Stanford researchers demonstrate link between virtual superpowers and real-world empathy

Feb. 5, 2013, 12:56 a.m.

Superpowers can be a force for good, according to Stanford researchers who found that giving people the ability of virtual flight encourages a higher incidence of signs of empathy in later tests.

The experiment, conducted in the University’s Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory, observed 30 men and 30 women who had put on a set of goggles and entered a digital cityscape.

Half of the subjects were endowed with the Superman-like ability to fly, while the other half only saw themselves as passengers in a helicopter. Both were charged with the same task of delivering an insulin injection to a diabetic child stranded somewhere in the city.

When subjects participated in a post-experiment interview, the interviewer would intentionally knock over a cup of 15 pens, waiting five seconds to pick them up and picking one pen up each second thereafter. Every member of the group that had flown like Superman helped the interviewer, picking up 15 percent more pens than the helicopter group. Six members of the helicopter group chose not to help at all.

The next iteration of the study will allow participants to steer the helicopter, in an effort to demonstrate whether the feeling of control in helping the child or the superpower itself inspires the feelings of empathy.

The study was led by Associate Professor of Communication Jeremy Bailenson, clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg and communication student Shawnee Baughman ’12 M.A. ’13.

“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,” Bailenson told the Stanford News Service.

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