Personality a weighty influence in weightless space.
Frank Farley, PhD
Mona Sarshar, PhD Candidate
Gravity, the techno-wonder special effects movie, has generated much buzz about Oscar possibilities. It is a masterpiece of computer graphics, virtual reality and special effects, taking the viewer on a roller-coaster ride of fear, excitement and time-compressed challenges! Astronauts working in space to prepare the Hubble telescope, working outside their mother-ship (shuttle) in the floating danger of gravity-free walking, are threatened by an oncoming barrage of space junk produced by a Russian satellite. When the space junk arrives, nothing and nobody will be safe.
The two astronauts at the center of the story are Dr. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock and Matt Kowalsky played by George Clooney. A third astronaut dies early in the violent barrage. The upbeat Clooney character, played with panache and positive psychology, also dies early in the film following his heroic decision to un-hook himself from Bullock’s life-line as remaining connected would probably cost both their lives, with Clooney then floating off into space and certain death. He continues talking with Bullock remotely as he floats further away — advising, encouraging, motivating, until he goes silent, and she must now face alone the ultimate challenge, survival.
The film’s central themes are technology and its terrors (surviving via technology in an alien world, the alliance of human and machine at the extreme of conditions, surviving the machine when entropy sets in, the very real dangers confronting space exploration and travel by space debris both human created and natural), and the human equation in Newton’s world — the psychological and personological factors driving people into space and the contributions of these factors to surviving and thriving there.
The technological challenges confronting Bullock’s character are daunting and so dangerous, massive and overwhelming that her survival and ultimate success in getting back to earth alive, her capsule parachuting into a lake presumably somewhere in China, lacks plausibility, and fails any reasonable test of human capacity. Her survival of this technological and natural horror story is not believable. BUT it allows for some interesting reflections on space exploration, adventure, survival and human personality.
Enter the Type T Personality! A deep quality of the human race is our exploratory, risk-taking, knowledge-seeking side, what the first author has labeled Type T behavior and personality (Farley, 2001), the T standing for thrill-seeking. He has argued that a central feature underlying much risk-taking is simply the excitement value, the thrill of it, and this thrill level, sustained through challenges, creativity, uncertainty, constitutes a meaningful “fully-lived” life. Broadly speaking, there are T mental and T physical processes (of course a relatively arbitrary distinction) with astronauts requiring both, and T positive (healthy) and T negative (destructive) processes also. Not all individuals are T Types; there is a range of such behaviors from small t (extreme risk-aversion, no astronauts here!) to Big T (extreme tolerance for risk). Thus, this film is about T Types in space, showing T qualities of risk-taking, self-confidence, creativity, self-reliance, optimism, and heroism. It has been proposed (Farley, 2010) that two key ingredients of heroism are risk-taking and generosity/altruism. These heroic qualities are particularly well represented in the Clooney character, as noted above. The Bullock character is very much a 21st century T Type woman, highly educated, risk-taking, at the frontier of change and exploration. However, we found her persona to be a touch robotic or lacking expressiveness, too low key to identify strongly with despite the massive exposure in this film. A competent but strangely not very exciting persona. What she DID was exciting, with her persona less so.
To summarize, the film is a technological and special effects wonder, a total thrill ride! It portrays many of the characteristics of Type T behavior against a backdrop of the most dangerous and unpredictable elements imaginable. It is a video game on steroids and a big screen. For us the story itself is fairly thin and probably doesn’t motivate another viewing. BUT it does carry some important messages including human limitation, the fight for survival and that the person is still extremely important in technological functioning in space, a message we psychologists can heartily endorse.
Farley, F. (2001). Theory and practice: A genetic model of creativity and the type T personality complex with educational implications. In M. Lynch & C. R. Harris (Eds.), Fostering creativity in children, K-8: Theory and practice. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Farley, F. (2010). Heroes and heroism. Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, August, San Diego.