Virtual Empathy

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Superhero fantasies may increase impulses toward compassion.

If you’re worried about seeming cold, calculating, and incapable of empathy, science has provided a solution: Pretend to be Superman. Researchers from Stanford University found that individuals became demonstrably more empathetic after engaging in a virtual-reality video game where they could fly.

The researchers took 60 subjects and asked them to strap on a pair of virtual-reality goggles. The subjects were then informed that they were in a video game with the ability to fly. One group was told they could clutch an imaginary helicopter joystick to direct a chopper. The second group was instructed to stretch their arms in front of them like the Man of Steel. The researchers piped in sounds of rushing air and even used heavy speakers to vibrate the floor, like a shaking helicopter. The objective of the game was to deliver a life-saving shot of insulin to a child.

When the subjects had completed the training, they were asked to sit with an interviewer to discuss the game. Here’s where the actual experiment began.

During the mock interview, the questioner would pretend to accidently drop several pens. This is apparently a common means for assessing empathy levels in clinical psychological research. Subjects who leap to help the interviewer pick up pens within five seconds are displaying high empathy. Subjects who wait for the interviewer to start picking up pens before pitching in, or who make no attempt to help at all, are empathy-challenged.

The researchers found that the “Superman” group reacted much more quickly to the pen drop, retrieving 15% more pens than the “helicopter” group. Several of the subjects in the helicopter group made no attempt to clean up the mess at all.

“We want to have a more precise understanding of why this occurs,” Jeremy Bailenson, an associate professor of communication, said in a press release. “What’s more important for encouraging altruistic behavior: being able to fly, or being active in choosing to help?”—Patrick Tucker

Source: Stanford University, www.stanford.edu.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2013

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