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Defence Dept. spent $14,000 on superhero poll

Defence Dept. spent $14,000 on superhero pollSuperheroes are shown in this publicity image released by DC Comics. Defence researchers spent almost $14,000 on a survey that asked whether superheroes can leap over skyscrapers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, DC Comics

OTTAWA - Defence researchers spent almost $14,000 on a survey that asked whether superheroes can leap over skyscrapers.

The study for the research arm of National Defence also asked 150 people online whether superheroes can fly through the air; see through walls; hear whispers from miles away; become invisible; and walk through walls.

The oddball questions were part of a short study completed in October to help the Canadian Forces "win the hearts and minds" of the local populations it faces when deployed overseas, such as recently in Afghanistan.

Some of the questions were designed to probe people's expectations about — as the study put it — "supernatural categories that are so prevalent in popular culture and religion."

The study was carried out by Toronto researcher M. Afzal Upal for Defence Research and Development Canada, or DRDC.

National Defence spokesman Noel Paine said the project included a $13,750 payment to the University of Toronto for data collection.

"Work on this study was also done by internal DRDC staff," Paine said in Ottawa.

"This work will not only allow cultural scientists to better understand the spread of non-natural and religious concepts but also allow the Canadian Armed Forces ... to design messages that are more memorable for their target audiences," says a summary of the research.

The armed forces have "no modeling or analytic capability to understand how its actions will impact the psychological meaning space of individuals."

The study, one of several planned on the subject, included three experiments that posed a range of philosophical statements, to which online participants indicated their level of agreement.

"All mental beings can perceive the world through their sensors," was one such statement.

There was relative agreement among survey participants that superheroes can fly and leap over skyscrapers. The survey found least agreement about whether they can become invisible or walk through walls.

"The Canadian Armed Forces needs to be able to inform and reassure local populations," DRDC spokeswoman Myriam Bower said in an email, when asked why the research was undertaken at a time of defence budget cuts.

"This cannot be done without understanding people's psychological meaning space, i.e., how people perceive, understand and remember various messages."

She added: "To ensure best value for taxpayers, the study was offered in a competitive process."

The next step in the research, Upal wrote, is to examine the common messages already used by the Canadian Armed Forces to reach local populations, and how those populations actually understand them.

Upal's research is related to "psychological operations" or "PSYOPS," a capability that began to be formally developed within the Canadian Army in 2004. Previously, Canada's soldiers relied on other NATO countries for such training.

The military says PSYOPS are designed to influence attitudes and behaviours to bring about political and military objectives.

Beginning in 2007, the Canadian Forces established a radio station — RANA-FM — in support of the Canadian army in Kandahar, as a way to ensure NATO messaging with the local population. The station was actually based in Kingston, Ont., transmitting in Afghanistan using a satellite link.

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