“What Would Batman Do?” – The (Stoic) Use of Role Models
I’m a terrible example.
A few times a week Nils and I play football (with the feet; also known as “soccer”) on the artificial turf pitch of the nearby school. (We live in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, atm.)
Often, Egyptian school kids come and want to play. They don’t really speak English, but it’s obvious they want to play. So we let them help.
The only problem? It’s much, much less fun to play with the kids. No offense, but they suck (not more than I did in their age).
So the last time we went there to play football, I said beforehand, “Today, I want to play alone. No kids.”
(There are two large pitches and they’re always free, so enough space for everybody.)
We got there and after 30 seconds there were already kids coming to play with us. But we didn’t let them and kept on playing for ourselves. (It was a good game, Nils won, though.)
However, the decision to play alone was pretty egoistic, right?
That's why I had a bad feeling about it. So when we walked back, I asked, “Well, what’s the right thing to do then?”
- Play 1 vs 1: A lot of fun and great intensity
- Play 2 vs a bunch of kids (favored playing form of the kids): Not much fun and zero intensity
Now, the answer didn’t come immediately. It seemed to us that while it’s egoistic it’s also reasonable to play alone and have much more fun and training ourselves. Plus, we wouldn’t go there to play with the kids.
Later that day, I thought I’ve found the right answer to that football-kids problem. Before we get to that answer, I want to say how I got there.
What Would the Sage Do? – Contemplation of the Stoic Sage
Struggling to find the right answer (insofar there is a right answer) I wondered what the Stoics would have done. They probably would have asked:
“What would the Sage do?”
The Stoics used the concept of the Sage as a hypothetical ideal to contemplate and measure themselves against.
Aspiring Stoics want to make progress towards perfect wisdom by contemplating the Sage. They try to do what the Sage would do, and at the same time keep in mind that it’s impossible to reach that perfect ideal.
Epictetus, the great Stoic teacher, advised his students to look up to Socrates, probably the person who came closest to a Sage, “Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything that he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
So, to get out of my football-kids dilemma I asked myself this question, “What would the Sage do?”
Here’s the answer I came up with:
Let the kids play with us. They have a lot of fun, and I should be able to get pleasure from that. What example am I if I don’t let them play with us? The other option would be to finish our game, and let them help afterwards. Say, we play for ten minutes for ourselves, and then we play twenty minutes with the kids. That’s still pretty fair in my eyes. Also, we could agree to play with them with one of us each in a team.
Haha, quite some thoughts behind just playing football…
Anyway, there are some awesome studies about this role model idea with Batman, much cooler than the hypothetical Stoic Sage.
“What Would Batman Do?” – This Question Improved Behavior in 5 Year Olds
Not many people know about the Stoic Sage.
So this ideal might not be the perfect role model in today’s superhero society.
There are some interesting studies with kids asking, “What would Batman do?” And as long as there isn’t a comic with the Stoic Sage, Batman or other superheroes might be a better known and more concrete role model not only for kids but for adults, too.
(The three studies we’ll look at now show some interesting tendencies. However, the research is at an early stage and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. I just think they’re cool and make intuitive sense.)
This study measured the influence of self-distancing on executive function in three and five year olds. In short, executive function has to do with managing one’s resources in order to achieve a goal.
Now, increased distance from self (through a third person perspective on the self or an exemplar like Batman) improved executive function in five year olds.
Think: If I was Batman, what would I do?
In another study young children were asked to do a repetitive task for ten minutes while having the option to take breaks to play a video game. Across the ages children improved perseverance when they impersonated an exemplar other such as Batman.
In this cool study with six to twelve year olds, Batman played a major role again. In very short, the question “What would Batman eat?” could let the kids make a healthier food choice (apple slices over French fries in the study).
It’s well possible that self-distancing through taking the perspective of an exemplar (the Stoic Sage, Batman, or whoever you think is worth emulating) can let us make better choices.
Now, why is that so?
Why Self-Distancing Helps Us Make Better Decisions
By asking, “What would Batman do?” you bring some space in between first impression and response.
In other words, you bring awareness into the situation.
As Nils said in his book Stop Procrastinating, “The first step toward any serious and lasting change is awareness. Without awareness, change is at best luck-based or incidental. Think about it: If you’re not aware of what’s going wrong in your life, how are you going to fix it? If you don’t realize how, when, where, and why you procrastinate, how are you going to prevent it?”
For the Stoics contemplating the Sage was a way of gaining some distance/space which prevented them from mindlessly following their first impressions. They wanted to be at the steering wheel of their actions and always choose their response with reason so they needed to be able to not get carried away by impressions.
Epictetus advised, “Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression, but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me try you.’”
Test your impressions and postpone your response until later. For example, if I have the impression that I don’t want to play football with the kids, then I could wait a second and check whether that’s a good impression. And when I then ask what Batman would do in this situation, it becomes clear to me that I let them play with us.
I basically refuse to go with the automatic response but check it first.
Saying “Impression, wait for me a little” brings distance. The impression is only an impression. It doesn’t need to be right. We need to check it first.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) they call this ability “cognitive distance” or “distancing.” According to psychotherapist Donald Robertson cognitive distance “has become an increasingly important aspect of modern CBT. [Cognitive distance] refers to the ability to see our thoughts as just thoughts, hypotheses about reality, rather than confusing them with facts.”
I find it’s interesting to see how ancient philosophical strategies are used in modern therapies. There’s growing research about this. (Read more about it here.)
In short, asking what Batman would do can be helpful because it brings awareness into the situation and we gain time to check our impressions and choose our best response.
Now, let’s expand this a little in the next point.
Choose Yourself a Cato – The Role Models in Your Life
“’We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.’ This, my dear Lucilius, is Epicurus’ advice, and in giving it he has given us a guardian and a moral tutor – and not without reason, either: misdeeds are greatly diminished if a witness is always standing near intending doers.” – Seneca
In letter XI of the book Letters from a Stoic Seneca gave Lucilius this great advice concerning role models.
Keep someone who you admire constantly watching you in everything you do. If that’s Batman, then act like he’s watching you. This will bring awareness into your daily life and let you deliberately choose your actions.
In that way, Batman, your mother, or some other exemplar can help you improve yourself even when just in your thoughts.
Seneca goes on, “So choose yourself a Cato… Choose someone whose way of life as well as words… have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.”
Cato the Younger was a Roman politician with incredible self-discipline. His bold and brave defense of the Republic against Julius Caesar made him an often cited exemplar philosopher.
So choose yourself a Cato. As Seneca said, “Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.” I’m not saying you’re particularly crooked, but as my football-kids example showed, we all are a bit crooked and can use some help from wise people (dead or alive).
This is something I find very intriguing about books (read more!). Many texts of the wisest people who ever lived on this planet are accessible for all of us. At almost no costs! (My newest acquirement Tribe of Mentors was a bit more expensive, but when you count the work Tim Ferriss put in it, it’s a steal.)
Many people spent all their lives getting smarter and finding certain things out, and we can read it all in one weekend… I believe we shouldn’t be naïve and try to learn everything by ourselves when there are so many wise people we can learn from.
What’s even cooler is that we can choose who to learn from. Isn’t that great? When we grow up, we need to learn from our parents and teachers who might not be perfect role models, but as soon as we grow older we can pick who to learn from. Some choose to learn from the Stoics, others from superstars like Musk, Klum, or Federer, and others choose to watch Jersey Shore…
It’s up to you who to let into your mind. Choose yourself a Cato, and choose wisely.
Now How to Use All This? Be Humble!
“Throw out your conceited opinions, for it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” – Epictetus
Thinking that we already know is dangerous as it prevents us from getting any better.
That’s why we need to cultivate a humble beginner’s mind. No matter how many books you’ve read and how much you think to know, if you want to get better and learn from the wise, be humble.
For most of us that’s true: We are worse than we think we are.
And remember, it’s not about how good you already are, it’s about getting better and improving yourself. To do that, you need to be humble. End of story.
So find yourself role models. The good ones are hard to find in real person. This is why I have most role models in books and podcasts – Dave Asprey, Epictetus, or Roger Federer – that’s how they’re available to me.
Negative role models on the other hand can be found everywhere. Use them as an example how not to end up.
Keep your positive role models always ready in mind. Wear a ring that reminds you of them, put their photo on your nightstand, or keep their quote in your wallet. When you find yourself at a crossroad in everyday life, ask what they would do:
- “What would Batman do?”
- “What would the Stoic Sage do?”
- “What would the perfect mother do?”
- “What would Kobe Bryant do?”
- “What would Oprah do?”
- “What would Jesus do?”
It can be highly beneficial when you have someone you admire watching over your actions.
Bring more awareness into your life and seek help from the wisest among us. Let some time pass between your first impression and your chosen action.
Now tell me in the comments below: Who do you have in mind as a role model?