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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.

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