REVIEW: ‘Star Wars Psychology’ will awaken the Force in you

star wars psychology
(Sterling Books)

“Ahh, hard to see, the Dark Side is.” –Yoda, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Just in time for the upcoming release of what appears, since the release of the last trailer, to pretty much be the most anticipated movie ever, Travis Langley and his team of geeky psychology professionals (“PsychGeeks”) follow up their last book, The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead with Star Wars Psychology: Dark Side of the Mind just months after the release of the first book.

The “Dark Side” referenced in the subtitle may give some readers the impression that this book focuses on the Dark Side of the Force that makes up one half of the moral/spiritual dichotomy of the Star Wars universe. In real-world psychology terms, discussions of said Dark Side would probably include topics like anxiety, fear, violence, sociopathy and psychopathy. Indeed, there are essays in this collection that examine those topics in relation to Star Wars as in “Grief and Masculinity: Anakin the Man” by Billy San Juan and “Anxiety Disorder’s Need for Imperial Control: Was Darth Vader Evil or Scared?” by Frank Gaskill.

Darth Vader is almost universally perceived as a badass. But what if the dominating force behind the Sith lord’s behavior is an inability to cope with fear? (Disney/LucasFilm)

But the title of the book refers just as much, perhaps even more, to the less understood, less clear-cut aspects of the human mind: the subconscious, the unconscious, moral development, the religious impulse, and things of that nature. Hence, these comprise the “dark side” of the mind in the sense that they have, as of yet, to be fully illuminated by science, and many discussions of them often overlap to various degrees with related fields like philosophy, religious studies, and the arts.

As with The Walking Dead Psychology, Star Wars Psychology is a collaborative volume with a total of twenty different articles, edited by Travis Langley, by a diverse team of psychology professionals: clinical psychologists, psych professors, etc. Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied, has also contributed a wonderful little foreword entitled, appropriately enough, “Why Star Wars Matters.”

As I pointed out in my review of The Walking Dead Psychology, any collection of this sort is bound to contain some essays that will be of great interest to certain readers and other essays that will be less so. It simply comes with the territory of the chance to explore a wider variety of topics from different interpretive lenses.

In addition to the twenty primary essays is a set of five supplemental short essays by Travis Langley collectively entitled “Force Files: An OCEAN Far Away.”  I found these to be more coherent as a whole and generally more effective than the “Case Files” that were similarly scattered throughout The Walking Dead Psychology.  The reason for this is that the “Force Files” analyze different Star Wars characters through the single paradigm of the so-called Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (or OCEAN). By the time psychology neophytes or lay readers finish the book, they should have a pretty solid grasp of the OCEAN model in practice within the fictional Star Wars universe.  In contrast, the Walking Dead “Case Files” approached different characters from different conceptual paradigms, which wasn’t a problem per se but if you wanted to compare the different characters from within the same conceptual framework, you had to apply what you read in one case file to the others. But not many readers, unless they are psychology majors, have the patience or inclination for something like that.

What’s great about the books in the Psych Geeks series, however, is that they are amenable for both casual reading and deeper study alike. Star Wars fanatics curious about psychologists’ take on Palpatine’s pathological ambition, for example, or on Anakin’s emotional impulsivity, or Lando’s famous moral conundrum will find much here that will stimulate both their imagination and their intellect. Even from a strictly fanboy’s perspective, the fascinating inside look at writer Donald F. Glut’s process of writing the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back alone is nearly worth the price of admission.

Utilitarian vs. deontological? Perhaps no other Star Wars character has been faced with as perplexing, or as classical, a moral and philosophical conundrum as Lando. So, y’know, give the guy a break. (Disney/LucasFilm)

For my personal tastes, there were two things about Star Wars Psychology that I appreciated most. The first is the way that a number of these pieces try to help readers consider concrete ways of implementing Jedi-like philosophies in real life. There is much role playing and romanticization of the Jedi within Star Wars fandom. But articles like “So You Want to be a Jedi: Learning the Ways of the Force through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” by Jenna Busch and Janina Scarlet; “Feel the Force: Jung’s Theory of Individuation and the Jedi Path” by Laura Vecchiolla; “The Skywalker Way: Values in the Light and Dark,” also by Janina Scarlet; and “Samurai, Star Wars and Underdogs” by Jonathan Hetterly show that there is more to being a Jedi than putting on a hooded robe and waving around a toy lightsaber (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Becoming one who can even begin to resemble the real life equivalent of a Jedi takes enormous work and commitment, with little immediate gratification but much potential for long term fulfillment, and I thought these essays did a pretty good job in conveying that.

The other thing I really appreciated was the way some of these authors try to get readers to think about potentially uncomfortable topics through the comforting prism of a cherished franchise. Who, for instance, doesn’t love R2-D2 and C-3PO?  But what about the Trade Federation Droids? Do you love them? One of the biggest complaints, after all, about the prequel films involved the battle scenes between all the masked clones and generic, CGI droids – i.e. there’s nothing to care about or root for. But Jim Davies’ “Droids, Minds, and Why We Care” gets us to see how we often create mental constructs that allow us to view those of other sociocultural groups as somehow not worthy of our empathy, Star Wars droids being the politically safe and neutral analogy. But it isn’t a stretch to go from droids to other groups that, in the media and in our daily lives, we  relegate to a lower class in our minds – this can apply to both human and non-human groups like animals, insects or perhaps even the plant kingdom. (Granted, part of the reason no one cared about the droids in the prequels was due to poor characterization in the scripts, but it’s a useful analogy nonetheless.)

Once we decide that other conscious beings are less capable of emotion, intelligence or pain than we are, it becomes easier to justify subjecting them to otherwise unspeakable things. (Disney/LucasFilm)
Once we decide that other conscious beings are less capable of emotion, intelligence or pain than we are, it becomes easier to justify subjecting them to otherwise unspeakable things. (Disney/LucasFilm)

The aforementioned “Grief and Masculinity” by Billy San Juan and “Was Darth Vader Evil or Scared?” by Frank Gaskill do an excellent job of exploring the many complex nuances within the traditionally dualistic conflict between Jedi and Sith, good and evil, and how in a way we are all collectively responsible for much of the “evil” in our world. Consider, for instance, the anger and violence that men often resort to when undergoing emotional distress, not due to an inherent flaw of their gender, but largely due to gender-based cultural conditioning that limits the range of behavior that men see as being permissible while buckling under stress: crying is for “girls and babies,” and while being aggressive isn’t desirable either at least it doesn’t threaten their sense of masculine identity or make others see them as less manly. (Nowadays we demonize men for their aggressive tendencies as well, instead of approaching the problem with compassion and an understanding of the big picture, thus depriving them of any of the ways that they know how to process stress and setting the stage for some intense, widespread neurosis.)

For my tastes, this book gets me more eager to see the new film than any trailer or fan discussion online because it gets to the heart of why I even care about Star Wars in the first place. It’s not the intricate details, the expansive lore, or questions of what’s canon and what’s not that I care about. Those things are fun, but ultimately it’s the values and ideas that are explored in these stories that make me love Star Wars.

A fan of Star Wars, you are? Then check out Star Wars Psychology, you should. And if you’re a psychology buff, especially, this is most certainly the Star Wars book you’re looking for.

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.

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