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SALT LAKE CITY — It turns out the superheroes among us may be doing good for mere mortals, after all.
Fans of characters like Batman and Spiderman may benefit both emotionally and physically from the one-sided psychological bond, according to a new study out of the University of Buffalo.
Researchers asked 98 undergraduate males to rate their familiarity with Batman or Spiderman on a scale of 1 to 5, with 4 being considered having a parasocial relationship with the character. Those who rated below 2.5 were put in a control group.
The groups were shown a photo of either a muscular or scrawny Batman or Spiderman for one minute, then asked to rate their mood. self-esteem and how they perceived their physical traits and abilities. They were also tested for physical strength with a hand-held dynamometer.
The researchers hypothesized that the negative effects on body image that typically come with viewing muscular media figures would be the same for those who did not feel a strong attachment to the superheroes.
"Studies show that exposure to muscular media figures contribute to men's body dissatisfaction," said Ariana Young, the principle author of the study. "Men tend to feel bad because, by comparison, their own bodies seem scrawny ... it seemed reasonable to assume that superheroes, too, would provoke body dissatisfaction."
Young and her team felt the effect would be negated in subjects who felt a parasocial bond with the characters, however.
"People tend to take on the traits of their favorite media figures," Young said. "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 muscular superhero."
The hypothesis proved correct, and the team reported that those with no attachment to either character felt negatively about themselves after exposure, while those with a stronger bond not only experienced no hit to their self-esteem, but actually displayed greater physical strength.
Young said it was good to see that previous research on media figures did not extend to superheroes.
"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 bodies," she said.