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Brony psychology 101: What 2 researchers discovered

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For many outsiders, the world of bronies is a confusing one. The thought of boys—and often times men—playing with cute My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic dolls certainly raises a lot of challenging questions.

So when researchers Dr. Patrick Edwards and Dr. Marsha Redden decided to dive into the fandom, the college professors expected the worst. What they found instead was a vibrant and inclusive community.

“We see so little data that raises an eyebrow,” Edwards told the Daily Dot. “We’re both trained to be concerned about pathology, but the data just doesn’t show that this is a pathological group.”

The clinicians began their research last summer after Edwards’ 16-year-old son son “came out” to him as a brony.

“We'd come back from summer vacation, and he announced it to me,” Edwards told the Daily Dot in January. “I said, ‘Will, what have you been up to?’ He told me he’d been drawing pictures of ponies. I had the same reaction most people do: ‘What?’”

Since then, Edwards, a Ph.D. clinician and therapist, and Redden, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist, have tracked brony psychology through two online surveys. So far, they’ve received responses from 20,000 brony and non-brony participants.

At Summer Bronycon, a three-day fan conference in late June, the researchers presented the findings of their second survey to a crowd of more than 1,000 fans. The results were about what you’d expect.

Edwards and Redden found that bronies were slightly more introverted and more agreeable than non-bronies. They tended to be more tolerant of others and bullied less often. Ninety-seven percent of brony respondents said they were single—but that was as opposed to being married.

“Knowing someone is a brony is like knowing someone’s a college student. You don’t know about their major, their GPA, or anything about their school.”

—Dr. Marsha Redden

There’s a persistent stigma that bronies are a deviant group, despite the fact that there’s little evidence to support the notion. Redden said she’s “taken an incredible amount of grief from [her] social circle for doing this research at all” and that people don’t expect bronies to be functional. Yet, when a fire broke out Sunday at Bronycon and attendees had to evacuate, she saw firsthand the error of that stereotype.

“There was no stampede like you’d see at a rock concert,” she said.

“This is a group that tends to be very considerate of others, doesn’t tease, doesn’t bully, and isn’t critical.”

The crux of duo’s research has depended on identifying and isolating five types of bronies based on personality traits. They found that the happiest bronies tended to come from open-minded homes with accepting, more liberal parents. They identified many of these bronies as “social bronies,” a group that made up the largest subsection of survey respondents, with 29 percent. Social bronies are the most open, extraverted of the bunch. (Edwards compares them to perky, party-loving pony, Pinkie Pie.)

By contrast, “secret bronies,” which Edwards compared this group to masked pony overseer Mare Do Well, were described as “dedicated, engaged and caring, but secret about their identity.” These bronies, roughly 28 percent of survey respondents, typically came from close-minded homes and were the brony equivalent of the withdrawn patients the two have seen in therapy for years.

“In private practice, I find a lot of young men have a lot of difficulties in their family because dad was the jock and here comes this young man, who even as a child [never wanted] to get involved with those kinds of things,” Redden said. “That’s what sends them into therapy. Not that the person is not comfortable with himself, but that he is not accepted by the people he loves.”

Edwards and Redden would argue that, when it comes to secret bronies in particular, the psychological healing process begins in fandom. Both have encountered anecdotal examples of the ways in which the community experience has helped shy or anxious young people to better adapt.

“Right as I was leaving, a 40-something gentlemen shook my hand and said, ‘I just have to tell you, the bronies saved my son,’” Edwards said. “‘My son had no friends, he was sad, isolated, and then became a brony. It just changed him. He has friends, feels self-ascertained, and has a purpose.’ As a therapist, to hear that was very confirming.”

“Any number of mothers came up to me at the convention and said being a brony has been life-changing for their teen,” Redden added. “Now they’re so much more socially appropriate and comfortable with themselves.”

For that reason, the researchers’ long-term goal is to do a longitudinal study over at least five years to see how bronies grow and change over time.

“A lot of bronies have asked us how they can help,” Redden said. “I’m getting in touch and sending them a survey every three months. We’re certainly going to be taking a look at changes in the fandom over time to see if they maintain interest and whether that interest wanes.”

In the meantime, Edwards and Redden will be wrapping up this leg of their research with one final survey. This time, instead of comparing bronies to non-bronies, they’ll be surveying the community about how it sees itself. There will also be a healthy amount of discussion on the seedier side of the community too, including pony porn.

“We’re approaching a very sensitive topic,” said Edwards. “I want to get a sense of how bronies see Rule 34. Are the creations being produced by valid community members or renegades wondering, ‘What can I do with a pony that upsets somebody?’ The community eventually has to figure out how to deal with it or ignore it, and we want to figure out how they view it.”

Their findings may alter the way the researchers view the community. For now, their biggest challenge is staying unbiased toward the bronies, whom they’ve primarily found endearing.

“About maintaining distance, I’m able to do it, but I’m on that line,” Edwards said. “If my son weren’t a brony, I would never have been motivated to do this research in the first place.”

The third survey, for bronies only, is currently available here.

Photo of Summer Bronycon by Keith Survell, Illustrations via Patrick Edwards