aren't real. But good superheroes stories, like any good fiction, invite us to enter a different world. The physical trappings of that world may or not resemble ours, but for us to enter it, its psychological trappings have to resemble ours. We will, almost automatically when a story is good, try to understand the psychology of the characters: their motives, their emotions, their thoughts, their behavior. We put ourselves in their places, or at least in their worlds, or imagine what it be like if they lived in ours. We wonder what would be like to live their experiences. We know they're not real, but it's fun to imagine.
Most recently, I've used the character of Batman to explore the topic of mental health and mental illness. When I give talks about superheroes, invariably at least one person in the audience asks me what the matter is with Batman. To address this question, I'm going to discuss Batman's mental health as if he were real. But by discussing him as if he were, we get to tackle some interesting issues. (Which version of Batman am I talking about, you may wonder? An amalgam of comic book and film versions.)
On the eve of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I considered over on Huffington Post whether Batman has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the psychiatric disorder that most people may think a likely diagnosis for Batman. Once The Dark Knight Rises is out, we shall see whether Batman's battles with Bane and the rest of Gotham's criminal element lead him to develop PTSD or some other psychological disorder.