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If you feel like a superhero, would you act like one?

At the risk of offending some folks who have generously spared their time editing this site, I must confess I have no love for superheroes. Just about the only positive I can think of, is that superhero movies are when I get my best naps, a rarity for an insomniac like myself.

And and and... ok before I ramble off, let's get back on topic.

If you could feel like a superhero, would you act like one?

Image by Yogi Purnama

Experimenters from Stanford aimed to find out (read more here): 

  • 30 males and 30 females were invited as participants

  • One at a time, they entered a Virtual Human Interaction simulator and put on special VR goggles. In this set-up, participants were transported into a digital cityscape. A voice that gave them a mission: a diabetic child is stranded somewhere in the city, and the participant must find him to deliver an insulin injection. 

  • Half of the participants had the experience of completing the mission as Superman. They could fly around with arm motions. Speakers gave the impression of wind whistling by, while the floor provided vibrations. 

  • The other half of the participants had the experience of completing the mission while being flown around in a helicopter. Again, there were sound and vibration effects, making the experience realistic. 

  • The experiment was set so that within a couple of minutes, both sets of participants will definitely find the sick child. So everyone literally "saved a life" after through the simulation.  

  • After this experience, each participant was then invited to answer a few questions with an experimenter. During the interview, the experimenter would "accidentally" knock over a cup filled with 15 pens. She would wait five seconds to see if the subject would help her pick them up, and then begin collecting the pens, one pen per second, to give the person another opportunity to come to her aid.

  • This pen experiment is a standard test used to gauge empathy.

And the results?

  • The participants who flew about as Superman were quick to lend a hand, beginning to pick up the pens within three seconds.

  • The participants who experienced the session in the helicopter, however, picked up the first pen, on average, after six seconds. In other words, they started picking up the pens only after the experimenter, who starts picking after 5 secs had done so. 

  • Overall, the superhero group picked 15% more pens than the helicopter group. 

  • And while every participant in the Superman grouped helped, 6 participants from the helicopter group offered no help at all. 

So having gone through a superhero experience, even though in a virtual setting, translates to a tangible increase in altruistic behaviour in the real world. 


This is also another example of how our behaviour is constantly being shaped by our experiences, some of which we would never imagine having a causal effect on how and what we choose to act on.  


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