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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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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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11 Super Great Facts About Superbad
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On the surface, Greg Mottola’s Superbad is the ultimate bromance: it tells the simple story of three dorky high school seniors (Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) on a quest to bring alcohol to a party, just to impress some pretty girls. But beneath the dick jokes and teenage hormones, it’s about the anxiety of leaving for college and growing apart, emotions that producer Judd Apatow and writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg channeled into the hit comedy. On the 10th anniversary of its release, the film still holds up and its themes still ring true. Here are 11 things you might not know about the already-classic coming-of-age flick.

1. SETH ROGEN AND EVAN GOLDBERG WROTE THE FILM WHEN THEY WERE TEENAGERS.

It’s no secret that Seth Rogen wrote Jonah Hill’s character as an exaggerated version of his younger self. In an interview with Indie London, Rogen disclosed just how far back the story goes: “Evan Goldberg [and I] started writing it in high school when we were 14 years old and a lot of that stuff [in the movie] actually happened. The relationship between us is totally fabricated for the movie. We did split up eventually, but we don’t give a sh*t … we don’t love each other … The whole fake ID concept happened. Fogell is actually our other best friend and all the names in the movie are people who went to high school [with us].”

2. DIRECTOR GREG MOTTOLA LET THE CAMERA RUN FOR HOURS, EVEN IN BETWEEN TAKES.

When you’ve got Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse in an Apatow movie, you know you’ve got to let them play. Which is exactly what Greg Mottola did. “We shot high def, which was the greatest thing ever,” Jonah Hill told About.com. “I literally thought it was the greatest thing. You could just shoot all day. It was so awesome. Like any idea, anything you wanted to try, it wasn’t a waste of money or like time to shoot it. Even if it was crazy like so much stuff in the movie. And I think Greg took a lot of stuff that were like in-between takes and stuff or like reactions or things of us hanging out because they could just keep shooting what they could use in the movie."

3. EVAN GOLDBERG’S BROTHER DREW THE PENISES YOU SEE IN THE FILM.

While only a few censor-friendly organs were shown in a scene in which Seth (Hill) explains to Evan (Cera) his childhood fascination with drawing penises, Evan Goldberg’s brother David actually drew more than 1,000 options from which to choose. “They were hilarious," Hill told About.com. "I think as much credit goes to [David] for how he executed. It’s so funny that he’s a lawyer.” As for the idea to put the joke in the movie in the first place, Rogen swears that that part is not autobigraphical. “That came from nowhere," says Rogen. "I don’t know what it is. I wrote that.”

Superfans of the movie (who don’t already know this) can actually purchase the penis illustrations as movie memorabilia. It exists as a book.

4. PRODUCER JUDD APATOW TAPPED INTO SETH AND EVAN’S FRIENDSHIP TO ADD DRAMA TO THE PLOT.

Rogen and Goldberg grew up together, though they didn’t experience any separation anxiety when they went their separate ways for college. However, for the sake of storytelling, Apatow decided to ramp up the tension. “Maybe Judd got the idea kind of because I was at McGill University in Montreal, Seth was here, and we were growing apart," Goldberg told Reelz. "When in reality I’d be like, ‘All right, see ya later’ and then wouldn’t see Seth for a year and I’d be like, ‘What’s up?’ If [Seth] was like, ‘Yo, I can’t see you for 10 years, but then after that let’s go get a beer,’ I’d be like, ‘Okay.’ With Judd, the idea was developed and he had the idea about college the next year.”

5. MCLOVIN’S MOM HAD TO BE ON SET FOR HIS SEX SCENE.

Columbia/TriStar

Talk about awkward! Christopher Mintz-Plasse was only 17 years old when he shot the film, which required him to have parental supervision during his love scene with Nicola (Aviva Baumann). “It was real awkward but it worked out OK because when I watched the movie with her the sex scene wasn't awkward because she'd been right there when it happened," Mintz-Plasse told The Guardian. "Afterwards we didn't talk about it; we still don't speak about that moment.”

6. ACCORDING TO MICHAEL CERA AND JONAH HILL, THE REAL FOGELL IS MORE LIKE THE EVAN OF THE GROUP.

“It was more like Seth and Fogell making fun of Evan," Hill told Rotten Tomatoes. "Which Evan refuses to admit. But you could tell right away that that was the circumstance. When Evan showed him the movie, they were watching it and like 20 minutes into it or something, Fogell just went, ‘F*ck you dude.’”

However, Michael Cera’s bizarre story about the real Sam Fogell showed inklings of McLovin. “We've heard an awesome story where [Fogell] ... was gonna kill somebody one night,” said Cera. “He got in a bar fight and he went home basically to grab his sword, and he was looking for the guy.”

7. MICHAEL CERA SPENT AN HOUR IMPROVISING DANCE MOVES, WHICH IS WHAT YOU SEE IN THE OPENING CREDITS.

“It was Evan’s idea. For the DVD menu,” Michael Cera told Collider. “If it’s like a Blu-ray disc, they can have menus that long. It would be an hour of me dancing without looping. So the people would be like, ‘Oh, how long does this go on for?’ They would wait for it to loop and it never would.” It wasn’t until post-production when they had the idea to add the footage to the opening credits. “I think it was an editor’s assistant [who] made that intro of me dancing with like a silhouette,” Cera continued. “Then they recorded Jonah dancing because they liked it and decided to use it at the beginning of the movie.”

8. JASON SEGEL READ FOR THE PART OF EVAN.

“The first time I read the script was when we were doing Undeclared and we did a table read and we did it with Jason Segel and Seth reading the leads,” Apatow shares in the film’s DVD commentary. “It went well. It had a lot of heart at that period.” Added Rogen: “It took years to get the dick-to-heart ratio.” Eventually, the actors aged out of the roles, including Freaks and Geeks alum Martin Starr, who read Fogell's part.

9. SETH ROGEN’S ASSISTANT, MATTHEW BASS, PLAYS THE VAGTASTIC VOYAGER.

Columbia/TriStar

When Evan recounts his wild night out to Becca, the film cuts to the trio watching X-rated clips of the Vagtastic Voyager. As it turns out, he’s actually Matt Bass, an actor who was also formerly Rogen’s assistant. In the film’s DVD commentary, Goldberg calls Bass "the greatest Canadian to ever live.”

10. CHRISTOPHER MINTZ-PLASSE’S FIRST SCENE EVER—IN HIS ENTIRE ACTING CAREER—WAS HIS CHARACTER’S INTRO IN HOME ECONOMICS CLASS.

While discussing the scene in the DVD commentary, Mintz-Plasse admitted to being completely terrified filming his first professional movie ever. However, Goldberg reassured Mintz-Plasse, saying, “We read so many non-actors, so many people who had never done anything professionally before, and none of them could hide their fear. That’s why none of them got the job.”

11. JAY BARUCHEL IS RESPONSIBLE FOR GETTING MICHAEL CERA HIS SUPERBAD AUDITION.

“[Jay and I] were working on Fanboys and I said, ‘I think you might like Superbad,’ and literally the first thing he said is, ‘You gotta have Michael Cera come in. He’s f*cking amazing, that guy,” Rogen recalls in the DVD commentary. “I was like, ‘Who the f*ck is that?’” That recommendation led to Michael Cera’s mom getting a hold of the script, which she ended up pushing Michael to consider. Be sure to thank Jay and Michael’s mom for making Superbad the classic that it is.

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