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

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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.

Affiliations: 1: Brunel University London ; 2: University of Oxford

* Corresponding author:

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