Having heroes is a huge part of the human experience. It’s part of what drives us to be better people, even if we don’t often realize it. We often feel a secret, even unconscious shame and envy that our heroes do things we cannot or do not do. Mark Twain even once said, “If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.”
But what about when our heroes are fictional? Do fictional heroes, even fictional superheroes have the same effect? According to a new study recently published in Frontiers in Psychology, they absolutely do. From the study’s introduction: “In two experiments, we explored 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.”
In short, the study’s team performed two experiments to determine if being presented with imagery of fictional superheroes helped make people better. The tldr; answer to the question, is a pretty qualified “yes.“
The first study, labeled Experiment 1: Prosocial Intentions, used 246 members of the community (recruited with financial compensation) and was completed online. Basically, the participants were show images of household scenes, with the experiment group having subtle cues of superheroes (logos, etc) embedded and the control group not having any superhero cues. Participants were then given a few questionnaires to measure their self-reported altruism, self-reported virtues, their perceptions of the meaning of life and their interest in superheroes.
While there was little to no direct correlation between seeing the superhero images and perception of the meaning of life, both self-reported altruism and virtues did show positive correlations. This means that when people are reminded of superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man (and by extension what they represent), they are more likely to be altruistic and have more positive values.
However, Experiment 1 focuses specifically on self-evaluation. And, as we all know, people often think one thing and do another. So the team used Experiment 2: Prosocial Behavior to see if the positive correlation carried through into personal actions. Participants were put in two rooms, one with a Superman poster and one with a poster of a bicycle to complete a packet of forms. They were told that the posters were unrelated and for a different study. The trick here, was that the participants were signed up for 30 minute sessions, but the packet only took about 10 minutes to do. Once they were done with the packet, they were told their study was over but could help with another, unrelated study if they wanted. Hint, the study wasn’t over. In fact, this was the real test. The idea here was to see if having the subtle imagery of a superhero might actually instill a change in behavior.
The results of Experiment 2 came to pretty much the same conclusion, those who saw the Superman poster were more likely volunteer to help out. And the difference wasn’t just a few percentage points. Fully 91.8% of those in the Superman poster room volunteered to help, versus 75.8% of those in the bicycle poster room. That’s pretty huge
So the question is, what does this all mean? Let’s take this information in the context of a recent news item, the passing of comicbook legend Stan Lee. Mister Lee’s passing created shockwaves of mourning across the Internets. Unfortunately, a few people did not get it, namely talking head Bill Maher. Maher’s recent diss of the geek culture icon’s passing pissed a lot of people off. Me included. But I’m not really interested in getting into that right now. My point here, is that he completely misses the point. Maher dismisses comics as pure entertainment, yet here we have pretty solid clues that the ideology created around comic book superheroes might actually benefit society by making people want to be a little bit better.
Just think about that for a second. Fictional heroes, characters who help people because it needs to be done, actually might inspire people to help people.
Of course, I expect someone will ask if there’s a flipside as well. What is the effect of characters like the Punisher who are more like anti-heroes who just go around shooting everyone up. I don’t necessarily know that there is a correlation there, but who knows. I feel like that might push into the “violent video games make people violent in real life” argument, which controversial to say the least. (Side note, I’m not a proponent of that concept).
Maybe I’m naive here, but I’m not so sure that “priming” a person is as simple as just exposing them to an image. In the case of someone like Superman and Spiderman, here we have characters that are fairly universally known for intense virtue and selflessness. In most people, these are traits we want more of in ourselves. Very few of us actually want to be mean.
In the end, I think it’s more like Twain said. “Unconsciously, we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for greater qualities we ourselves lack. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else.”
I could think of worse roll models than Clark Kent or Peter Parker.