Why Superman’s such a sweet guy

Getting superpowers in a game makes people more altruistic, say Stanford researchers, who have found that the ability to fly makes you more willing to help others.

They put 30 men and 30 women in a simulator and told them that a diabetic child was stranded somewhere in the city; the subjects had to find him and deliver an insulin injection.

Half the group controlled their movements with their arms, like Superman; the others experienced a simulation of a helicopter. The experiment was set so that two minutes into the simulation, no matter what mode of transport was used, the subject found the sick child.

After removing the virtual reality goggles, each person then sat with an experimenter, ostensibly to answer a few questions about the experience.

During the interview, however, the experimenter would ‘accidentally’ knock over a cup filled with 15 pens. After waiting five seconds to see if the subject would help her pick them up, she began collecting the pens, one pen per second, to give the person another opportunity to help.

And, found the team, the people who had just flown as Superman were quick to lend a hand, beginning to pick up the pens within three seconds. The helicopter group, however, picked up the first pen, on average, after six seconds. While everyone who flew like Superman picked up some pens, six participants who rode in the helicopter failed to offer any help at all.

The pen experiment is a standard test for gauging empathy, and associate professor of communication Jeremy Bailenson says the data shows that heroic behavior in a virtual environment can transfer to altruistic behavior in the real world. The significance of being able to fly like Superman, however, isn’t totally clear.

“We want to have a more precise understanding of why this occurs,” he says. “What’s more important for encouraging altruistic behavior: being able to fly, or being active in choosing to help?”

The next iteration of the study will allow participants to steer the helicopter to search for the ill child, and will also allow a condition in which the subject experiences flying like Superman, but along a prescribed route.

“It’s very clear that if you design games that are violent, peoples’ aggressive behavior increases,” says Bailenson. “If we can identify the mechanism that encourages empathy, then perhaps we can design technology and video games that people will enjoy and that will successfully promote altruistic behavior in the real world.”