The Psychology of The Martian

As always due to the nature of analysis, “The Psychology of the Martian” will contain book (and movie) spoilers. 

The Psychology of The MartianI am a big reader usually, but over the last little while work has been busy and there has just been no opportunity to read anything. That is until I read a thread on The Martian over on Reddit and how it seems to be the flavour of the day (especially with the release of the movie in the last week or so). So I decided to make the effort, about 2 months ago, to read the Martian by Andy Weir to see what all the fuss is about. It is brilliant, a fast paced read with plenty of science and humour interspersed in the action, I would recommend it to anyone.

Now before I go ahead with this, I did try to get Andy Weir on the blog to talk about the book, he did respond (given his fame I didn’t expect any response, so that was cool), but he is too busy at the moment, something about a new book and maybe he was a bit busy with a little movie that was just released of his work…

Selection criteria

From, here is an article looking at the application process to become an astronaut. It isn’t too in depth, but for good reason – a lot of armed forces and those with sensitive issues will not release their absolute criteria to the public, or even make them known to applicants. This is a simple matter and is to ensure that people don’t try to ‘game’ the system and hide things that are otherwise there. The reality is, with most disqualifying criteria, like let’s say mental illness, it will become apparent some time in the process, but it is easier to disqualify earlier rather than later.

What we do know is that many institutions will disqualify those with a mental illness. This may vary from disqualifying those with an active mental illness with current symptoms or medication to the extreme of disqualifying anyone who has ever experienced a mental illness. Why? Because mental illness can tend to be hard to predict, and given stressful situations the risk of a relapse can be too much for a mission to proceed successfully.

What we know of Watney is that he is a qualified botanist (assuming that he is relatively intelligent) and that he also has a good sense of humour. Another factor is that (in the book) he is unattached from an immediate family. Having no family can be a factor in employing people in risky jobs due to the fact that when it all comes down to the crunch the individual has less extraneous issues to worry about. Instead of worry about how kids will deal with the death of their father, all Watney has to do is focus on keeping himself alive. Now this isn’t necessarily a massive factor, but it is factor in the psychological make up of Watney.

The importance of Humour

No, NASA do not employ just the comedians to go to space, however the ability to see the world from a unique perspective is important. Remember, the men and women who go to space are faced with things that many people will never experience in their lifetime, from excessive G-force on a regular basis to the isolation and loneliness that comes with space travel. Surely you must pick the most toughened people on Earth in order to do this kind of job? Maybe not..

If you are building a skyscraper in a regular place (let’s say Sydney, Australia) then you don’t have to worry too much about design or materials. You choose what you want and you get it done (obviously there may be some major project management and stuff involved). On the other hand, if you are building in Tokyo you need to consider the adverse events that may befall the city, mainly earthquakes, tsunami and Godzilla. As a result buildings must be made specifically to withstand these pressures. That does not mean that a building in Tokyo should be therefore built stronger, but rather more able to adapt to the environmental effects which it may be subject to. You see, the problem with things that are made strong is that they tend to be fragile when put under extreme stress, look at the change in cars from heavy rigid steel to pliable aluminium as an example (Youtube link)

The same is true for humans, those who are steadfast in all circumstances and show little emotion may have a higher likelihood of not being able to adapt as well. The ideal astronaut, like Watney, has a sense of humour and an ability to respond to events as they arise, rather than pre-plan and find that his solid plans don’t really work at all. Much like the building which is made to move with an earthquake, Watney is an ideal person in traumatic situations as he is able to adapt and respond.

Emotion and Planning

Watney is do we know that? Because he tells us in the very first page of the book, he is aware that he is in a hopeless situation and knows that he must plan in order to give himself even a slight chance. What is important, though, is that he is able to express his emotion and his train of thought. This helps to externalise the feelings that he is having and process it to some extent. Watney’s ongoing emotional honesty may be one of his saving graces, he is able to continue to process emotion through his logs while being able to focus on the task at hand.

The task at hand being the next important matter. Think if you were in a situation like Watney’s and how easy it would be to fall into a depression and simply give up on life or the chance of ever getting rescued. As said above, Watney is able to process his emotion and then focus on what he needs to do, and this activity, according to good mental health principles can tend to act as a prophylaxis against falling into a depression or giving up. His constant forward movement, despite knowing that the chance of rescue is exceptionally slim allows him to continue to externalise and do rather than think and ruminate about the problem.

After an event like this, there is the capacity for a person to develop acute stress disorder or post traumatic stress disorder, however given his response over a significant period of time, I do not believe this to be the case. Overall, Watney seems that he got through the ordeal relatively well and will most probably have limited issues with his reintegration into society when he eventually returns to Earth. As for how Watney got through that time listening to disco, I have no idea the trauma counselling that he will have to undertake.


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