Jeremy Bailenson, an associate professor of communication, Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and author, and communication student Shawnee Baughman, all of Stanford University, developed a game in which people could subconsciously identify as a "do-gooder" with a superpower in virtual reality.
"We thought about giving them X-ray vision, but that was a little creepy," Bailenson, director of the Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory, said in a statement. "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."
One at a time, 30 men and 30 women entered the simulator and strapped on a set of goggles that transported them into a digital cityscape. A voice explained their mission: A diabetic child is stranded somewhere in the city, and you must find him and deliver an insulin injection.
The participants controlled flight either as Superman, or as a passenger in a helicopter.
The experiment was set so that two minutes into the simulation, no matter what mode of transport, the subject found the sick child.
After removing the virtual reality goggles, the experimenter would "accidentally" knock over a cup filled with 15 pens.
The superhero group not only pitched in first, they also picked up about 15 percent more pens on average. While everyone who flew like Superman picked up some pens, six participants who rode in the helicopter failed to offer any help at all.
The pen experiment is a standard test for gauging empathy and the heroic behavior in a virtual environment could transfer to altruistic behavior to the real world, Bailenson said.