My next project on PW is to post up the Biological Approach material on aggression - which means it's time to talk about the Incredible Hulk.
There's something about Ol' Greenskin that 9-year-old boys just adore and I was that kid!
Then, back in the '70s, the Hulk was on TV! That show, with it's weepy cello theme and sensitive Bill Bixby/raging Lou Ferrigno performance, put the Hulk in the public imagination for a generation.
No apologies need be made for the cheesy '70s production values, but that TV show brought a thoughtfulness to the comic strip monster - as well as Bill Bixby's wonderful line:
... don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry
But the show brought another set of ideas to its portrayal of the Hulk:
The comic had always had the cute idea that the Hulk got stronger as he got angrier. The TV show made this into the theme that the Hulk was some sort of expression of Dr Banner's inner rage - a rage that is inside all of us, but doesn't come out as a slo-mo green-skinned giant the way it does with him.
Is that true? Are we really bundles of pent-up rage waiting to explode?
This is a psychological idea that we can trace back to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud proposed that all of us have violent conflicts going on inside us, in our "unconscious minds". Freud originally declared that these conflicts are based on our feelings for our parents; we experience violent love and violent hatred towards our mother and father, but we repress these feelings and deny them. When we reach adulthood, all this repressed anger comes out in strange ways. It could come out as bursts of temper but also in more disguised forms: as irrational urges, fears and phobias, nightmares, illnesses and obsessions.
After the First World War, Freud's view got even gloomier. He started speculating that there is an inbuilt destruct force in human minds. He called this force "thanatos".
No, that's THANOS. He's the bad guy from "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Avengers". But there's a link, because "thanatos" is the Ancient Greek spirit of death and super-villain "Thanos" worships death (hence the name). See what you can learn from superhero films?
So Freud thinks we all have this "thanatos" urge to destroy ourselves and, even if it didn't originally come from our messed-up feelings about our parents, our messed-up feelings about our parents have only made it worse.
But we don't just go and kill ourselves or trash civilisation, do we? No. We have ego defence mechanisms that stop us doing that. We lash out at substitutes instead. We don't even attack our parents: we have substitutes for them too.
What sort of substitutes? Well, maybe stuff like this:
Quite a range there. You've got stuff that channels aggression constructively (like working out) or destructively (like vandalism); in fun ways (like violent videos or films) and not-so-fun ways (like bitchiness). Even taking up smoking, which you know will upset your parents, is based on aggression.
Some people find Freud's ideas pretty persuasive, and if you've got a bit of a temper or you've ever found yourself in the grip of irrational urges, you may too. Is the Hulk just an allegory for the aggression in the unconscious mind?
Freud's theory is sometimes called the "hydraulic" model of personality. This is because it represents the mind as a bit like a steam cooker or a boiler. The pressure builds up and builds up. You've got to vent it, otherwise... KA-BOOM! You "Hulk out"!
Freud calls this release of pent-up aggression "catharsis" (another Greek word) and he thinks we can get it in all sorts of ways. Obviously, straightforward violent behaviour is cathartic, but most of us have defence mechanisms that stop us doing that. Physical sport is a good substitute... but just watching physical sport works too. You can get catharsis from anything that lets your aggression out, like a Boss-fight in a video game, a bitchy put-down on social media or dropping a crisp packet right next to the "NO LITTERING" sign.
That's the appeal of the Hulk solved, is it? He's a Freudian superhero. He's catharsis in-action?
The recent (2003, 2008) films and the Avengers movies have much better production values than the '70s TV show, but they haven't portrayed the Hulk quite so thoughtfully.
OK, he gets a funny scene.
What am I saying? He gets a couple of funny scenes...
You realise that, if you smile at the Hulk's violence, then that's catharsis in action inside you? Your laughter is your own aggression venting - it feels good, right?
But there is a quirky, serious moment, when Banner reveals his secret for keeping the Hulk under control:
He's always angry?
Freud would be so proud. Freud came to the conclusion that most of his patients suffered from all sorts of problems because they couldn't admit to their unconscious feelings of rage and sex and fear. He developed a technique called psychoanalysis to help patients understand their unconscious conflicts and come to terms with them. Once you acknowledge your anger, it loses its destructive power. You control it: it no longer controls you.
So maybe the recent movie-Hulks do follow on from the '70s TV-Hulk after all. As the TV intro used to say each week, Banner must
find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him
And that way turns out to be Freudian psychology.
Hold on a moment. Not everyone buys into Freud's ideas. Other psychologists were quick to attack Freud's theory, particularly behaviourists like John B. Watson who distrusted the whole idea of an invisible, unobservable "unconscious mind". In his 1920 study of Little Albert, Watson goes out of his way to reject the idea that phobias are caused by pent-up fear of sex or death.
Albert Bandura went a step further and put the whole idea of catharsis to the test. In his Bobo Doll studies, Bandura wants to see if letting children "vent" aggression by watching an adult behave aggressively will have the effect of making them all calm and contented.
No, the opposite happens. The children get more aggressive if they watch an aggressive role model.
To be fair to the Hulk, the comic books used to take a behaviourist view too. The Hulk was always leaping off to the desert of New Mexico or the Pacific Coast forests to sit and mope. But then the US Army would come after him with some newfangled "Hulkbuster" superweapon (which never worked) and Hulk would have to start smashing.
So you see, it's also true that Hulk LEARNED to be aggressive from us puny humans rather than having aggression inside him from the start. Watson and Bandura would be so proud!
So we're back where we started. Maybe aggression comes from some "raging spirit" inside us - or maybe it's something we learn from our environment. It's probably a bit of both.
Maybe in a future blog, I should think about whether being orphaned at an early age really does tend to make billionaires want to become Batman.
The Psychology Wizard is Jonathan Rowe. I'm a teacher and writer, living in the Fens of Lincolnshire. It sure is flat here. I'm writing a Roman Horror Novel at the moment. Check out Tinderspark and The Thief Of Faces if you fancy a good read.