Seeing Superman Increases Altruism – Scientific American

Have you ever left the theaters after watching a Batman or Superman movie feeling like you wanted to be a better person? If so, you’re not alone. Research finds that superheroes may be more than just entertaining–they can also influence people to do good deeds

“So there has been research that looked at, basically kind of, the motivational function of heroes. And we were thinking that they’re supposed to help set guidelines or be exemplars for moral or virtuous behaviors that people should emulate.”

Daryl Van Tongeren, an associate profession of psychology at Hope College in Michigan. To see if superheroes could inspire people to be more altruistic or act pro-socially the researchers asked participants to enter a room with either a superman poster or a poster of a bicycle. The volunteers were then asked to describe items in the room and then fill out a questionnaire.

“And really what we wanted them to think was that was the end of the study.” But it wasn’t.

“They hand in their survey and the research assistant, you know, the experimenter said, ‘Great, thank you for your time. You know, you know, this only took 10 minutes, but you did sign up for a 30-minute time slot. You’ve got 20 additional minutes. We’re pilot testing this new study that’s in development, so you wouldn’t be getting any credit, but it would really help the research, you know, it really helped the professor if you volunteered.” 

The researchers even emphasized that the task was tedious and boring. And yet: “participants who were in the room with the superhero poster, they were more likely to help and those who were in the room with the bicycle poster. So they’re more likely to say yes, ‘I’ll help.’”

The study is in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. [Daryl R. Van Tongeren et al, Heroic Helping: The Effects of Priming Superhero Images on Prosociality]

Part of the reason why Van Tongeren thinks that fictional superheroes elicit prosocial behavior is because their altruism feels safe to us.

“Now, most people want to be moral, most people want to be altruistic. And so where heroes come in is they’re not close to us. They’re kind of this abstract ideal. And so in that way we were thinking they probably wouldn’t be threatening because they don’t actually represent somebody we could actually live up to. So they can be a goal toward which we try to orient our behavior and live up to you without being threatening because they’re not real.”

So next time you exit the theater after a superhero movie, don’t be surprised if you’re just a tiny bit more heroic yourself.

—Lucy Huang

(The above text is a transcript of this podcast)  

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