Getting in Character: The Psychology Behind Cosplay

Cosplayers dressed as Judy Hopps (left) and Nick Wilde from the Disney movie "Zootopia" at the Yorkshire Cosplay Convention at Sheffield Arena in the U.K. on June 11, 2016. (Image credit: Phillip Maguire /

With Halloween just around the corner, everyone seems to have costumes on their minds. People who typically wear jeans and T-shirts are suddenly eyeing colorful spandex, capes, wigs and corsets, and are opening their wallets to acquire an outfit that will present them to the world as someone — or something — they're not.

But for people who cosplay — dress in costumes to role-play characters from movies, TV shows, books, comics and video games — the challenge of transformation is one they happily accept at various times year-round.

Cosplayers can invest considerable time, money and effort into crafting or commissioning head-to-toe presentations that are one-of-a-kind. Some creations include enormous accessories, facial or body prosthetics, working electronics or complex mechanical parts. Other costumes limit how well the wearers can see or move, making it difficult for them to sit, or navigate a room, without help. [Comic Con Cosplay: Photos of the Coolest Costumes]

But what inspires cosplayers to reinvent themselves so elaborately? Cosplayers and psychologists who study the phenomenon reveal the individual and community features that make dressing up so enticing and rewarding.

For the love of costumes

From Oct. 6 to 9, hundreds of cosplayers attended New York Comic Con 2016 (NYCC), costumed as superheroes and supervillains, Jedi and Sith, Ghostbusters, Starfleet officers, Hogwarts students and teachers, and many, many other characters.

"Cosplay makes me happy," Edgar Roldan, a cosplayer and NYCC attendee, told Live Science recently.

Roldan — who wore a furry, blue suit and an oversize head to represent Happy from "Fairy Tale" (Del Rey Manga) — said the most satisfying part of cosplay was "just being you — being whatever and whoever you want."

Other NYCC cosplayers said cosplay allowed them to explore their own creativity, particularly when much of their costume was handmade. Joe Bokanoski and Mike Labarge told Live Science that they assembled their costumes — postapocalyptic interpretations of DC Comics' Captain America and his nemesis, Red Skull — by scouring flea markets and junkyards.

Joe Bokanoski (left) and Mike Labarge at New York Comic Con 2016 as postapocalyptic Red Skull and Captain America (DC Comics). (Image credit: Jeremy Lips/Live Science)

Their outfits were bulky and cumbersome. But despite the discomfort, they were enthusiastic about wearing them and seeing the appreciative reactions they provoked.

"It's worth it just to put some smiles on people's faces," Bokanoski said.

Inhabiting a character

When a cosplayer selects a particular costume, they are often tapping into a specific character — or combination of characters — because something about that role speaks to them personally, according to Robin S. Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Rosenberg, who has written extensively about how people interpret and embrace fictional characters, particularly superheroes, told Live Science that she became interested in studying cosplay after seeing cosplayers in convention centers where she was delivering talks.

"We know from psychology that we all play different roles through the day and week," Rosenberg said. "Different aspects of me — 'psychologist,' 'wife,' 'mother' — come to the fore in different contexts. I became curious about people who truly inhabit a role, and what's coming to the fore when you wear a costume."

Certain costumes offer some people a way of working through personal difficulties, Rosenberg said. Batman, for example, can be an especially meaningful cosplay choice for someone coping with trauma. The dark superhero faced devastating trauma when he was a child — witnessing the brutal murder of his parents — which he overcame to become a hero.

"When people are dressed as Batman, many talk about having [experienced] their own traumatic experiences," Rosenberg said. "He survived and found meaning and purpose from his experience, and that is inspiring to them."

Rosenberg noted that Wonder Woman is another enduring and popular choice that resonates with many women, partly because she holds her own in the male-dominated world of costumed comics superheroes. For those cosplayers, dressing as Wonder Woman is a way of celebrating and embracing her power, Rosenberg said.

Recently, a series of images on Instagram featuring a 3-year-old girl costumed as Wonder Woman quickly went viral. Her father, a photographer, said he not only "fulfilled my daughter's dream of becoming Wonder Woman" by creating an elaborate costume but also staged a photo shoot that placed his daughter in scenes from the upcoming movie, due in theaters June 2, 2017. Judging by the girl's expressions in the photos, she wholeheartedly embraced her new role as a superhero. [DIY Halloween Costumes: 7 Geeky Getups for Any Party]

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Cosplay is a type of performance; putting on a costume broadcasts a visible and public statement about the dresser upper's allegiance to a character or fandom, and it frequently moves strangers to approach the character for conversation and photos. So it surprised Rosenberg to discover from her conversations with cosplayers that many identified as introverts.

"When they wore a costume, they became much more socially outgoing," Rosenberg said. She explained that, sometimes, wearing a costume allows a person to tap into confidence they didn't know they had, and helps them overcome shyness in real life.

"When you do any kind of costuming — but particularly cosplay — on the one hand, it gives you permission to step outside yourself," Rosenberg said. "But on the other hand, it can summon something in you that doesn't usually come out."

Building a community

Costume play not only imbues powers upon individuals but also fosters a sense of community, according to Michael Nguyen, a cosplayer and costuming columnist for the "Star Trek" news website "Star Trek" was Nguyen's gateway to cosplay, he told Live Science. And through creating and wearing "Star Trek" costumes, he discovered a rich and widespread network of people who shared his interest in the characters and in the world they inhabited.

"In 'Star Trek,' there's this idea of diversity and unity," Nguyen said. "It portrays a future a lot of people want to believe in."

Michael Nguyen (right) and a fellow cosplayer at New York Comic Con 2016, as Jillian Holtzmann from "Ghostbusters" (Columbia Pictures, 2016). (Image credit: Michael Nguyen)

"They're physicians, attorneys, in Ph.D. programs — just people who enjoy expressing themselves, and what they hope the future to be." [10 Futuristic Technologies 'Star Trek' Fans Would Love to See]And cosplayers come from all walks of life, he added.

In addition to cosplaying at conventions, Nguyen organizes bimonthly social events for "Star Trek" fans in New York City to get together and hang out in costume. The idea began with five people in 2013 and expanded to 50 to 60 participants three years later. Nguyen described friendships he's formed over the years with people who live thousands of miles away, with whom he's shared the fun of "nerding out" over science fiction and who have inspired his cosplay creativity.

"Costuming is more fun if you do it with other people," Nguyen told Live Science. "You create your own look, but you also feel like part of a universe when you surround yourself with people who enjoy it as much as you do."

Cosplayers at NYCC agreed. A woman dressed as She-Ra: Princess of Power from the TV show "Masters of the Universe" (Filmation) told Live Science that "the acceptance" was the best part of doing cosplay.

"It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like," she said. "It's a community — it's like a big family. Once a year, I come and I see people I haven't seen but once a year, and it's just great."

Another woman costumed as a Hogwarts student from the "Harry Potter" books and movies described participating in a "flashmob" at NYCC, where 75 attendees in Potterverse cosplay came together for a photo — and for one group member to propose to his girlfriend.

"It's wearing your interests on your body," she said. "It's a really great way to bridge the gap and find the common ground."

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.