Study: If We Could Fly, We Would All Be Superheroes

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People who went through a virtual reality flying simulation emerged ready to save lives.

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Marxchivist/Flickr

PROBLEM: The world needs more superheroes, but science hasn't caught up. No jetpacks or invisibility cloaks, that we know of, and we all know how performance enhancing drugs turn out. So how might we use the technology we do have to spread good?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab designed a virtual reality game that simulated flight. Some players rode as passengers in a helicopter, while others were granted the power to fly like Superman. Then they were either assigned a mission -- to help find a "young, lost diabetic child in need of life-saving insulin immediately" -- or invited to tour a virtual city. 

They designed the scenarios to be realistic as possible. For example, since they didn't include any people on the city tour to control for any social effects, they made up an elaborate back story about an earthquake and subsequent evacuation, to explain why this was so.

After each player had safely landed and the game was complete, an experimenter "accidentally" knocked over a can of pens. She would wait five seconds for the participant to help, then slowly and passive aggressively pick them up one by one.

RESULTS: The people who had been granted the ability to fly were quicker to help the experimenter, and picked up more pens, than did the helicopter passengers. This occurred regardless of whether they were touring the city or helping the diabetic child.

Six people didn't help at all -- all of them were helicopter passengers.

IMPLICATIONS: The researchers blame themselves for there not being any differences between the tasks, posturing that "despite the rich backstory for saving the child ... the actual saving task might not have been a vivid and immersive enough experience." The study's integrity may have been compromised by the players' not actually experiencing giving the child the life-saving insulin.

Nonetheless, they suggest that embodying a superpower primed the subjects to "think like superheroes," which carried over into the real world. They also suggest that it could just have been that the players adopted more of a sense of agency in the flying condition than the passenger simulation. But let's all agree to go with their first theory.

The full study,"Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior," is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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