The Psychology of Star Wars: A New Hope

Impregnation of space stations? Wookies in Skinner boxes? Are Jedi-knights a cult of self-actualization? Let’s find out!

Foreword

This was a paper I wrote for my high school psychology 101 class somewhere in the late 1980s. I’ve kept it floating around on my computer for more than 30 years now. I recall being quite proud of it. As the 9th movie in the trilogy was being released, I thought I’d revisit it and share it publicly. 

My goal was to edit it as I would for another writer who wanted minimal changes, making only small modifications to improve readability and correct errors. I wanted to preserve the overall style and thinking of my teenage self, but with the benefit of modern spell checking and a semi-professional editor.

My goal in writing the paper was to highlight as many possible connections as possible rather than to express my earnest opinion about what the film truly means. Consider these ideas as possibilities rather than me making an argument for their validity. The essay also assumes you are familiar with terms related to the psychological disciplines discussed. The primary goal was to demonstrate I’d been paying attention in class and could apply the concepts we’d learned.

I’m happy to say the writing itself is pretty decent, though the spelling was abysmal. I think it makes for an interesting and mostly enjoyable read if you are a fan of “A New Hope.”

Be forewarned. When discussing psychoanalysis there is some clinical sexual language used. 

The Psychology of Star Wars

Star Wars: “A New Hope” is the most popular movie of all time (at the time this was written).  In order to gain this prestigious position, it must have some appeal to the public. What could that appeal be? Well, there is no doubt that somehow this movie strikes a chord within many of us so that we can identify with. It represents our feelings and desires down to the lowest common denominators. It puts them in a setting so remote that they can’t possibly be offensive.

What would the leading psychological disciplines have to say about this film? What would they see in this seemingly straight forward movie? Those are precisely the questions this essay will attempt to answer. We will discuss Star Wars in terms of three different psychological disciplines.  The are Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, and Humanism.

Psychoanalysis

Firstly we will discuss the possible psychoanalytic interpretations of Star Wars. Freud would have really enjoyed this film. Even the very theme of this movie fits in nicely with analysis. It is a struggle of good vs. evil, the rebellion vs. the empire, or in analysis the ego vs. the id. The struggles between Luke and Vader are much like the struggles each of us make within our own minds. And of course, the ego is eventually victorious giving us all hope for victory in our personal struggles.

Aside from this basic theme, there are many other things in the film that can be linked to psychoanalysis. One might notice that most of the helmets worn by the warriors of both sides resemble the tips of penises. These warriors could represent potency and power as phallic symbols for the sides that they fight on. The fact that these soldiers seem to get slaughtered wholesale might be interpreted as a castration fear on the part of those who wrote the film. Since most people identify with the rebels another example of this castration fear is somewhat evident when twice in the movie imperial ships swallow up rebel ships, which are another representation of potency and power.

Other forms of symbolism are abundant in Star Wars. There are a variety of monsters and aliens in the film.  These might represent various aggressive and sexual desires coming from our ids present in our lives. In Star Wars they can be seen as well as felt. 

Another interesting bit of symbolism is the scene in which our heroes find themselves in a garbage compactor. It could be seen as a womb into which they try to escape from almost certain death. They climb back into this room through a long narrow shoot. This might be akin to climbing back in through the vagina. Once there, they have a traumatic experience in which the walls of this womb start closing in on them. This could be seen as a reenactment of birth. This is considered to be a traumatic experience in everyone’s life and thus creates great empathy with the audience. 

One of the most important bits of symbolism in the film was the end in which young Luke destroys the death star. It can be seen as a triumphant sexual act in which Luke navigates the narrow channel in his powerful space ship delivering the potent photon torpedoes into the small hole at the end of the canal. The ship being a phallic symbol enters the vagina, or death star canal, and delivers the sperm causing the death star to explode in what might be interpreted as an orgasm. Upon completion of this act, Luke is triumphant and is considered a full-grown man by his peers. It’s this kind of thing that makes Star Wars such a deeply satisfying film for young men.

One more interesting thing to note is that Ben closely resembles the stereotypical Freud character.  He talks with a slight German accent. He attempts to guide Luke to his destiny, and most importantly he holds the key to Luke’s past in terms of his father.

Defense mechanisms are present throughout the movie. The makers of the film practice sublimation when they decided to put the stormtroopers in body armor. It made them appear to not be human and thus for the rebels to shoot them was not as murderous. 

Luke practices rationalization when he says, “There is nothing I can do about the empire right now,” as an explanation as to why he won’t leave Tantoween. He is merely giving that when in reality he is properly afraid.

Hans Solo also rationalizes. When he failed to convince a security officer that he was a stormtrooper he destroyed the intercom and said, “That conversation was no fun anyway.”  Clearly, he is trying to protect his own self-esteem. In shooting the intercom he is practicing displacement because it is himself that he is really angry with.

There are many other examples of rationalization as well. When Luke feels guilty about Ben’s death Leah attempts to help out by offering a rationalization for Luke. She says, “There was nothing you could do.” It’s possible that in doing so she was practicing projection by saying Luke felt guilty when it was herself who was feeling that way.

Even the robot C3PO rationalizes. When R2D2 went off to battle, C3PO said, “You’ve got to come back. My life would be boring if you didn’t.”  He was merely rationalizing the fact that he cared about his friend. An unknown rebel fighter pilot does it when he exclaims, “They came at us from behind.” He was merely making an excuse for why he didn’t win the fight. 

One of the imperial officers practices denial when he says that the Jedi are extinct. Clearly, he fears them and his subconscious has convinced him that they no longer exist. Luke attempts denial when he remarks about Ben’s death saying, “I can’t believe he is gone.”

As for the members of the empire in general and especially Darth Vader, it could be said that they practice displacement. They attack others when it is themselves they want to destroy. This is probably because they feel very guilty about something.

As we can see almost everyone has at least a slightly weak ego except perhaps Ben. This would tend to say that the Jedi Knights are in great mental health, having very strong egos. Another interesting note is the lightsaber. It is a very phallic object indeed. It extends when its power is invoked and is carried as a symbol of authority by those who use the force. 

Now we will take a look at some of the main characters of the film and through psychoanalysis examine their possible childhoods.

Luke has some interesting traits and is the youngest of the cast. We know that he had only step parents during his childhood. Although he is somewhat aggressive and brash he is not so brash as to qualify him to be oral or oedipal fixated. He does have a sort of Oedipus complex that carries into his adult life. His mother is never mentioned in the film but his father is. He was supposedly once a Jedi knight who was killed by Vader. However, there were strong hints that Vader was his father which in later movies turns out to be true. 

It was possible that Luke’s subconscious pick up this fact while his conscious does not or at least denies the fact which would be harmful to Luke’s ego. As we know, Luke eventually does kill his father. If his mother was present it would have been a perfect example, but as is it is still obviously an oedipal complex. This is, of course, an unconscious act. If Luke had believed that Vader was his father he might not have been so motivated. 

Hans is a slightly less healthy individual. He is overconfident and arrogant to an extreme. This puts him as being oedipal phallic fixated. He is also demanding and when presented with an opportunity for a romantic relationship with Leah, he is aggressive and somewhat abusive towards her. This would show that he is also orally fixated. At least he is not anally fixated as is evident by his rather disorganized and dilapidated space ship.  Ericson would have probably would have considered him to have failed the intimacy vs. isolation phase due to the way he reacts to Leah. This is also evident in his preference for money over other types of rewards. Hans also is dependant upon his ship as a symbol of power.  

Princes Leah also has similar traits and thus similar fixations to those of Hans solo except that she might not have failed the intimacy stage as she is affectionate to everyone except Hans. 

Behavioralism 

Now we will discuss Star Wars in behavioral terms.  This film holds no outstanding examples of behaviorism as it does with psychoanalysis, but as with all things it is aperient. We will look at some individual behaviors and some instances that demonstrate schedules of reinforcement and the like.

One of the more interesting behaviors in Star Wars is the tendency to shoot stormtroopers on sight. Since this doesn’t always happen it is not totally classical in nature, but the speed and ease with which our heroes do this argues that it is in at least some part classical conditioning.  The unconditioned stimulus would be having been shot at by a stormtrooper or seeing them shoot at someone. The unconditioned response would be to defend yourself or to see someone defending themselves. The conditioned stimulus would then be seeing a stormtrooper and the response would be to shoot at him before he shoots you. The operant conditioning would likely involve weather or not that trooper is likely to shoot at you.

Another behavior or lack thereof is the casualness that humans in the film view aliens and monsters with. We would be very surprised indeed to walk into the corner bar and see Boba Fett chugging down a few cold ones. Unless of course, we’ve had a few ourselves. This lack of reaction is likely due to desensitization. Having been exposed to these creatures’ successive times and experiencing no ill effects forms a classical response opposite from that which might seem natural.

One behavior that one of the heroes might wish to change is R2D2’s habit of talking to himself.  Being a computer this is likely not necessary, and all those beeps and blips could really annoy others. It is hard to define what sort of reward this behavior yields and thus extinction could not be used to change this behavior. Counter conditioning is probably the only possible solution.  Since computers don’t really need anything a form of punishment would likely be the most successful method for correcting the behavior. Perhaps some shocks of a stern talking to might be effective. Chewbacca tried to alter R2’s behavior of winning at chess by threatening to rip him apart if he won. Counter conditioning was very successful in that instance.

Luke presents an excellent example of operant conditioning in his deciding whether or not to leave Tantoween. Originally he did not want to leave. Against the decision to go were fear for himself, a sense of duty to his parents, and a lack of motivation to fight the empire. When the stormtroopers killed his family the last two reasons for not going turned around and became reasons to leave. He no longer had his family to worry about and he wanted vengeance upon the empire. Of course, he decided to go now that the pluses outweigh the minuses.

As we have observed Chewbacca is a very poor loser. This is not a desirable behavior unless you don’t value your limbs. How might we change this behavior? Operant conditioning would probably be a good method to change this behavior. Build a large skinner box and put the Wookie inside with a chess game and an indestructible robot that is very good at chess.  When beat the Wookie will attack the robot but will eventually learn through experience that it is pointless to attack the victor because it does no good. In other words, you take away the reward for the behavior and that behavior will likely stop. 

Han certainly needs some behavioral adjustment in the way he reacts towards women. Instead of seeking a healthy relationship with the princes he creates a competitive relationship. This would appear to be a classical response, for there are no observable reasons for Hans to act this way. The Conditioned response is to create a competitive relationship. The Conditioned stimulus is meeting an attractive woman. The unconditioned response is to create a competitive relationship. The unconditioned stimulus likely came from his mother in the form of rewarding that kind of behavior in some way. To cure him of this behavior would likely take rewarding successive approximations of more romantic and gentlemanly behavior.

Leha also has some behavioral problems. She tends to be very bossy and tells people what to do even in cases where she doesn’t know what she is talking about. Of course, this behavior is not surprising considering she is a princess and was likely raised to one day rule. Also, she is likely accustomed to having people follow her orders regardless. Her experiences with Hans and some of the mistakes she made during the course of the film will likely serve to alter this behavior. She has learned that not everyone will obey her unconditionally and that her decisions are sometimes the wrong ones. It is interesting to note that when behaviors such as these are incompatible with reality they tend to be self-correcting.

Darth Vader seems to be a big fan of behaviorism and especially counter conditioning. To disobey his orders is to be quickly punished with a painful death. This sort of thing would quickly result in classical responses among his subordinates. Quickly the conditioned response to obey is developed when the stimulus, order and the implied threat of death, is given.  The fact that it becomes a classical response explains the success of rulers like Hitler and Stalin. Certainly, references to the Third Reich can be seen in the empire such as the stormtroopers. Perhaps this helps the audience hate the empire that much more because of how much American culture teaches us to hate the Third Reich.  

Vader, however, is not a true master of counter conditioning. He shows his lack of understanding of the way schedules of reinforcement work when he destroys Leah’s home planet after she tells him the location of the rebel base. Rewards for revealing information should be given out on a fixed ratio. That way in order to avoid the punishment the prisoner will tell a secret whenever a threat is given. When Vader destroyed the planet anyway he established a variable ratio reward system in which the punishment is not dependent upon how much information is given. Clearly, this is not effective for gaining information because there is no reward for the prisoner to encourage him or her to give information.

An interesting schedule of reinforcement is seen a number of times in the film. The situation often arises when a task must be completed within a certain amount of time to receive a reward. The reward is given as soon as the task is completed suggesting a fixed ratio schedule, but if the time limit is exceeded no reward is given even though the work has been done. This suggests an interval type schedule of reinforcement, but which one? A fixed interval doesn’t apply because the reward does not appear because the time is up. In a normal fixed interval situation, the reward would appear whether or not any work had been done.  Variable ratio fits in that the time the reward is given can vary but it doesn’t work because as with fixed interval the reward is not totally dependant on the time factor. So which is it? In actuality, it is a fixed ratio schedule. One must merely define swiftness along with productivity as the definition of work. 

The force provides an excellent demonstration of how we learn. It is seen that using the force is contrary to the way we normally do things. You must trust your instincts and your feelings instead of reasoning through a situation. Ben trains Luke by blindfolding him and having him fight a floating drone equipped with lasers. To avoid getting hit by a laser Luke must block it with his lightsaber. His normal response is to look for the drone and then anticipate the direction of the laser by those means. However, he is blindfolded so whenever he tries this he gets hit.  When he concentrates and uses the force he manages to block the lasers. Thus he learns to trust the force rather than his other senses which saves the day later in the film. He receives an unconditioned stimulus of being in a combat situation and learns the proper conditioned response, to use the force. Later when he encounters this stimulus again the response is more automatic.

Humanism

And now we come to humanism.  Star Wars has a number of humanistic elements in the characters and in the theme of the film as well. Each character in the movie can be looked at in humanistic terms. Especially those of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs.

Firstly let’s look at Hans Solo. Looking at the grumble states Hans ranks low on the list in the safety and security stage. This is clear by his constantly seeking monetary and material rewards over all else. He isn’t looking for love and belonging as is evident in his mild hostility towards everyone except for his partner Chewbacca. It’s not surprising however considering the dangerous nature of his profession. It’s possible that a career change would be the only way to allow him to progress to the next stage. He is also clearly insecure in his self-esteem and his esteem by others. This is evident in his constant bragging and boasting.

Princes Leah does not fit so easily into a given stage. Perhaps the best choice would be self-esteem and esteem by others. She has the higher purpose of the revolution as a self-actualized person does but her constant attempts to boss everyone around tend to show some insecurities. She seems to be trying to make up for her deficiencies by pretending she doesn’t have any instead of accepting them. Perhaps a session with someone like Gestalt would help her be more honest with herself. Or perhaps some unconditional positive regard might be in order. It is likely that as princes she is given conditions of worth in that she is encouraged to take command and lead other people.

Chewbacca is also at the self-esteem level. This is evident by his poor sportsmanship. Clearly, he is very worried about his self-image. His other needs seem to be satisfied. He has a good relationship with Han and seems to feel a sense of belonging there. Furthermore, a Wookie likely does not have to worry about its safety and security so much.

Luke is an interesting character in humanistic terms because his grumble level changes throughout the course of the film. To begin with, he is safe and secure on Tantoween and has a  good relationship with his foster parents. However, he was extremely bored and grumbled for this instead of the usual things. Soon he was presented with an offer to leave Tantoween and help the rebels. This was clearly an exciting opportunity but he decided not to go because he would be losing his safety and security. 

That security is destroyed by the stormtroopers and Luke decides to leave in search of adventure. At first, he is missing that sense of security and grumbles about the dangers involved.  Eventually, he seems to find security in his self-sufficiency and stops grumbling. Of course, his boredom is alleviated almost immediately. Luke also finds a sense of love and belonging in the group of people he is traveling with. He seems to have a good sense of self-worth and is not overly worried about what others think of him. 

It would seem that Luke is well on his way to being self-actualized.  He is young however and his successes may well be temporary ones. He does not yet have the thirty-five years of experience Maslo feels is necessary to be self-actualized. Clearly, it is also these positive traits that make Luke the hero of the film, and the person most people try to identify themselves with.

Ben is probably the only self-actualized character in the film. He has a higher sense of purpose and shows no evidence of grumbling for more than he has. He seems un-artificial and genuine. He seems to trust himself and his feelings. He has few friends and is able to concentrate to a high degree. He is over thirty-five and has led a full life. He seeks to help others and not just himself. Many of these things seem to come from his study of the force.

The force in Star Wars has some interesting implications in humanistic terms. One of the ideas at the center of humanism is the concept of a person as an integrated whole. The force seeks to unite a person with his feelings and the fabric of the universe. There is a parallel there. Also, the ideals of the force fit in well with the ideals of self-actualization. They both put great emphasis on being true to your feelings and not denying your true nature. The force promotes great concentration. Certainly, it must be a peak sort of experience. It even teaches selflessness and compassion for others. In many ways, Luke’s quest to learn the ways of the force is much like a person’s quest to become self-actualized. And when they say the force is strong within him it is interesting to note that he is on his way to self-actualization in terms of levels of attainment.  Ben and Maslo tell us similar things. Ben: “Use the force, let go, trust yourself.”

Final thoughts

In conclusion, Star Wars is a movie that has a great appeal to many people. When we look at it using the major theories of psychology we can see why. Many of the feelings and fundamental human experiences are present within the film. It is also interesting to note the setting has little to do with this while the story, the characters, and symbolism are the important features that convey these messages.

Sigfried

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