Can pretending to fly around like Superman inspire you to save the day? Does great power truly encourage great responsibility? A new study suggests that stepping into the role of a superhero in the virtual world could spark more helpful behavior in reality, at least briefly.

The study, conducted at Stanford University and published this week in PLoS ONE, tested the whether experiencing superhuman abilities in video games could encourage prosocial behavior. The participants were divided into four groups, all of whom participated in a virtual reality simulation. Two of the groups played a person with the ability to fly around a virtual city, and the other two groups played a passenger in a helicopter in the same virtual city. Then each of those subgroups was assigned a different task, either to find a diabetic child and bring them insulin or to tour the city by air.

After the participant completed the task, an experimenter "accidentally" knocked over a jar of pens while putting away the virtual reality equipment. Participants who had experienced superhuman flight in the simulation were significantly faster to help the experimenter pick up the pens and picked up more pens than the participants in the helicopter groups. Six participants did not help the experimenter at all; all were in the helicopter groups. Whether the participants were involved in the rescue task or the touring task had no significant impact on the participants' inclination to help.

The researchers note that our pop culture association of flight with superheroes might be linked to the participants' inclination to help the experimenter:

One hypothesized explanation for these results is that embodying the ability to fly in VR primes concepts and stereotypes related to superheroes in general or to Superman in particular, and thus facilitates subsequent helping behavior in the real world. Similarly, it is possible that embodying this power may do more than prime such concepts; it may shift participants' self-concept or identity in a powerful way as "someone who helps," at least briefly.

However, they note that the discrepancy may be attributed to the fact that the participants in the helicopter groups were passengers rather than pilots, making them observers rather than agents in the simulation. The paper suggests that further study on this experiment should include a simulation in which helicopter riders can control their own navigation to see if the superpower or the agency is the more significant factor in this brief altruism effect.

Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior [PLoS ONE via mental_floss]