As violent video games attract increasing amounts of negative attention for supposedly making kids more aggressive, a group of researchers at Stanford University wonders the opposite: will people become more empathetic when they act like a virtual superhero?

Lead researcher Jeremy Bailenson, associate professor of communication, joined author Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist, and Stanford communication student Shawnee Baughman in the study. The team tested people's real-life empathy after priming them with a virtual reality test wherein they either mimicked Superman or rode in a helicopter.

Finding The Superpower

The goal in selecting Superman's ability to fly came after much deliberation in how to accurately represent empathy in a superpower.

"We thought about giving them X-ray vision, but that was a little creepy," said Bailenson, director of the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory (VIHL), where the study took place. "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."

The study comprised 60 people, split evenly among each gender. Each participant put on a pair of goggles and entered a simulator that gave them specific instructions about their mission: A diabetic child needed insulin, and only they could deliver it. The variation came in how each person delivered the insulin, which the researchers rigged to happen within two minutes regardless of the transport method.

People either shot their arms out ahead of them, to the sound of wind rushing past them via wall-mounted speakers, or they rode as a passenger in a helicopter. After the mission, each subject sat in for an interview about the experience.

Empathy Or Indifference?

What they didn't know, however, was that the interview was a red herring — the only relevant data came when the interviewer "accidentally" knocked over a jar of pens on her desk. She waited five seconds to see if the subject reacted, then picked up one pen each second to give the subjects time to help.

Now that the subjects had just saved a child, either passively or actively, the researchers wondered how likely they were to help the interviewer pick up the pens.

As they had expected, the Superman group swooped in to help much faster and far more often than the helicopter group. They pitched in first and helped 15 percent more than their cohorts, with each person in the group helping at some point, despite six members of the helicopter group never offering help at all.

The Superman group offered a hand an average of three seconds after the interviewer dropped the pens; meanwhile, the helicopter group waited six seconds on average, or a full second after the interviewer waited for a reaction.

"The data show that heroic behavior in a virtual environment can transfer to altruistic behavior in the real world," Bailenson said. "The significance of being able to fly like Superman, however, isn't totally clear."

Causation, of course, is difficult to pin down in such matters. The researchers have plans to control for other variables, such as letting the helicopter group control their flight, or giving the Superman group prescribed directions. Such findings, they argued, would help contribute to explaining what motivates people to be more altruistic after simple virtual tests.

"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."