Superman, you suck

Here’s a surreal bit of research: Apparently the mere act of thinking about Superman makes us suckier people. A couple of researchers discovered this by accident, while they were pondering the intriguing effects of “priming” — using a couple of suggestive words to affect someone’s behavior. Researchers have known for a long time that exposing subjects to words can affect their behavior; for example, one study showed that people exposed to helpful words were more likely to help a friend pick up some spilt pens.

Those effects are normally pretty short-term, so the researchers wanted to know how long they’d last for. So they took a bunch of students and asked them to write up a list of attributes of various superheroes, one of which was Superman. Later, they were given the opportunity to volunteer for a community program. The results? As the New Scientist reports:

Students who thought of Superman volunteered much less of their time than those who thought about other superheroes. Furthermore, Superman-primed subjects were significantly less likely to show up at a meeting for volunteers held three months after they were initially asked to participate.

The reason, believes Nelson, is that asking people to compare themselves to an exceptional individual makes them realise their shortcomings. Whereas thinking about a general category encourages people to identify the strengths they have in common.

(Thanks to Noah for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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