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

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

5270893411_e62e1a4714_b6152.jpg
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.

Presented by

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

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In