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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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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

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