Comic-Book Superheroes and Prosocial Agency: A Large-Scale Quantitative Analysis of the Effects of Cognitive Factors on Popular Representations

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture

Abstract

We argue that the counterfactual representations of popular culture, like their religious cognates, are shaped by cognitive constraints that become visible when considered in aggregate. In particular, we argue that comic-book literature embodies core intuitions about sociality and its maintenance that are activated by the cognitive problem of living in large groups. This leads to four predictions: comic-book enforcers should (1) be punitively prosocial, (2) be quasi-omniscient, (3) exhibit kin-signalling proxies and (4) be minimally counterintuitive. We gauge these predictions against a large sample of 19,877 characters that were derived from 72,611 comics using data scraping techniques. Our results corroborate the view that cognitive constraints exercise a selective effect on the transmission of popular culture.

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