Participants who experienced the ability to fly in virtual reality were quicker to help in the real world than those who did not possess superpowers.Images.com/Corbis
"With great power comes great responsibility" is perhaps the most famous -- albeit foreshortened -- phrase in comic book history, attributed to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Amazing Fantasy #15, the issue that first introduced the world to Spider-Man.
However, this adage also holds true for virtual superheroes. A recent study found that having superpowers in a virtual world made people more likely to be helpful in real life.
The study, conducted by clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg and colleagues from Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, not only reinforced common superhero tropes, but also showed how using virtual reality experiences can increase pro-social behavior in the physical world, an area researchers say holds vast potential.
"It's a technology that can be used for good or ill and I'd love to see it used for good," Rosenberg told Discovery News. She's written extensively on the psychology of superheroes in such books as What's The Matter With Batman? and the recently published Superhero Origins.
Jeremy Bailenson, associate professor of communication at Stanford University and founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says for years he and his colleagues have run virtual reality experiments with a the following assumption always taken as a given: experiences in VR are profound.
"They're intense," said Bailenson, also a co-author on the study. "The consequence with that is that they stay with you after you leave virtual reality. They change your behavior in the physical world."
For the study, 30 female participants and 30 male participants were immersed in a foggy virtual reality city and given the power of flight -- like Superman -- or the experience of riding as a passenger in a helicopter. Those groups were then assigned one of two tasks: help find a missing diabetic child in desperate need of an insulin injection or leisurely tour their virtual environment. Therefore, the study was a two-by-two design, with participants assigned to one of four groups. See a video here.
After their VR experience, participants were taken out of their head-mounted-display masks and asked to have a seat. While the experimenter fumbled with the VR equipment, she "accidentally" knocked over a cup of 15 pens sitting on a table near the participant's chair.
Researchers found that participants who experienced the power of flight in virtual reality were not only quicker to help pick up the pens than their helicopter-riding counterparts, they also picked up more pens. Of the six participants that didn't help, all were in the helicopter condition. The task of 'helping the diabetic child' showed no main effect; only the superpower of flight did.
"We had two semi-competing hypotheses beforehand. One was that, no matter what the task was, the power of flight would induce pro-social behavior," said Rosenberg. "The competing hypothesis was that being asked to help in VR would be a more powerful effect. And we didn't find that. I thought that was really interesting."
But why? Wouldn't the task of rescuing a lost child spring a superhero into more helpful action?
"The hypothesis we have is that the power of flight, and then whatever unconscious decisions went along with that, in terms of priming or the experience of power, overrode whatever else might have gone on with acting heroic," Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg and colleagues theorized that the participants who were given the ability of flight were likely primed and conditioned by concepts and prototypes commonly associated with superheroes in pop culture. In fact, the findings somewhat resembled the origin stories of many a superhero.
"Mr. Levitz noted that people familiar with superhero tropes implicitly know that after a character discovers a new-found superpower, the character's task is to decide how to use it -- for personal gain or for the greater good," the paper explains.
Rosenberg added: "I think there is something there. Anyone who has any familiarity with any superhero film, any TV show or Saturday morning cartoon -- you don't even have to read comic books. The key point is that powers don't make a superhero. It's about what you choose to do with them."
As it so happened, that do-good choice spilled over from the virtual realm into the real world.
"What Levitz was getting at is that we gave people the power of flight," said Rosenberg. "It didn't matter what" task "we gave them to do, it was that they were unconsciously aware of 'how would I go about the world if I had this power.'"
Researchers said the study was one of the first to examine the effects of pro-social behavior in virtual reality and the pro-social effects of embodying a superpower. Findings of the study were published in the journal PLOS One.
Virtual reality's pro-social potential, Rosenberg says, carries many interesting applications for society.
Participants in a study were asked to help find a missing diabetic child in desperate need of an insulin injection.Virtual Human Interaction Lab
"I would love to see VR technology used in helping people understand other people better by literally walking in their shoes and interacting in the world as they are," she said, referencing people in developing nations and conflict zones. "It could really change your perception."
Fortunately, Bailenson and his colleagues at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab are doing just that with their VR experiments. He says the collaboration with Rosenberg was a natural fit.
"With the lab, we really try to do pro-social causes," Bailenson said. "With her work on having people improve psychologically by imagining what it's like to become a superhero and my ability to actually make somebody a superhero, it just seemed like a great match."
Touting virtual reality's ability to make the impossible possible, Bailenson says one of the big things you can do in VR is walk a mile in someone's shoes.
"People can change the pigment of their skin or get sex changes, but those are fairly intense and permanent and not a realistic way to transfer diversity," he said. "In virtual reality, you can swap your gender, your age, your race and your size at the drop of a hat. You can gain empathy that carries on long after you left virtual reality."
Bailenson cited VR experiments his lab conducted where young people were put in senior citizen avatars. He said when they left, the young people had a much better sense about what it's like to be older, they were less ageist and more apt to save money for the future.
Bailenson credits this life-altering experience to VR's ability to offer such an extremely visceral perception. He says the last two decades of exponential growth in technology and new media -- VR included -- has left our brain trying to catch up, causing people to often confuse experiences in VR with experiences that actually happened.
"It takes forever for evolution to accommodate these new stimuli. Technology's coming so fast that the brain doesn't have time to evolve -- to know that this isn't just virtual," he said. "If the brain feels like it's a real experience, it doesn't care whether it's digital or physical."
He added: "The brain treats these experiences as real because the template for virtual experiences hasn't evolved yet."
In the hands of "superheroes" motivated by pro-social agendas, virtual reality can be harnessed for the greater good of mankind. But what if it falls into the hands of "villains?"
In his book Infinite Reality, co-authored with UC Santa Barbara psychology professor Jim Blascovich, Bailenson deals with this issue in the chapter called The Virtual Yin and the Yang, which addresses the contrasting moral consequences of VR being used by evil forces.
"You've got this catch-22," he said. "The metaphor I like to make is with uranium -- it can heat homes and destroy nations and we need to think about virtual reality in the same way."
In a manner not unlike that of a comic book's final panel, where our superhero delivers one final thought meant to resonate within us all, Bailenson said, "It's up to us to build and really think about the virtual experiences we use as consumers and give to our children."