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

August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?


August 15 • 8:32 AM

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.”


Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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