The Red-Light District

Exploring the carnal and taboo

The Superhero Within

The power of a prime to inspire altruism.

The fight to capture or kill Osama bin Laden was serious business. It cost us (Americans) thousands of lives, an estimated $3 trillion (that's $3,000,000,000,000 for those of you who like zeros) and 15 years of history. Fortunately, we can now breathe a little easier. The uber-terrorist and criminal mastermind is gone. In the end, it took an elite group of navy SEALs and their canine to accomplish what many of us feared may never happen.

Personally, I thought it would take hundreds of people to directly capture Osama bin Laden. I imagined a mega-SWAT team descending on some cave in a mountainous region of Afghanistan. I was surprised that it took a smaller group of SEALs to take out the bad guy (albeit they were supported by the brave men and women of our armed forces). These SEALs are superheroes.

The campaign to take out Osama bin Laden made me think about the potential for every person to become a superhero. Granted few people are fit to be Navy SEALs--although I would be willing to audition to be a seal at SeaWorld--we all have the ability to be heroes for our friends, family and community.

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I just finished reading a paper titled "From Student to superhero: Situational primes shape future helping." The researchers show that when college students are primed or presented with the idea of a superhero, they were more likely to engage in altruistic behavior. Specifically, the students in the study were more likely to commit to volunteering for up to 3 months after the prime. Apparently, this increase in altruistic behavior was mediated by the students identifying similarities between themselves and the general idea of a superhero.

Interestingly, when the students were specifically primed by Superman, who serves as an exemplar or paragon of superhero behavior, they were less likely than the control group to engage in prolonged volunteer activities. Apparently, when primed by a specific superhero like Superman, the students were more likely to notice dissimilarities between themselves and the exemplar.

This study is probably most notable because it suggests that primes can have a prolonged effect on behavior. Psychologists have known for some time that short-term behavior, including helping behavior, can be affected by primes, but these effects are fleeting. For example, if a subject is primed to help others, then he's likely to help a confederate who drops her pens on the ground.

Last week, after thinking about the SEALs and more generally about heroics, I was influenced (dare I say primed) to donate blood. By nature, I like to donate, but I donate money. I never think about donating blood, marrow or even saliva--body fluids that I make. It was a big step for me to part with blood. Furthermore, I'm thinking about doing it again and continuing this specific pattern of altruism.

Apparently, by some subconscious process, the heroics inspired by the navy SEALs (and their dog) has moved me to engage in a long-term altruistic behavior.

What do you think?

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Naveed Saleh, M.D., M.S., attained a medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and a master's degree in science journalism from Texas A&M.

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