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The Self-Fulfilling Delusion of Acting like a Superhero

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By Peter Weber

It turns out that it doesn't take all that much to turn a mere mortal into a superhero, of sorts. "All you have to do is lift your arms above your head and take flight," says Tom Jacobs at the Pacific Standard. If that sounds like a tall order, it's actually "surprisingly simple — in virtual reality." In a new study in the journal PLoS One, Stanford University researchers show that giving people Superman-like powers in a 3-D simulation makes them more likely to lend a helping hand in real life.

Here's how the experiment worked: Psychologist Robin Rosenberg, who writes about the psychology of superheroism; Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab; and graduate student Shawnee Baughman tapped 30 male and 30 female students, then suited them up in a virtual reality helmet. Half the students were given the power to fly over a foggy city the way Superman does — controlling their flight with their arms (watch the simulation below) — while the other half were transported through the city as a passenger in a virtual helicopter. Afterward, each student was told to sit while a lab assistant put away the VR equipment, and then "accidentally" knocked over a jar of 15 pens. The virtual fliers were quicker to help pick up pens and picked up more of them than the virtual passengers, and all six students who didn't help at all were from the passenger group. There was no notable difference between the fliers who were given a mission to deliver insulin to a lost diabetic child and those who were told to just explore the city.

"The researchers never mentioned the word 'superhero' or the prefix 'super-' during the experiment," says Eryn Brown at The Los Angeles Times. So what explains the increase in altruism? The theory, the scientists say, is that "embodying the ability to fly in virtual reality primes concepts and stereotypes related to superheroes in general or to Superman in particular, and thus facilitates subsequent helping behavior in the real world." Their fallback theory? The fliers were simply more engaged to act than the passengers because they had been active participants in the simulation rather than passive observers. There is ample room for follow-up studies, the authors note, such as whether longer virtual super-flying makes people more helpful, or whether embodying other superheroes has a similar effect. Well, Brown says, as the mother of a 3-year-old who "refuses to wear his glasses because 'Wolverine doesn't wear glasses'" and "chases our cat around the house, fists flying, screaming, 'BATMAN!'":

Personally, I'd like to learn more about embodiments of, say, Wolverine or Batman, especially those facilitated through lower-tech tools — outstretched tiny fingers imitating claws, a much-loved nylon costume with faux muscles. We have some toys at home that need tidying. [Los Angeles Times]

Of course, as Spider-Man famously learned, with great power comes great responsibility. Before this virtual-reality study, other research suggested that computer and console games that reward players for being helpful lead to actual good deeds, and if the Stanford research pans out, the obvious corollary — especially given current events — is whether playing violent first-person-shooter video games makes people more prone to act like villains. 

A new report from Taiwan does show that "being an active participant in a violent virtual-reality experience does seem to inspire aggression, at least to a degree," says the Pacific Standard's Jacobs. But "there is no scientific evidence linking video games to violence," says Jason Schreier at Kotaku. So it's darkly comic to hear real-life Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) make this head-smacking statement to MSNBC on Wednesday: "I think video games is [sic] a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people."

That kind of statement may be over the top, but virtual-reality sessions are "intense," Stanford's Jeremy Bailenson tells Discovery News, and "they stay with you after you leave virtual reality. They change your behavior in the physical world." Virtual reality is "a technology that can be used for good or ill, and I'd love to see it used for good," agrees Robin Rosenberg.

Let's conclude, says Nic Halverson at Discovery News, "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." Except here, the last word of advice goes to Bailenson: "It's up to us to build and really think about the virtual experiences we use as consumers and give to our children."

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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Hollywood's 5 Favorite Movie Villains
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Movie villains are meant to bring out the best in a hero, but with the right script, director, and performer in place, these bad guys can sometimes steal the show from their clean-cut rivals.

Take any horror movie, for example—chances are you’re not watching Friday the 13th to root for the absentminded teenagers down at Camp Crystal Lake. And Steven Spielberg certainly didn’t become a household name by directing a shark movie titled Three Guys on a Boat Drinking Narragansett.

The Hollywood Reporter set out to celebrate these iconic agents of evil by surveying 1000 professionals in the entertainment industry (directors, producers, entertainment attorneys, etc.) on their favorite movie villains. A rogues' gallery of murderous AI, mafia bosses, and a diabolical fashion magazine editor all made the top 25 list as the worst of the worst, and while they’re all deserving, the top five are the gold standard. They include:

5. Nurse Ratched: Played by Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
4. The Joker: Played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Wicked Witch of the West: Played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
2. Hannibal Lecter: Played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001), and Red Dragon (2002)
1. Darth Vader: Played by David Prowse and James Earl Jones in the Star Wars movies (Prowse 1977-1983, Jones 1977-present)

That top spot might not come as a surprise to most, unless you’re still in your twenties: According to The Hollywood Reporter, survey respondents in that age group put Darth Vader in the sixth spot—behind Regina George from Mean Girls.

To check out the entire list, head to The Hollywood Reporter.

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