Pretending to be a Superhero could make You more Altruistic in Real Life


Can pretending to fly around like Superman inspire you to save the day? Does great power truly encourage great responsibility? A new study suggests that stepping into the role of a superhero in the virtual world could spark more helpful behavior in reality, at least briefly.

The study, conducted at Stanford University and published this week in PLoS ONE, tested the whether experiencing superhuman abilities in video games could encourage prosocial behavior. The participants were divided into four groups, all of whom participated in a virtual reality simulation. Two of the groups played a person with the ability to fly around a virtual city, and the other two groups played a passenger in a helicopter in the same virtual city. Then each of those subgroups was assigned a different task, either to find a diabetic child and bring them insulin or to tour the city by air.

After the participant completed the task, an experimenter “accidentally” knocked over a jar of pens while putting away the virtual reality equipment. Participants who had experienced superhuman flight in the simulation were significantly faster to help the experimenter pick up the pens and picked up more pens than the participants in the helicopter groups. Six participants did not help the experimenter at all; all were in the helicopter groups. Whether the participants were involved in the rescue task or the touring task had no significant impact on the participants’ inclination to help.

The researchers note that our pop culture association of flight with superheroes might be linked to the participants’ inclination to help the experimenter.

See the paper at Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior.

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