Jedi Mind Tricks: Scientists Probe the Psychology of Darth Vader

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Published June 06, 2010

| LiveScience

Anakin Skywalker's eventual transformation into Darth Vader might have more to do with psychological issues than the Force, researchers hint.

The tragic hero of the "Star Wars" prequels displays patterns of instability and impulsivity in the second and third films that make him an obvious candidate for borderline personality disorder (BPD), according to French psychiatrists and psychologists.

The researchers also suspect the traits exhibited by Skywalker might make him more appealing and relatable to teen fans, given that teens may also display certain characteristics of borderline personality disorder.

"I had watched the two prequel movies ["Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith"], and it was during my residency in psychiatry while trying to explain borderline personality disorder to medical students that I thought of Anakin," said Eric Bui, a psychiatrist at Toulouse University Hospital in France.

Bui and his colleagues first presented their diagnosis at the annual convention of the American Psychiatric Association in 2007. Now, their letter to the editor titled "Is Anakin Skywalker suffering from borderline personality disorder?" is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychiatry Research.

Skywalker hit six out of the nine borderline personality disorder criteria as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV). He only needed to meet five criteria to qualify as suffering from the disorder.

A great disturbance in the Force

For instance, the future Darth Vader showed both impulsivity and anger management issues as an overexcited, lovelorn Jedi. He went back and forth between idealizing and devaluing Jedi mentors, such as a humorless young Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Abandonment issues also surfaced. Skywalker had a permanent fear of losing his wife, Padme Amidala, and he went so far as to betray his Jedi mentors and companions to try to prevent her death.

Two displays of dissociative episodes took place when Skywalker tried to distance himself from stressful events. The first episode took place after he slaughtered a local tribe of Tuskens responsible for his mother's death. A second episode occurred following his murderous rampage among young Jedi trainees, as he voiced paranoid thoughts about Obi-Wan Kenobi and his wife.

Lastly, any "Star Wars" fan would recognize Skywalker's identity issues and uncertainty about who he was. His fateful turn to the dark side and change of name to Darth Vader could represent the ultimate sign of such identity disturbance, the researchers said.

The future Darth Vader would also still qualify as a "borderline type" under the revised guidelines of the DSM-V, which will serve as the new bible for psychiatry.

"From what we know of the future DSM-V, Anakin is a "good" to "very good" match to the future BPD," Bui told LiveScience.

Searching for balance

Skywalker's case of borderline personality disorder has proven useful for both Bui and Rachel Rodgers, a researcher at the Center for Studies and Research in Applied Psychology in France. They have used the "Star Wars" example to teach their students for the past few years, and noted that such a famous fictional example could spread awareness.

The researchers also suggested that the success of the "Star Wars" prequel films might partially rely upon how teens can relate to the troubled Anakin Skywalker. Only adults can be diagnosed with to borderline personality disorder under the current DSM-IV guidelines, but Bui and Rodgers pointed to several studies that suggest the disorder is fairly frequent among teens.

Either way, the situation in the "Star Wars" prequels seems clear to Bui. He pointed out that the emperor's dark and destabilizing influence upon a young Skywalker might have even exacerbated the symptoms of borderline personality disorder.

But like any good doctor, Bui also has a treatment recommendation.

"I believe that psychotherapy would have helped Anakin and might have prevented him from turning to the dark side," Bui said. "Using the dark side of the Force could be considered as similar to drug use: It feels really good when you use it, it alters your consciousness and you know you shouldn’t do it."

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