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Images of superheroes make us want to help others, study finds

Spider-Man crouching at a construction site.
Exposure to images of superheroes — such as Superman or Spider-Man —may subtlety increase tendencies toward altruistic behavior, according to a new study by researchers at VCU and Hope College in Michigan. (Sony Pictures)

Exposure to images of superheroes — such as Superman or Spider-Man — leads to greater intentions to engage in helpful behaviors, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Hope College in Michigan.

“Heroes loom large as exemplars of morality. They often embody virtues that we wish to express in our lives,” according to the study. “Our findings suggest that heroic images — even relatively subtle images of superheroes — may increase one’s intentions to help and actual helping behavior.”

The study, “Heroic Helping: The Effects of Priming Superhero Images on Prosociality” was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.  

“Superhero images may subtly increase tendencies toward altruistic behavior,” said Jeffrey Green, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and an author on the study along with VCU psychology graduate student Athena Cairo. Lead author Daryl Van Tongeren, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Hope College, is an alumnus of VCU's social psychology Ph.D. program.  

Green and his colleagues conducted two experiments to explore whether the subtle activation of heroic images increases prosocial intentions and behaviors, and whether those prosocial inclinations helped enhance one’s perception of meaning in life.

For the first experiment, the researchers exposed 246 people — 110 females and 136 males — to scenes with superhero images or neutral images. Individuals primed with superhero images reported greater helping intentions relative to the control group, which, in turn, were associated with increased meaning of life.

In the second experiment, 123 college students were exposed to a poster of Superman or a poster of a bicycle. They were then asked to help an experimenter with a tedious task. Those exposed to the Superman poster were more likely to help with the tedious task, though no differences were found for meaning of life.

The results suggest that subtle activation of superhero stimuli can strengthen prosocial intentions and behavior.

“Although we drew attention to the superhero image as a way of activating related constructs in the minds of the participants, such exposure was undoubtedly less potent than other behaviors that involve greater cognitive attention (e.g., watching a movie, reading a comic book) — this makes it a strong test of our hypothesis,” the study said.

The study suggests that heroes might serve an important cultural purpose of motivating prosocial behavior at the societal level.

Green was inspired to study this topic thanks to his friendship with Scott Allison, a professor of psychology at the University of Richmond and author of such books as “Reel Heroes” and the “Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership.”

“We have written a few blogs together for his heroes blog, and he asked me to consider contributing to this special issue of Frontiers on heroism science,” Green said. “Scott is possibly the world’s leading expert on heroism science.”

Despite the study’s findings, Green said, it is too early to know how the research might be applied in the real world.

“As scientists, we always want to be rather cautious in our conclusions and how we apply the research,” he said. “We still don’t know, for example, if the effects would be similar if we primed people with real-life heroes, such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Marie Curie.”