Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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