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Is ‘Star Wars’ really about behavioral psychology? Search your feelings.

Review of "The World According to Star Wars" by Cass Sunstein

Washington Post photo illustration using images from iStock and Lucasfilm


By Cass R. Sunstein

Dey St. 223 pp. $21.99

Cass Sunstein has become the Derek Zoolander of American public intellectuals.

Much as Ben Stiller’s dim supermodel in the 2001 movie “Zoolander” had one look that he repackaged under new names (Blue Steel, Ferrari, Le Tigre, Magnum), Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former head of President Obama’s White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has one book that he rewrites with different titles. “Nudge,” “Simpler,” “Wiser,” “Why Nudge?” “Choosing Not to Choose” — all published in the past decade, they’re variations on similar themes of behavioral psychology, choice architecture and decision-making theories.

Doesn’t anyone notice this? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

So I was excited to pick up Sunstein’s “The World According to Star Wars,” because this one just had to be different. An exploration of the history, mythology and meaning of the “Star Wars” series, this book would put Sunstein in a new light. Less Zoolander, more Skywalker. Also, his devotion to the “Star Wars” religion (“way past the threshold for love,” he gushes), an obsession he and his young son cultivate together, resonated with this reader, fan and father.

But Sunstein’s gonna Sunstein, whether in Dagobah or in OIRA. And though this slim book provides an enlightening and surprisingly personal tour of a galaxy far, far away, it is suffused with the behavioral science that has become the author’s trademark. This is not the world according to “Star Wars.” It is “Star Wars” according to Cass Sunstein’s world.

For instance, when explaining the immediate popularity of “A New Hope” in 1977 — when even George Lucas and the cast worried they were releasing a dud — Sunstein stresses the power of “informational cascades” (including endless new accounts about long lines at movie theaters) and examples of “network effects” (such as the common desire to be part of a mass-culture event). And though he believes that cultural-zeitgeist arguments are impossible to disprove, Sunstein concedes that a good-vs.-evil, sci-fi movie spoke to audiences in the late Cold War, with Watergate and Vietnam fresh in their minds. Still, “it was bound to break out,” he decides. “It’s too good.”

Part of the appeal of the series is grounded in its mythology of the hero’s journey — for both Luke and Anakin — and Sunstein dutifully recounts how Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” (Lucas has called Campbell “my Yoda”). But Sunstein also understands that “Star Wars” fascinates because it is many stories in one.

Is it a Christian tale, with Anakin, conceived without a father, as a redemptive figure, dying for humanity’s sins, including his own? The theological parallels “are unmistakable,” Sunstein writes, “and Christianity looms over the series.” Or perhaps “Star Wars” is Oedipal: Padme treats Anakin maternally at first, before they fall in love, Sunstein notes, and then he becomes responsible for the deaths of father figures such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine. Or it could be feminist, with Rey, Leia and Padme as its heroes. Or maybe Jeffersonian, emphasizing self-government and the evils of empire.

No surprise, Sunstein prefers to regard “Star Wars” as “a series of case studies in behavioral biases.”

The Rebel Alliance offers insights into group polarization (the subject of another Sunstein book), which occurs “when like-minded people, talking mostly with one another, end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. . . . If you put a bunch of rebels in a room and ask them to discuss rebellion, they’ll get more extreme.” Jedi mind tricks also receive Sunsteinesque treatment. “In psychology and behavioral economics, people have shown that if you just describe options in a certain way, or make some features of a situation salient, you can get people to do and even see what you want,” he writes. “You don’t have to be a Jedi to manipulate people’s attention.”

The actions of individual characters come in for similar interpretations. “Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine suffer from both unrealistic optimism and self-serving bias; they think that everything is going to work out in their favor,” Sunstein writes. “Both Luke and Rey suffer from inertia and its close cousin ‘status quo bias,’ which refers to people’s tendency to prefer things to stay as they are.” That explains Luke’s early reluctance to travel with Obi-Wan in Episode IV and Rey’s initial refusal to wield Luke’s lightsaber in Episode VII. “The good news is that the Force runs strong” in both characters, Sunstein explains, “so they’re able to overcome their behavioral biases. (Isn’t that what the Force is for, after all?)”

Cass, you’re breaking my heart. You’re going down a path I cannot follow.

Sunstein is famous for advocating “nudges” — regulatory or policy interventions that push people to make better choices, or at least what Sunstein believes is better. (Think of nutritional labels on food products or default opt-in mechanisms for retirement savings.) He insists that nudges are consistent with free will, even if, by design, they channel choice. So it is fascinating that he considers “Star Wars” a standard-bearer for personal freedom. “Wherever people find themselves in trouble, or at some kind of crossroads, the series proclaims: You are free to choose. That’s the deepest lesson of Star Wars,” Sunstein argues.

Even when Sith lords lure you to the Dark Side, they prefer that you switch willingly. “Both Jedi and Sith are capable of nudging — transparently and covertly,” he asserts. “And while the Force enables them to work on weak minds, they seem to have a kind of ethical constraint: they usually want people to choose, and to choose freely.”

Well, maybe. Palpatine lured Anakin to the Dark Side by holding out the false promise of saving Padme’s life. Vader sought to entice Luke by capturing Chewbacca, Han and Leia, hoping Luke would interrupt his Jedi training and come to their aid. Those may be nudges, I suppose — but they’re also manipulations of free will.

Sunstein hasn’t just watched the movies; he’s read old Lucas interviews, devoured novelized versions of the series and scoured the “Star Wars” literature. Thus equipped, he offers plenty of fun details and opinions. In early scripts, for instance, R2D2 spoke, while Yoda’s enigmatic “there is another” line in “The Empire Strikes Back” may have been a narrative insurance policy in case Mark Hamill chose not to reprise the role of Luke. And Sunstein’s ranking of the episodes seems about right, though his weakness for the prequels — “The Phantom Menace is better than you think” — is unforgivable.

Yet, what should be the crux of the book, and can get lost in all the Sunsteinology, is that “Star Wars” is really about “the indispensability of paternal love.” This is where Sunstein is most eloquent. “For any child, boy or girl, a father is both Jedi and Sith — Obi-Wan Kenobi, gentle and calming and good, and Vader, fierce and terrifying.” Sunstein explores Lucas’s troubled relationship with his father and refers to similar difficulties in his own life. “Even if it’s temporary, an estrangement between a parent and child is extraordinarily painful,” Sunstein writes. “Been there, done that.”

In the series, he emphasizes, Anakin “is made good because his son insists on seeing good in him, and chooses to love him, and because in the end, he chooses to love him back.”

This book begins and ends with the author’s own generational saga. “To Declan — my son,” reads the dedication, and the stories of Sunstein and his 6-year-old son discussing “Star Wars” and behavioral psychology are tender and funny. The acknowledgments conclude with reflections on the author’s late father (“He had no Darth Vader in him. . . but plenty of Han Solo”), dwelling on the heroism embodied in his old World War II medals. “I have those medals now,” Sunstein writes in the book’s final words. “Thanks, Dad.”

I wish this had been the book, or at least more of it. After all, even Derek Zoolander confronts his father in a coal miners’ bar (“All I ever wanted to do was make you proud of me, Pop!”). But Sunstein has made his choice, and it finds support from a Star Wars hero.

“He’s got to follow his own path,” Leia says when Han appears to leave the rebellion. “No one can choose it for him.”

Read more from Book Party, including:

Review of “Simpler: The Future of Government” by Cass R. Sunstein

Review of “Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception” by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller