Menus Subscribe Search
supermancrop

Need Help? Ask a Virtual Superman

• January 30, 2013 • 2:00 PM

New research finds people who flew in virtual reality were more eager to help later.

Want to bring out the best side of your personality—the part that is compassionate and helpful to others? New research points to a surprising way to inspire such caring behavior.

All you have to do is lift your arms above your head and take flight. Which, it turns out, is surprisingly simple—in virtual reality.

According to a just-published study, participants in a virtual-reality game were more likely to provide real-world help if they had just experienced flying on their own power. Giving people an ability normally reserved for superheroes apparently inspires them to embody the altruism such characters typically represent.

In the online journal PLOS One, researchers Robin Rosenberg, Shawnee Baughman, and Jeremy Bailenson describe the latest attempt to see whether virtual reality can inspire positive behavior. While several studies have pointed in that direction, many more have looked at the negative consequences of immersing oneself in that often-violent world.

Indeed, newly published research from Taiwan reports male college students who played the violent video game X-men Origins: Wolverine had more aggressive thoughts, and higher blood-pressure levels, than peers who watched recorded game play, or similarly violent movie scenes. Being an active participant in a violent virtual-reality experience does seem to inspire aggression, at least to a degree—which is why the Obama administration’s recent gun-control package includes studying this link.

But what happens when you participate in a different sort of virtual-reality game—one that is uplifting, in several senses of the word? To find out, Rosenberg and her colleagues conducted an experiment featuring 30 men and 30 women.

Each was transported into a virtual world, but with two variations: Half flew over an abandoned city of their own accord, while the other half flew over it in a helicopter. Half the members of each group were merely looking around, while the other half were on a humanitarian mission: To find an abandoned child who desperately needed insulin.

Immediately after returning to reality, all the participants were instructed to wait while an experimenter put away some equipment. On cue, she “accidentally” knocked over a cup of 15 pens sitting on a table four feet from the participant’s chair. The researchers noted how long it took each of them to get up and help, and how many pens they ultimately picked up.

The results: Those who had “flown” on their own “were quicker to help than helicopter participants,” the researchers report. They also picked up more pens than those who rode in the virtual choppers. Only six people did not help at all, and they had all experienced the helicopter flight.

Rosenberg and her colleagues point to several factors that may have influenced their results. They note that, compared to the participants who “flew” on their own, those who rode the virtual helicopters “were comparatively passive as passengers.” This may have put them in a passive mindset, leading to their relative inactivity when help was needed.

More intriguingly, the researchers speculate that having the ability to fly, however briefly, may bring to the forefront of one’s mind “concepts and stereotypes related to superheroes in general, or to Superman in particular.” This could inspire “subsequent helping behavior in the real world,” they note.

Beyond such a priming effect, “embodying such power … may shift participants’ self-concept or identity in a powerful way as ‘someone who helps,’ at least briefly,” they write.

Surprisingly, the researchers found no significant difference between the people who were searching for the child in need and those who were merely checking out the city. While they admit this may reflect poor game design—they note that finding the child “may not have been a vivid and immersive enough experience”—it suggests experiencing the power of self-propelled flight is, in itself, resonant enough to inspire helping behavior in the real world.

So perhaps we can add a variation to the old motto “Walk a mile in my shoes.” If you want to emulate a good man’s behavior, “Fly a mile in his cape.” Assuming the role of Superman won’t make you faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, but it may inspire you to pick up spilled ballpoints in a single bound.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.