One-Punch Man: A Study in Crowd Psychology



By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

On the surface, One-Punch Man appears to be a slapstick riff on the superhero genre. In fact, you could say it’s trolling the superhero genre. But to think it’s nothing beyond that is the ultimate troll because what they are making fun of isn’t the superhero genre, it's us—the general public. (And the folks these content creators have to deal with online.) Though the animation is fictional, for better or worse, the human psychology is all too real.

Even if you have never seen or heard of the One-Punch Man phenomena (now available on Netflix), you can still take away some valuable insight—for One-Punch Man is really a thought experiment, with the superhero being a familiar vehicle to magnify our psychological foibles: Even when confronted with undeniable truth, who is to say we wouldn't deny it?

What if you were the world’s most powerful person, so powerful that you could defeat any foe with one punch, but you didn’t look all that tough? Would people believe you?

In the genre, typically, the superpowered protagonist is immediately respected and admired. Once that became stale, the genre has played around with the twist of: what if the public is fearful of his or her power? However, the assumption remains the same, that this is a superpowered being, but our opinions about this power is what is now fickle. The underlying premise is still: People are reasonable actors who accept facts but have different concerns over those facts. But that's a bold presumption; why should people accept facts when they so often do not? The creator of One-Punch Man, who uses the anonymous pseudonym One, makes no such assumption. He posits that people might not believe a superhero to be powerful at all. We are just as fickle about facts as we are about vegetables. Using an anonymous alias, the creator is familiar with trolls and people’s ability to gaslight their reality—he doesn't want what happens to One-Punch Man to happen to him. His other work, Mob Psycho 100, is even more overt in its criticism of mob (crowd) psychology. Which makes you wonder if most other science fiction creators are no different than the crowd, in denial of the facts of the world (if facts work, why don't we use stats and graphs with our children?)—that people believe what they want to believe.

It does not matter how far science has come, superstition and belief in magic will remain. (We will someday get to Mars and half the planet will still think the world is 5,000 years old.)

No matter what One-Punch Man AKA Saitama does, no one believes he is all that powerful, and any story saying otherwise is considered fake news. When he lifts a bus? Photoshop. When he leaps over a building? Special effects. Moon landing? Fake. The Earth being round? Fake. News that disagrees with our beliefs? Fake. After all, look at him. He’s not even famous, if he were that powerful he would be famous, people would have heard of him. You can’t be famous unless you are already famous, and if you’re not already famous, you can’t be famous. You can only be famous for being famous. And fame is proof that you are special.

Famous people are like cartoons, and Saitama seems too normal, which makes him fake and fake people, unlike cartoons, are not real. Are you keeping up? Let me give you a better example: we turn Kim Kardashian into Jessica Rabbit, and since she's Jessica Rabbit she must be real. You have to be a caricature of a person to be considered a real person. And if it's too mundane, if a politician or a news station or an explanation is too mundane, it's fake. Reality is larger than life, so normal life then is not reality. One-Punch Man asks: Why would you be accepted for being who you are if everyone is crazy? You have to put on a performance just to be real. (Ask yourself this question, how much of who you think you are is really you and how much of it is performance?)

Also, Saitama never takes credit for anything he does, he does it nonchalantly and moves on. But in the online and social media app culture, if there’s no Instagram-selfie with caption and hashtags, it didn't happen. Humblebrag and inauthentic is the new authentic.

What about bad guys who pretend to be heroes? Since they are famous and they say they are heroes, and take immediate credit, they are heroes. If you don’t say anything and let your actions speak for themselves, you’re a fraud. (People need to be told what to think and believe.)

Truth is whoever yells first and loudest—literally. One guy, Tanktop Tiger, just started yelling really loudly, making up lies that Saitama was a villain. But since he was so loud and since he pointed his index finger at Saitama, and because his brother, Tanktop Black Hole, joined in, people believed them.

  Hey, those guys are really loud, so they must be extra honest and know stuff! Proof? Look! He's pointing his finger at him. What further proof do you need?

Hey, those guys are really loud, so they must be extra honest and know stuff! Proof? Look! He's pointing his finger at him. What further proof do you need?

But, then, even when Saitama does something undeniably epic and heroic, it only takes one troll to turn him into a jerk.

  Shit! You say he’s not that tough? He’s also a cheater? Did you hear that?

Shit! You say he’s not that tough? He’s also a cheater? Did you hear that?

And since rumors are kind of like insider knowledge, it’s something the public’s ego would rather believe than the obvious truth, that Saitama just destroyed a giant monster with one punch and saved everyone’s lives. But that’s mainstream news. You can’t trust that; you can only trust rumors. That’s where the truth is. (Don't believe your eyes, believe that shady guy instead!)

When asked about the source of his power, when Saitama tells the truth, that he just trained and incrementally increased his strength, no one believes him. (We don't even like hearing about that with weight loss.) We want to hear something fantastical, we want conspiracies, that he's a secret government project or is an alien sent to our planet on a secret mission. It can't be as boring as just happening in a natural way over time. That's like a building falling because over time the foundations just wore out, and that sounds like a lie! Gradual is a lie! The truth is, it was some secret plot to undermine our safety! If the choice for truth is between: A) I was mistaken or B) I am right, and there is a cover-up, many folks will choose B. That way I remain infallible and the ultimate purveyor of truth. And that is the theme of One-Punch Man, that truth is a choice, not an undeniable fact.

Just because you are a superhero doesn't mean people will believe you are a superhero. Don't assume anything is a given.

And if that is your worldview, it makes sense you choose to remain anonymous. And if you ever did reveal yourself to your fans, they would never believe you anyway. Because who are you? You're just a regular dude. And we expect truth to jolt our body like a lightning bolt, not confront us nonchalantly and move on.

So what are you to do if this is the world you live in? What do people do when confronted with truth and find out what they believe is wrong? We assume wrongly it'll change something. But in reality, people don't care. (We believe people care about truth when most people are apathetic to truth. Lies are much cooler.)

Oh, that meme I made isn't true? I don't care.

 This has become a popular meme online even though many of the folks who share it don't know where it's from. That's the nature of reality.  Why is this a thing? Because it's a thing.

This has become a popular meme online even though many of the folks who share it don't know where it's from. That's the nature of reality. Why is this a thing? Because it's a thing.

So what do you do when you live in a world like this? What do you do if you just lifted a building to save some kittens and someone says, "Eh, that building probably isn't even that heavy." If you're like Saitama, you say, "OK..." and go on with your day.

That's how Saitama does it, he is indifferent to their indifference and Stoic as fuck... most of the time. Unless he misses a really big sale at the supermarket.

He's still only a man.

(And maybe that's it—only places to buy stuff can be super and only stuff can be special.)

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