Virtual Superpowers May Encourage Altruism
February 1, 2013

Would People Use Their Superpowers For Good Or Evil?

Jedidiah Becker for — Your Universe Online

For years, the debate over whether violent video games, films and television shows encourage aggressive behavior has raged in both the academic community as well as public discourse. Now a group of researchers has taken a slightly different angle and explored the effects of virtual superpowers on an individual´s behavior towards others.

An interdisciplinary team of scientists at Stanford University made use of the school´s cutting-edge Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory (VHIL) to provide test subjects with the ability to fly. The researchers say they wanted to see whether this virtual superpower would bring out the best or the worst in people. Their results indicate that possessing virtual superpowers encouraged empathetic behavior in most individuals, and the team believes that future researchers may be able to design games that will train people to be more empathetic to their fellow humans.

The research team explained that they wanted to choose a superpower that they could simulate using current technology as well as one that people would subconsciously associate with superheroes rather than supervillains.

"We thought about giving them X-ray vision, but that was a little creepy," explains Jeremy Bailenson, Associate Professor of Communication at Stanford and director of the VHIL. “We considered the ability to breathe underwater, but that didn't seem like much of a superpower. In the end, flying like Superman easily registered, and it best leveraged the unique capabilities of the lab.”

For the experiment, 30 men and 30 women entered the simulation room and strapped on the virtual reality gear, which included a high-tech head set with goggles and small remote control-like device that they held in their hands and gave them the ability to fly. Once the headset was turned on, they were transported to a desolated virtual cityscape where they received instructions about their mission from a female voice.

The voice explains that the virtual city has been evacuated due to an earthquake warning and a missing child is stranded somewhere in the streets. The child is diabetic and in need of an insulin shot, and the participant is tasked with flying around the city to find the child and deliver the medication.

Another group of test subjects was tasked with a similar mission, however, they had to look for the child by riding as a passenger in a simulated helicopter rather than using superhuman flight. Powerful speakers built into the walls and floor of the simulation room recreated the sounds of rushing wind or the rumble of a helicopter. The experiment was designed so that the test subjects would find the sick child after two minutes of searching regardless of the route they chose.

Following the simulated mission, study participants were escorted to another room where they were asked to answer follow-up questions with one of the experimenters. This question phase, however, was only a trick to see how the individuals would react when the scientist interviewing them ℠accidentally´ knocked over a cup full of pens. The experimenter would then wait five seconds to see whether the participant would help pick up the pens. If the test subject did not jump in to help during the initial five seconds, the experimenter would then slowly begin to collect the pens at a rate of about one per second in order to give the individual another chance to lend a hand.

Psychologists and sociologists commonly use the pen experiment as a means to gauge a individual´s level of empathy.

The researchers found that almost all of the subjects who had just flown around the city like a superhero jumped in to help pick up the pens within three seconds — a full two seconds before the researcher herself started to clean them up. However, the participants who had searched for the child using a helicopter rather than superhuman flight waited an average of six seconds before they started picking up pens, or about one second after the experimenter began cleaning up.

Additionally, the group of virtual superheroes also tended to pick up more pens than the helicopter group — about fifteen percent more. And while every person who had flown around like Superman helped pick up pens at some point during the faked scenario, six of the people who had flown in the helicopter did not offer any help to pick up any pens at all.

According to Bailenson, their experiment indicates that heroic behavior in a simulated environment can help to encourage altruistic behavior in the real world. The researchers says that it remains unclear, however, whether the specific ability to fly plays a significant role in this altruistic behavior or whether it might just be that playing a more active role in the search somehow activates empathetic behavior.

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

The team plans to conduct another version of the experiment that will allow participants to steer the helicopter to search for the sick child as well as another that will let them fly like a superhero but only along a prescribed route.

"It's very clear that if you design games that are violent, peoples' aggressive behavior increases," Bailenson said. "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."