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Superman May Inspire Altruistic Behavior

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a man making a charitable donation!
The Superman costume as worn by Christopher Reeve in Superman III is displayed at the Auction House of Bonhams and Goodman on May 23rd, 2009, in Melbourne, Australia.

The Superman costume as worn by Christopher Reeve in Superman III is displayed at the Auction House of Bonhams and Goodman on May 23rd, 2009, in Melbourne, Australia. 

For all their box-office success, superheroes haven't gotten much respect of late. A 2017 study reported that preschoolers who identify with superheroes tend to be more aggressive than their peers. Numerous pop-culture commentators, including Bill Maher, argue that these characters share some blame for the presidency of Donald Trump, citing superheroes' advocacy of vigilantism, and the comic-book message that only one extraordinary man can save us.

But new research suggests that the Man of Steel may have been maligned: It reports that people exposed to images of Superman were more likely than others to engage in helpful behavior.

"Heroes loom large as exemplars of morality. They often embody virtues that we wish to express in our lives," writes a research team led by psychologists Daryl Van Tongeren of Hope College and Jeffrey Green of Virginia Commonwealth University. Their findings suggests that subtle reminders of the superhero ethos can inspire us to emulate their selfless behavior.

The study, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, featured two experiments, the first of which included 246 people recruited online. All began by viewing, and briefly describing, four "everyday household scenes." For half of the participants, the images were edited to include "an easily recognizable superhero logo or image," such as Superman or Spider-Man.

After estimating the subjects' general levels of virtue and altruism, researchers then had them read six scenarios, which involved such actions as helping a stranded motorist, returning lost money, and shoveling an elderly neighbor's snowy driveway. For each task, they indicated the likelihood they would help on a zero-to-100 scale.

"Participants primed with the superhero images reported significantly higher helping intentions than those primed with neutral images," the researchers report. Importantly, this effect was consistent for people high or low in self-reported altruism and virtue, suggesting that the superhero nudge similarly influenced people who were and were not generally inclined to offer a helping hand.

The second experiment featured 123 students at a small Midwestern college. They began by entering a laboratory "with a small poster of Superman or a bicycle affixed to the wall." Participants were told the artwork was related to a different "media images" study and should not be disturbed.

After writing a brief description of their surroundings, the students completed a brief version of the first experiment. This only took 10 minutes; they were told they would be occupied for half an hour. Afterwards, they were told they were free to go, but if they wished, they could participate in a 20-minute pilot project, which involved "a boring task of rating up to 60 geometric shapes."

The results: Nearly 92 percent of those who were exposed to the Superman poster agreed to stay, compared to 75 percent of those who saw the bicycle poster. Again, this effect was found no matter where they rated themselves on the altruism or virtue scales.

"Even the subtle activation of heroic constructs through virtual images of superheroes may influence intentions to help, as well as actual helping behavior," the researchers conclude.

But not so fast (as the supervillain tends to snarl). Research like this study, which involves "priming" people's behavior, is increasingly looked at with skepticism. Attempts to replicate such studies have been spotty at best. It's probably best to wait for larger follow-up studies before drawing any definitive conclusions.

That said, if you trip on your way out of a movie theater and a stranger offers to help you to your feet, perhaps you can thank the latest installment in the Avengers series. Such an unexpected cause-and-effect would certainly be a marvel.