• New research says that superheroes can inspire us to want to be helpful and perform altruistic acts.
  • Researchers sought to understand how our heroes—specifically fictional heroes—might affect how we approach life.
  • Study participants were exposed to different images; one group saw images, which included subtle visuals of superheroes, while another group saw neutral images.
  • Those who saw images of superheroes reported greater inclinations to help others; in part two of the experiment they were more willing to actually perform a helpful act.
  • There are several study limitations, including the reliability on self-reports in part one of the study, as well as the lack of supporting research.

Quick Summary

Researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University and Hope College say that our favorite superheroes can motivate us to help others and carry out altruistic acts. More specifically, their study “Heroic Helping: The Effects of Priming Superhero Images on Prosociality” showed that mere images of the superheroes we admire—Batman, Captain America, Deadpool, or what have you—can inspire us to want to be do-gooders and actually carry out acts of kindness.


This study sought to explore the impact of society’s favorite superheroes, specifically related to their potential role in inspiring others to live honorable lives. While heroes come in all shapes and sizes—fictional, as well as nonfictional—the researchers decided to focus on the effects of popular fictional superheroes. Their reasoning for doing so was their belief that people may feel more inclined to model behaviors after those that aren’t rooted in reality, but in fantasy.


Those in charge of this study recruited 245 study participants to assess your average household pictures. For some of the participants, several pictures included subtle superhero appearances. After they were finished, the participants would then answer questions related to their desire to engage in altruistic acts.

An additional 123 participants were recruited for the second experiment, which looked more closely at actually performing altruistic acts (as opposed to self-reported inclinations to perform altruistic acts). Some of these individuals were exposed to a Superman poster that was hung on the wall, while others viewed a picture of a bicycle (which served as a neutral image). They were then asked whether or not they would like to help out the researchers with an additional task. Additionally, they filled out a Meaning of Life Questionnaire.


In the first experiment, the participants who viewed pictures, which featured subtle images of superheroes reported greater inclinations to perform altruistic acts. The researchers deduced that this superhero priming led to these increased altruistic inclinations, as well as increased life fulfillment.

The second experiment—which, again, served to further evaluate how images of superheroes might influence people to perform do-gooder acts—yielded similar results. Those who saw the Superman poster were significantly more willing to help than those who were shown the bicycle picture. And as far as the Meaning of Life Questionnaire went, there weren’t any significant differences in how the two groups answered.

All in all, this research shows that even subtle visuals of superheroes can inspire us to want to help and to actually perform helpful behaviors. Why? Because they stand for honor, integrity, and everything else many of us hope and strive to embody in our lives.


  • The first experiment relied on self-reports of the participants’ desires and intentions to perform altruistic acts, which admittedly wasn’t enough evidence to prove that superheroes can inspire us.
  • Only two experiments were conducted and there is little to research (or additional studies) to back up these findings; therefore, there is a need for further experimentation and exploration of this concept.

Van Tongeren, D. R., Hibbard, R., & et al. (2018, November 23). Heroic Helping: The Effects of Priming Superhero Images on Prosociality. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02243/full

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the Content Development Manager at Thriveworks. She devotes herself to distributing important information about mental health and wellbeing, writing mental health news and self-improvement tips daily. Taylor received her bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism, with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book and has published content on Thought Catalog, Odyssey, and The Traveling Parent.

Check out “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book” written by AJ Centore and Taylor Bennett."

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