02/06/2013 11:44 pm ET

Virtual Superpowers Could Make You Do Good In Real Life, Study Finds

By Sophie Bushwick
(Click here for the original article and podcast)

You're a bird! You're a plane! You're a superhero! Sort of. Because a study finds that experiencing superpowers in a virtual environment can turn you into a do-gooder in real life. The work is in the journal PloS ONE. [Robin S. Rosenberg, Shawnee L. Baughman and Jeremy N. Bailenson, Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior]

Sixty men and women flew over a virtual city, either holding their arms out and controlling their movement like Superman, or as passengers in a virtual helicopter. Afterwards, back in the real world, the experimenter knocked over a cup of pens as if by accident, and waited five seconds so the subject had a chance to help with the mess. When people had spent the simulation as superheroes, they helped clean up more quickly and picked up more pens.

Coming to the virtual rescue was not necessary for the follow-up behavior. In the simulation, some subjects merely explored the city while others saved a lost child—but both groups performed basically the same on the pen test. So, feeling like a superhero may inspire the impulse to helpfully leap in. Just don't expect to leap any buildings in a single bound.