It's true, technology can influence a person's behavior. Whether it can make us more empathetic people is another question.

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)

Researchers at Stanford's Virtual Human Interactive Laboratory released findings of a new experiment hoping to tie superhero fantasies to real world moral behavior. In the test, 60 subjects were put into a digital simulation of a big city and told to locate a diabetic child in need of insulin. Test subjects were split into two groups, either flying over the city like Superman, or told they were passengers in a helicopter. The test was enhanced by a number of small physical details, including wall-mounted speakers that emitted a wind-whooshing sound and large speakers beneath the floor that simulated the rumble of a helicopter.

After the simulation, test subjects were asked to take a survey about their experience, where researchers then pretended as if they had accidentally knocked over a cup filled with 15 pens. In every case the researcher waited five seconds before bending over to start picking up the pens, giving the test subject time to take initiative and help with the cleanup. Researchers found that the people who had been given the flight ability began helping to pick up the pens within three seconds, while those who had searched from a helicopter took an average of six seconds to begin helping. 


While technology can be used to reinforce all sorts of different socio-political roles, it can just as easily be used to make a person self-conscious about their role.


The most immediate conclusion has been to suggest video games and virtual reality can be used to heighten empathy and encourage proactive behavior. Yet the structure of the experiment is not really about the power of technology, but a reaffirmation of the effects role performance can have on a person's behavior. When put in scenarios where a person is directed to complete a task while playing a certain role, they are much more likely to internalize the traits associated with that role. It's not surprising that a person told to take the role of a passenger looking out as they're flown through an environment is slightly more passive after. Nor should it amaze that a person told to use some new superhuman power to actively move themselves through that environment will tend to be slightly more active after.

Technology can influence a person's behavior, but only to the extent that it can communicate a particular social role its users should adoptsuch as the tendency of male World of Warcraft players to be more cooperative when playing as female characters. Technology is an important prop in these cases, just as the police uniform was necessary to begin the transformations during Phil Zambardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. But it is not the widget that creates the social role, it is the power of the social roles which we have invented being channeled through all of these various objects.

And while technology can be used to reinforce all sorts of different socio-political roles, it can just as easily be used to make a person self-conscious about their role. Joseph Gordon-Levitt turned a video camera on paparazzi photographers recently and made a film to show how predictably uncomfortable and defensive the men became.

In other settings, the pressures to uphold a social role most can lead to escalating tension and violence. This week a video of a mall security guard shooting a tazer gun at a woman in front of her children went viral. The man is given a uniform, a weapon, and a chest-mounted surveillance camera and then told to keep a mall secure in a crime-heavy area. After apparently trying to quiet the children of a woman on the sidewalk outside a mall entrance, a shouting match began and soon the woman was swinging her fists at the guard while her children yelled encouragement.

The video is horrible to watch, culminating with three children wailing and hysterical after having seen their mother momentarily paralyzed and dropped to the ground like a corpse from the electrical charge. Yet one sees also the constraints of the role of security guard, given an impossible role and only aggressive tools to play it with. Before the violence even occurs, the exchange is skewed by the role itself, a man who approaches a woman with several agitated children and tells her to leave instead of asking if he might help.