When given superheros in virtual reality, we’re more likely to emulate a hero’s helpful nature.
We’re told to always dress for the job we want, so if that’s the case—and if the internet joke has any truth to it—we should always dress as the Batman.
It’s good practice, considering the latest research shows that pretending to have super human abilities makes us act more like superheros.
Researchers out of Stanford University wanted to answer an age-old question: if people were given Superman’s powers, would they act like the Man of Steel?
To do this, they placed research subjects in virtual reality simulators, just like the ones used in therapy to help people conquer fears, such as flying in an airplane or the fear of needles. It’s well known that people become psychologically enthralled when acting as a virtual avatar, but researchers wanted to see how long these effects would last.
For the experiment, 60 people were put into virtual reality machines and given the power of flight—either like a superhero or via riding in a helicopter—and given two directives: tour a city or help a lost diabetic child in need of life-saving insulin.
But here’s the trick: after the simulation, the experimenter “accidentally” tipped over a cup full of pens, purposely waiting to see if research subject would help.
The results—published in PLOS ONE—showed that people who had the ability to fly freely and who helped save the boy in trouble were more likely to help pick up the pens. In fact, the six people who didn’t offer to help in the least all went on the helicopter ride.
Basically, those who inherited Superman’s ability to fly fully embraced the superhero stereotype and came to the aid of someone in need.
A key difference between the two modes of travel in the virtual reality simulation was the level of participation by the research subject.
The Stanford researchers noted that those given Superman’s free flight abilities felt like more active participants than those riding shotgun in a helicopter. That may have directly impacted their level of empathy and altruism when deciding whether or not to help the researcher pick up the spilled pens.
“I felt like the helicopter pilot really did all the work. I don’t think I helped,” one participant said.
For many research subjects, being a virtual tourist directly affected their participation in real life.
It’s safe to say the majority of people would love to fly around like Superman and help others, but until we’re shipped off to an alien planet whose sun gives us super powers, shot up with a bunch of gamma radiation, or are wealthy enough to buy all those wonderful toys, we’ll have to work with what we have.
Here are some ways to act like a superhero in your everyday life:
- set a good example, especially around children
- help others, even if it’s merely by picking up dropped pens
- get a flu shot so you don’t make others sick
- be the Batman