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Images of superheroes can inspire helpful behavior, study finds

A new study has revealed that priming people with images of superheroes can inspire prosocial behaviors. The research suggests that we may be more likely to donate to charity or help out a stranger after watching the latest Marvel comics movie.

“Given that superheroes are an increasingly large and accessible part of our cultures, even if merely symbolically, we were interested in exploring their role in inspiring virtuous and meaningful lives,” said study lead author Dr. Jeffrey D. Green of Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Heroes come in many shapes and forms. Some are fictional and others are real-life role models. We decided to study the effect of well-known fictional heroes, such as Superman or Spiderman, as people may tend to be more motivated to emulate behaviors where there is little realism.”

The first experiment was focused on 245 participants who were exposed to either household pictures with subtle superhero images, such as Spiderman and Superman, or to neutral images. The individuals primed with superhero images were much more likely to report that they intended to be helpful to others.

According to the experts, while the perception of meaning in life was not directly influenced by the superhero prime, the exposure to superheroes increased helping intentions which subsequently increased a feeling of meaning in life.

A second experiment was designed to examine if the individuals would follow through with helping behavior. An additional 123 individuals were primed with a subtle image of Superman versus a neutral image of a bicycle. The participants were then invited to help with a tedious experimental task for no extra credit.

Those primed with the Superman poster were much more likely to help than those primed with a bicycle. The perception of meaning in life, which was measured through a questionnaire, was not significantly different between the two groups.

“These experiments highlight how even the subtle activation of heroic constructs through visual images of superheroes may influence intentions to help as well as actual helping behavior,” said Dr. Green.

“Heroes loom large as exemplars of morality. They often embody virtues that we wish to express in our lives. If subtle images of heroes trigger such positive behaviors, their inspirational role may well have the potential to extend beyond the prosocial behaviors explored in this study.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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