Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

What best brings out empathy and altruism in us? Superpowers, study says

Aaron Johnson as Kick-Ass and Chloë Moretz as Hit Girl star in Kick Ass.

"Officer Friendly."

It's what my brother and I used to call our dad, who made a habit of offering boosts with the jumper cables he dutifully kept in his trunk, serving as witness at minor traffic collisions and breaking up schoolyard fights when he came to fetch us after the afternoon bell rang. He was the hero of average Joe calamity, mortifying to us as children, impressive later on.

So what separates the heroes from the rest of us lethargic bystanders?

Story continues below advertisement

A new study from Stanford University in California suggests altruism and empathy – the ingredients of heroism – can be nudged out of most of us.

The researchers had 60 test subjects enter a virtual reality simulator, which offered some of them the "do-gooder superpower" of flight. The 30 men and 30 women were dropped into a digital cityscape, and told that the area had been hit by an earthquake and that a diabetic child was still unaccounted for. The subjects were tasked with finding the child and delivering an insulin injection. Some could fly and other were simply passengers in a helicopter. Either way, after two minutes, the simulator would turn up the lurching child. A trumpet would sound and a woman would praise the subjects: "Thankfully, you've reached the child before diabetic shock set in. You hand the syringe to the child, who injects the insulin. You have now completed the task and saved the child's life."

Afterward, the subjects were invited to interviews. During each, the experimenter would knock over a cup filled with 15 pens. She'd would wait five seconds to see if anyone would help and then she'd start picking up the pens slowly, one each second, to see if the subject would bother to assist.

The researchers found that granting people virtual superpowers had prompted "real-world empathy" afterward: "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," a release for the study said.

The superhero cohort picked up an average of 15 per cent more pens than the helicopter group. In fact, six helicopter passengers didn't muster any help at all – an awkward 20 seconds?

"It's very clear that if you design games that are violent, peoples' aggressive behaviour increases," study co-author Jeremy Bailenson said in the release. "If we can identify the mechanism that encourages empathy, then perhaps we can design technology and video games that people will enjoy and that will successfully promote altruistic behaviour in the real world."

Question is, would anyone play those games? What dictates whether you help, Officer Friendly style, or stand by when someone needs assistance?

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to