The Self-Fulfilling Delusion of Acting like a Superhero

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By Peter Weber

It turns out that it doesn't take all that much to turn a mere mortal into a superhero, of sorts. "All you have to do is lift your arms above your head and take flight," says Tom Jacobs at the Pacific Standard. If that sounds like a tall order, it's actually "surprisingly simple — in virtual reality." In a new study in the journal PLoS One, Stanford University researchers show that giving people Superman-like powers in a 3-D simulation makes them more likely to lend a helping hand in real life.

Here's how the experiment worked: Psychologist Robin Rosenberg, who writes about the psychology of superheroism; Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab; and graduate student Shawnee Baughman tapped 30 male and 30 female students, then suited them up in a virtual reality helmet. Half the students were given the power to fly over a foggy city the way Superman does — controlling their flight with their arms (watch the simulation below) — while the other half were transported through the city as a passenger in a virtual helicopter. Afterward, each student was told to sit while a lab assistant put away the VR equipment, and then "accidentally" knocked over a jar of 15 pens. The virtual fliers were quicker to help pick up pens and picked up more of them than the virtual passengers, and all six students who didn't help at all were from the passenger group. There was no notable difference between the fliers who were given a mission to deliver insulin to a lost diabetic child and those who were told to just explore the city.

"The researchers never mentioned the word 'superhero' or the prefix 'super-' during the experiment," says Eryn Brown at The Los Angeles Times. So what explains the increase in altruism? The theory, the scientists say, is that "embodying the ability to fly in virtual reality primes concepts and stereotypes related to superheroes in general or to Superman in particular, and thus facilitates subsequent helping behavior in the real world." Their fallback theory? The fliers were simply more engaged to act than the passengers because they had been active participants in the simulation rather than passive observers. There is ample room for follow-up studies, the authors note, such as whether longer virtual super-flying makes people more helpful, or whether embodying other superheroes has a similar effect. Well, Brown says, as the mother of a 3-year-old who "refuses to wear his glasses because 'Wolverine doesn't wear glasses'" and "chases our cat around the house, fists flying, screaming, 'BATMAN!'":

Personally, I'd like to learn more about embodiments of, say, Wolverine or Batman, especially those facilitated through lower-tech tools — outstretched tiny fingers imitating claws, a much-loved nylon costume with faux muscles. We have some toys at home that need tidying. [Los Angeles Times]

Of course, as Spider-Man famously learned, with great power comes great responsibility. Before this virtual-reality study, other research suggested that computer and console games that reward players for being helpful lead to actual good deeds, and if the Stanford research pans out, the obvious corollary — especially given current events — is whether playing violent first-person-shooter video games makes people more prone to act like villains. 

A new report from Taiwan does show that "being an active participant in a violent virtual-reality experience does seem to inspire aggression, at least to a degree," says the Pacific Standard's Jacobs. But "there is no scientific evidence linking video games to violence," says Jason Schreier at Kotaku. So it's darkly comic to hear real-life Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) make this head-smacking statement to MSNBC on Wednesday: "I think video games is [sic] a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people."

That kind of statement may be over the top, but virtual-reality sessions are "intense," Stanford's Jeremy Bailenson tells Discovery News, and "they stay with you after you leave virtual reality. They change your behavior in the physical world." Virtual reality is "a technology that can be used for good or ill, and I'd love to see it used for good," agrees Robin Rosenberg.

Let's conclude, says Nic Halverson at Discovery News, "in a manner not unlike that of a comic book's final panel, where our superhero delivers one final thought meant to resonate within us all." Except here, the last word of advice goes to Bailenson: "It's up to us to build and really think about the virtual experiences we use as consumers and give to our children."