Virtual Superheroes Are More Heroic In Real Life

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Participants in a study were asked to help find a missing diabetic child in desperate need of an insulin injection.
Virtual Human Interaction Lab

"I would love to see VR technology used in helping people understand other people better by literally walking in their shoes and interacting in the world as they are," she said, referencing people in developing nations and conflict zones. "It could really change your perception."

Fortunately, Bailenson and his colleagues at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab are doing just that with their VR experiments. He says the collaboration with Rosenberg was a natural fit.

"With the lab, we really try to do pro-social causes," Bailenson said. "With her work on having people improve psychologically by imagining what it's like to become a superhero and my ability to actually make somebody a superhero, it just seemed like a great match."

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Touting virtual reality's ability to make the impossible possible, Bailenson says one of the big things you can do in VR is walk a mile in someone's shoes.

"People can change the pigment of their skin or get sex changes, but those are fairly intense and permanent and not a realistic way to transfer diversity," he said. "In virtual reality, you can swap your gender, your age, your race and your size at the drop of a hat. You can gain empathy that carries on long after you left virtual reality."

Bailenson cited VR experiments his lab conducted where young people were put in senior citizen avatars. He said when they left, the young people had a much better sense about what it's like to be older, they were less ageist and more apt to save money for the future.

Bailenson credits this life-altering experience to VR's ability to offer such an extremely visceral perception. He says the last two decades of exponential growth in technology and new media -- VR included -- has left our brain trying to catch up, causing people to often confuse experiences in VR with experiences that actually happened.

"It takes forever for evolution to accommodate these new stimuli. Technology's coming so fast that the brain doesn't have time to evolve -- to know that this isn't just virtual," he said. "If the brain feels like it's a real experience, it doesn't care whether it's digital or physical."

He added: "The brain treats these experiences as real because the template for virtual experiences hasn't evolved yet."

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In the hands of "superheroes" motivated by pro-social agendas, virtual reality can be harnessed for the greater good of mankind. But what if it falls into the hands of "villains?"

In his book Infinite Reality, co-authored with UC Santa Barbara psychology professor Jim Blascovich, Bailenson deals with this issue in the chapter called The Virtual Yin and the Yang, which addresses the contrasting moral consequences of VR being used by evil forces.

"You've got this catch-22," he said. "The metaphor I like to make is with uranium -- it can heat homes and destroy nations and we need to think about virtual reality in the same way."

In a manner not unlike that of a comic book's final panel, where our superhero delivers one final thought meant to resonate within us all, Bailenson said, "It's up to us to build and really think about the virtual experiences we use as consumers and give to our children."