Virtual Superpowers Encourage Real-World Empathy
Giving test subjects Superman-like flight in a virtual reality simulator makes them more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior in real life, Stanford researchers find.
If you give people superpowers, will they use those abilities for good?
Researchers at Stanford recently investigated the subject by giving people the ability of Superman-like flight in the university’s Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory (VHIL). While several studies have shown that playing violent videogames can encourage aggressive behavior, the new research suggests that games could be designed to train people to be more empathetic in the real world.
To test this hypothesis, the group - which included Jeremy Bailenson, an associate professor of communication; Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and author; and Stanford communication student Shawnee Baughman - needed to choose a superhuman ability that could only be simulated in virtual reality, but that people would also subconsciously identify as a “do-gooder” superpower.
“We thought about giving them X-ray vision, but that was a little creepy,” said Bailenson, director of the VHIL. “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.”