The Social Psychology Of The “Spock” Phenomenon
It tugged at my heart when I read the news that Leonard Nimoy died, at age 83. Mr. Nimoy’s “Spock” character in the short-lived but long-lasting impactful Star Trek series definitely fulfilled his destiny to “live long and prosper.” And based on various accounts, Mr. Nimoy was a fine, multi-talented human being.
I am by no means a sci-fi aficionado, but I have enjoyed a few sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows. As a social scientist, I am always intrigued by the social psychological aspects of these stories (the scientific propositions, though fascinating and certainly fun to speculate, can be at times too fantastic).
Seen through modern lens, and perhaps even from the perspective of the late 60s when the series ran, Star Trek seemed campy. So why and how did the series gain such faithful followers? I don’t mean just the generic “crazy” fans, but people who were, and still are, genuinely engaged in the episodes and characters. While each character in the series captured audiences’ hearts and souls, the half human – half Vulcan Spock definitively won a much larger reception worldwide.
From the “readers’ comments” to articles on Mr. Nimoy’s death (a sample is listed below), I lost count of how many expressing sentiment such as, “You inspired me to pursue science.” According to Mr. Nimoy’s account of his own encounters with fans over the decades, that was a common refrain. A TV series, a fictitious character, somehow manages to produce such a lasting impact that reaches across the globe. A teacher’s wildest dream. Or, as Mr. Spock would say about such a phenomenon, “Fascinating.”
I am sure that the timing of the series had something to do with it, being a decade after Sputnik. While Sputnik had already sparked an uptick in the country’s collective fever for scientific study, Star Trek ignited growing young minds’ imagination in a way that Sputnik did not. Spock embodies “the logical scientist” without messy human emotional baggage. Yet his thirst for knowledge also includes understanding human emotions. He doesn’t always accept these emotions, but he tries to learn about them. As a result, Spock is never clueless, and he made being smart truly cool.
There have been many comments on the “diversity” impact of the series, again embodied by Spock. Because of his inter-species background, many people of minority backgrounds have sought comfort, inspiration, and wisdom in the character. It is usually his unemoting deliberation when explaining social psychological dynamics that allows reason and dignity to coexist. So, while the Spock character is an invention and “unreal,” somehow, he comes across totally believable. And Captain Kirk was right to say that of all the souls he had known, Spock was the most human.
Personally, I find in the Spock character a pursuit of purpose and determination to make a difference in the universe that is most engaging. And he would pursue making changes by changing circumstances rather than throwing his weight around. He never uses “because I am smart (or, my IQ is N, in the stratosphere)” to stop or win an argument, even though he was almost always right. He was never self-centered but always listened to others’ ideas…before refuting them logically. Yet, he was willing to concede in matters that were emotional, illogical, irrational, without denigrating his human counterparts.
Compared to the current crop of TV shows that pretend to celebrate the cerebral talents of self-absorbed infants (I am thinking of Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory”), Spock is the genius with genuine mature humanity. For every scientist out there inspired by Spock, Cooper probably lost three.
Granted the Spock character was not invented by Mr. Nimoy but by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original TV series, yet, it was Mr. Nimoy who brought Spock to life, and made him more real than Roddenberry’s original writing. Like many fans, I cherish Star Trek, and particularly the unique Spock. And in learning a little bit more about Mr. Nimoy, I am thankful that such a beautiful human being walked among us for a while.
I wonder what effects Star Trek would have on the current generation. What do you think?
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
Direct Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
- NYTimes (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/arts/television/leonard-nimoy-spock-of-star-trek-dies-at-83.html)
- Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/02/28/the-touching-tribute-to-leonard-nimoy-from-space/?wpisrc=nl_optimist&wpmm=1)
- Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! (http://www.npr.org/podcasts/344098539/wait-wait-don-t-tell-me)
Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.