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 woman’s voice then explained their mission: A diabetic child is stranded somewhere in the city, and you must find him and deliver an insulin injection.
With a whoosh of air, the subjects left the ground – either controlling their flight by a series of arm motions, like Superman, or as a passenger in a helicopter. As they scoured the city, wall-mounted speakers gave the impression of wind whistling by; powerful speakers in the floor produced vibrations to simulate riding 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, each person then sat with an experimenter to answer a few questions about the experience. This questionnaire, however, was a ruse: During the interview, the experimenter would “accidentally” knock over a cup filled with 15 pens. She would wait five seconds to see if the subject would help her pick them up, and then begin collecting the pens, one pen per second, to give the person another opportunity to come to her aid.
The people who had just flown as Superman were quick to lend a hand, beginning to pick up the pens within three seconds. The helicopter group, however, picked up the first pen, on average, after six seconds (one second after the experimenter began picking them up herself).
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.
So, video games where you play the superhero help you behave like a superhero. I’m off to play Zelda for the next couple of hours. Then, I’ll go to work and see if I am (even) nicer to everyone than I am normally.