What would people do if they had superpowers?

At the very least we can ask what they say they would do, and it is not entirely encouraging:

Drawing from literature associating superheroes with altruism, this study examined whether ordinary individuals engaged in altruistic or selfish behavior when they were hypothetically given superpowers. Participants were presented with six superpowers—three positive (healing, invulnerability, and flight) and three negative (fear inducement, psychic persuasion, and poison generation). They indicated their desirability for each power, what they would use it for (social benefit, personal gain, social harm), and listed examples of such uses. Quantitative analyses (n = 285) revealed that 94% of participants wished to possess a superpower, and majority indicated using powers for benefitting themselves than for altruistic purposes. Furthermore, while men wanted positive and negative powers more, women were more likely than men to use such powers for personal and social gain. Qualitative analyses of the uses of the powers (n = 524) resulted in 16 themes of altruistic and selfish behavior. Results were analyzed within Pearce and Amato’s model of helping behavior, which was used to classify altruistic behavior, and adapted to classify selfish behavior. In contrast to how superheroes behave, both sets of analyses revealed that participants would hypothetically use superpowers for selfish rather than altruistic purposes. Limitations and suggestions for future research are outlined.

That is from a new paper by Das-Friebel, et.al., and the pointer is from Rolf Degen. Here is an earlier MR post about what an altruistic and incorruptible Superman should do; I found the question wasn’t so easy to answer.


Superman could've done so much more good if he just used his super strength for unlimited clean energy generation. I'm thinking a souped up stationary bike while he uses his laser eyes to create steam.

Relevant: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2305

That was pretty good.

Did superman have to eat calories equal to his physical feats? Or, was it magic instead of oddly kryptonite-distorted cells>

He's powered by the sun. Post-Crisis he didn't have powers as a kid because it took his body nearly 20 years to absorb enough energy to become Super, although writers gradually broke this down and let him magically recharge in seconds if need be.

Of course, if most said they didn't want superpowers, you'd use that as a point of departure for flogging your 'complacent class' thesis.

I like this fake Art Deco's charming cynicism.

Forget superheroes and what they can and cannot do. Here's what a very real person, Chris Hayes, has to say about neoclassical economics:

"The entirety of the corpus of Hayek, Friedman, and neoclassical economics. I think it’s an incredibly powerful intellectual tradition and a really important one to understand, these basic frameworks of neoclassical economics, the sort of ideas about market clearing prices, about the functioning of supply and demand, about thinking in marginal terms. I think the tradition of economic thinking has been really influential. I think it's actually a thing that people on the left really should do — take the time to understand all of that. There is a tremendous amount of incredible insight into some of the things we're talking about, like non-zero-sum settings, and the way in which human exchange can be generative in this sort of amazing way. Understanding how capitalism works has been really, really important for me, and has been something that I feel like I'm a better thinker and an analyst because of the time and reading I put into a lot of conservative authors on that topic." http://www.vox.com/2017/4/19/15356534/chris-hayes-donald-trump-media-elections-2016-criminal-justice

What's remarkable is that Chris Hayes is, or was, very liberal, and yet he is smart enough to say that. Maybe he reads this blog.

Step 2: someone talks him into reading Carlyle.
Step 3: railing against the Glorious Revolution.

This sentence got my attention, "Furthermore, while men wanted positive and negative powers more, women were more likely than men to use such powers for personal and social gain." I can't help but wonder if this is directly related to a fatalistic world view. Women are more likely to to be fatalistic, so given super human powers are more likely to use them as a source of personal empowerment.

Does this run counter to the thesis that a world run by women would be better off, less violent? Or, perhaps it's just evidence of a glass ceiling and that women need more power than men?

Bonus trivia: FART MAN! Da da da da da da da da.

What's your basis for saying women have a more fatalistic worldview? I have seen no literature on this, but my guess would be the opposite. Given the simple fact that women generally outlive men, I'd assume they are less fatalistic. Additionally, there is investment finance literature that shows that women tend to be more risk averse. If anything this would support they are looking at a longer time horizon. I'd hardly call that fatalism.

I'd also add this, which seems like the definitive indicator of fatalistic worldview (across cultures no less).


Then call it Complacent!!!

I interpreted this to mean that men used their powers more for social harm

no doubt my poor reading abilities but I couldn't make sense of the statement at all. What are positive and negative powers? How do they relate to personal or social gain. What's the connection between what is wanted by one group and how it might be used by another if we're comparing things -- apple and oranges if you ask me.

How about, instead of persons, we talk in terms of countries.

There is only one superpower.


Is what this is saying that we use our superpower status for selfish reasons.

Like, America First.

Brail has powers, too. As an impressed Kissinger once said, as Brazil goes, so goes South America.

I think he was probably talking about currency crises.

Or communicable diseases.

He was talking about Brazilian leadership.

The key to South America has always been Brazil. Lydon Johnson knew it, he said that, unlike the rich Kennedys, he may not have gone to Harvard, but he helped Brazil to avoid communism. And as Brazil goes, Kissinger knew it, so goes South America.

Indeed Mark Steyn once wrote that superheros where a metaphor for America. Garish, tacky, vaguely ridiculous, bit endowed with fantastic abilities no one else on Earth possessed.
Perhaps we can contend that selfish actions would ultimately serve the greater good? If Superman wanted to maximize his earnings he would become a super power source, worth trillions to the world economy. He'd end up the richest person in the history of the world, doing untold good in the process.
Maybe individuals who possess superpowers would act in their own best interests, and a capitalistic society would ensure those best interests would serve society as a whole?

Obviously, the behavioral effects of superpowers can only be speculated about. However, we might be able to extrapolate from how people use great power. My understanding of history is that individuals with great power sometimes require restraint to prevent harm. The power of innate altruism has not prevented great evils often with a pretext of doing good.

You can use a gun to hunt, or to start wars... these days GMO research is denied on the grounds we might accidentally create grey goo nano-monsters. Sigh, there's such complacency these days. The people should be up in arms over issues like #PatentsMatter but they're not.

In this context Nehru, the first prime minster of India warned of the dangers of adulation and popularity going astray for people with great power.


Say for example like an Erdogan.


One of my favorite quotes:
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." - Abraham Lincoln

"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely ."
(Lord Acton)

"A man acts as he is, when he can act as he wills."

(Old English saying, quoted by Tom Shippey.)

Does anyone else think that the superpowers listed are pretty dull?

Agree. Give me telekinesis. I'm always sitting too far from the remote, that tool that I need, or similar

And why would psychic persuasion be a negative? Sounds like Professor X. Doesn't the Highlander do something similar?

If I could use psychic persuasion to make people get over addictions and Not Do Stupid Things, it would be the best possible power in terms of societal good.

Also prevent wars. Peace deals would be worked out in areas of conflict and the people involved would think they were fair resolutions and tell their people and children so.

This is perilously close to negative, if your aim is just to make people convinced their real conflicts don't matter. The poor could be made happy with their lot. Slaves could be made eager to serve.

One thing I'll note is that these powers are far from equal. Psychic persuasion is far, far, more powerful than the others. It's not in the same universe. Healing is a weak form of invulnerability. Flying sounds fun but not that useful without other augmentations. Poison and fear production are trivial and replicable by simple technologies.

I deleted a sentence that said "Prevent wars, at least until after I die." If I just make people happy in the short-term, without solving any underlying conflict, that's just delaying the war.

Any peace deal worked out would need to be Not Obviously Bad for the parties involved. Over the years, there have been a number of proposals in the Israel-Palestine conflict that met this definition. If I were just to pick one at random and get all the hard-liners on board, things would settle down. Let people acquire enough private property over the next 10 years that they have enough to lose, and it becomes self-sustaining.

I agree that poison production is near useless. I wouldn't turn it down, since I've got some ants I want to take care of, but I wouldn't sacrifice anything for it.

If you want your superpower to be the ability to get everybody to just calm down for a little while, I grant that would be useful and less prone to abuse.

It'd be more fun to use your powers to win wars than prevent them, wouldn't it?

If it is true that humans can attain truth through reason, there is no use for psychic persuasion. The ability to psychically compel a particular belief about reality would only be useful for convincing people to believe falsehoods; that's the only extra thing added by that power that reason doesn't already have covered. But if it is not true that humans can attain truth through reason, then there can be no grounds for the person with psychic persuasion powers to believe they have any true belief about reality that will help other people when it is forced on them.

Dull? God no. Psychic persuasion would be incredible beyond words. If you had that, nearly all the other super powers are irrelevant or simulate-able.

What about an AI with psychic persuasion and access to Skynet?

I agree with the other commenters who pointed out that psychic persuasion was very much unlike the rest of the superpowers listed. Although presumably healing and invincibility also imply immortality and perpetual youth, which is a pretty cool superpower. Of the two, invincibility seems like the better deal, as if you had the power of healing, everyone everywhere who got cancer or any sort of disease would hound you to cure them.

I wonder how many of these Bill O'Reilly thought he had.

Well, an invulnerable, personal gaining, falafel is clearly one of them.

Sound empiricism in this field means reading comics.

Ignoring for now trying to keep my powers secret or worrying about becoming a lab subject:

If I had the ability to fly at supersonic speeds, I would start a delivery service. This is both personal gain and societal gain. Stopping crime seems dangerous unless I can carry a suit of really good armor. But there is a very limited amount of this that can be accomplished, just like there is a limited amount of "rescue someone from a burning building" that I could do.

Or does my power let me fly to space? Okay, solar-power satellites and Mars colonies, then.

Healing and invulnerability, in the words of Adam Baldwin, are redundant. There are a few certain peaceful jobs that I could do that no one else does, like deep-sea exploration, or Fukishima clean up crew, but despite being described as "positive" the only way to really get use out of them is by being an unkillable soldier. This is probably much more effective and scary than the negative "poison secretion."

Oh, I guess I could be an unkillable police officer, and try to reclaim some areas lost to crime without needing to shoot every black kid instantly. I suspect this would be a laughable failure if I actually tried it.

Psychic persuasion could be put to much better social good since I could convince people to support my Correct Policies. I might find out that they aren't Correct Policies, but I could just go back and make people support new ones. There would probably be some dead bodies along the road but from a utilitarian view maximum good would be achieved, and after my Correct Policies are Demonstrated Correct, I wouldn't need to keep up the persuasion. (I could use fear inducement as a crude way of accomplishing this.)

Thinking some more:

Flight, assuming reactionless flight, which is what most people say when flight is used as a super power, is the one thing that allows humans to do things they couldn't otherwise, which is explore the galaxy in human lifetimes.

For some reason I thought "healing" only meant self-healing. That would allow you to become a repeat organ donor. As a universal blood donor I'd probably end up hooked all day to an apheresis machine. The ability to heal others is more useful, but is presumably limited to those in physical contact, which is great for stuff like cancer where it takes a long time to die, but that only adds so many years to national life expectancy and you'll spend your whole life traveling from city to city, around the world. You could travel with people who make ideal organ donors.

With the power of healing you could do immense good. Once you convinced people your healing worked, you could surely manage to become rich and famous, while the sickest of the sick were brought to you for healing. Just make the rounds of the childrens hospitals and cancer centers and dialysis clinics, healing every patient in each one.

With Healing, your time would be the main constraint. It would certainly be most efficient to bring the most sick to you. Or at least concentrate them in regional centres for visits.

It gets dark though; dictators offer you their entire country's GDP to prolong their lives. Or seek to kidnap you. The Eternal Reign of Kim Jong Un beckons.

Of the powers listed, I would prefer invulnerability above all the others since it implies an escape from death (though that in itself could turn out to be a Hell on Earth eventually). And I would actively use it sparingly, and rarely in the view of others. I certainly would not be using it for altruistic reasons if I could get away with it.

Certainly the most corrupting of the powers listed is psychic persuasion- I doubt anyone could avoid using it for vast personal gain.

I could. So could, if they were real, Asimov's Second Foundarion's characters.

If I had the ability to seize any property, I might just decide that I don't need to seize any property because I effectively own everything on Earth anyway. Making Earth as rich as possible is making myself as rich as possible. Let other people think they have private property so they continue to be good producers.

I'd have someone clean my yard, though.

How much more rich Earth would have to bee to suit your interests? Yes, people could keep creating products you would like ro have (new gadgets, cures and even immortality serums), but wealth in a conventional sense would be meaningless if one can just get what one wants. Earth is already rich enough for that.

I, myself, would never let power corrupt me. As a Brazilian leader once said, power do not corrupt people, it shows who they really are.

Fortunately you won't have to resist the temptation.

Maybe, but it would not have been a hard task.

Or become President.

Actually http://reason.com/blog/2016/03/19/is-trump-a-master-wizard-who-uses-mental

But his tricks only work on the weak-minded.

That's more than enough, and it always has been.

In America, maybe, not in Brazil. It is sad to see a person being elected because he made gullible winged monkeys out of his countrymen instead of providing them with a worthy vision and good ideas. Sad.

Thiago outs himself as a hitnrunner. Thank God, now I know his 'Brazil is the Greatest' bit is just a shtick! I was beginning to worry about this guy..

I do not see your point. Our voters are too sophisticate for all this voodoo.

Breaking: Researchers discover that Original Sin is a real thing. Again.

"In contrast to how superheroes behave, both sets of analyses revealed that participants would hypothetically use superpowers for selfish rather than altruistic purposes. Limitations and suggestions for future research are outlined."
As for limitarions, I would propose researching a weapon that would drain their powers if they misbehave.


Why do we have people wasting time on this? Seriously, how is this "knowledge" going to help anyone?

Knowledge is its own reward (well, grants, too). " One story relates that one of his students complained that he had no use for any of the mathematics he was learning. Euclid quickly called to his slave to give the boy a coin because 'he must make gain out of what he learns.'" Also, there is much talk about gender differences, now we know which kind of power women and men would choose if they coukd choose superpowers, which they can not.

In a super abundant society who can research anything maybe you are right. I don't think we live in such society, and this kind of frivolous research is a total absurdity.

After the Singularity, we will all get to choose our superpowers.


What if you use the powers for sloth? How do you categorize using the power to levitate objects for the purpose of getting a beer from the fridge without getting up? Is that really negative?

I have superpowers.

I talk to inanimate an object that responds to my voice commands.

I can fly. With my luggage.

I can travel on the ground at over 140 mph.

But I have a difficult time understanding some of the posts.

I have an auxilliary brain that I can use to look up any information I want, anywhere, anytime.


(too dumb, won't replicate)

Umm.... we've got 536 elected people in DC that show you every day how selfish they are with their powers. To say nothing of "super" powers. (Although they are quite vast.)

Hey, it's not nearly as bad as Brazil, for sure. But then what is?

Brazil is not bad. Our anthem says "Eternally lying on a splendid cradle,
To the sound of the sea and under deep sky light
Thou flarest, O Brazil, crocket of America,
Illuminated by the sun of New World!

Than the showiest land,
Thy smiling, pretty prairies have more flowers
'Our groves have more life',
'Our life' in thy bosom 'more loves'."

The fact that the Brazilian anthem is in English speaks volumes my amigo!

It is a translation!

Man has an intrinsic nature to act selfishly. So I am not wondered to notice the statistic that 94% people used superpowers for their own benefits rather than using altruistic perspectives. It is very common phenomena for human being. Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. I profoundly believe this speech. If man was not chained with limitations and laws, then we would find the most selfish disposition of human being at every field. So the statistics has showed the real scenario of our society.

The problem with a "superpowers" survey is that it is not merely theoretical, it is theoretical fantasy. It is twice removed from reality. So whatever.

In practice though, the Ultimatum Game shows something much higher than 6% sharing.

If superpowers were real, a sense of responsibility would climb.

Exactly. Fantasy superpowers get used differently than real ones.

Just like if you get something as mundane as a $10K bonus at work, in a fantasy response you might say you'll use it for a vacation to Europe, but in reality you pay taxes with some and invest the rest, or something else almost as mundane. Let's test to see if the more fantastic the question, the more fantastic the response would tend to be.

You can't always separate "helping yourself" from "helping others."

If I had the power to heal others, even if I took a vow of poverty, despite having $0 in the bank I would live like the best king that's ever lived. I would be flown everywhere on a luxury private jet, stay in six-star hotels, and have women lined up to sleep with me. Anything money can buy I would have.

One possible negative side-effect of benevolent use of powers is that normal systems atrophy. What happens after I die? If I'm the magic healer, cancer researchers might quit and find something else to do, leaving society in the lurch when I'm no longer around.

Wait until you are kidnapped by the North Koreans. Heal the Dear Leader now!

All this both reminds me why I do not answer surveys and validates the decision.


"Furthermore, while men wanted positive and negative powers more, women were more likely than men to use such powers for personal and social gain."

I don't get this sentence. "Men wanted positive and negative powers more" . Those are the only two kinds. Does this mean that more Men wanted power and the 6% that didn't want power were majority women? Or did these guys have another measure for degree of desire for power? Even so, why say "Men wanted positive and negative powers more" when there isn't any other kind? Just say men wanted power more.

"Women were more likely than men to use such powers for personal and social gain" Ok I guess the third choice was social harm. So they mean that men were more likely to use these powers for social harm. yes?

I would go for healing, as long as I was allowed to use it on myself.

Then I would heal pretty much anyone who wanted it, as long as they didn't start taking it for granted and being assholes about it.
If they did that I would make them suffer for a little while just to remind them of my benevolence.

What if your healing power only worked on assholes? Then, what would you do?

"Don't be discouraged Procto Man, each time you've applied for membership to the Justice League, you've gotten closer to the threshold for admission. I just know you'll be successful the sixth time!"

I suspect that once the word got out that you could heal people, your private life would effectively be over. I'm assuming that you can't just stand on your balcony and shoot out a blast of healing rays that'll cure everyone in St. Peter's Square all at once; that you'll have to spend at least a few seconds laying hands on each individual patient.

Per the CDC, there were about 2.6 million deaths in the U.S. in 2014, which comes to a little over 7,000 per day. If it takes five seconds of hand-laying to cure one individual, you're spending about 10 hours a day, every day, just to cure all the people in the U.S. alone About 10% of these deaths seem to have resulted from accidents, suicide, or murder, and you probably wouldn't have time to cure most of these; on the other hand, there are lots of people with non-fatal conditions who'll want healing too.

And that's just the U.S., with its population of 320 million, in a world of 7.5 billion people. Presumably, your love of humanity isn't going to stop at the borders.

So how are you going to decide who gets healed and who doesn't? Or will that decision even be left to you? Since health care is a right, not a privilege, I rather suspect that you'd find yourself the subject of some kind of special draft, to keep you from putting your selfish desire for some free time of your own ahead of the needs of thousands and thousands of sick people, many of them adorable children...

I would refuse to heal the President, or his wife or kids, until he signed an executive order giving me absolute freedom to heal or not whoever I wanted.

But if this intransigence leads to imprisonment where you can't heal anyone? Think of the avoidable suffering your moral stance is causing!

There's a good thread here worth developing (pace SMBC) about whether it would be just to have a special tax regime just for Superman.

And yet heroes, pursuing selfish ends, may, as if possessed of invisible powers, promote ends far beyond their intentions.

Good. The last thing we need is some Superman trying to change the world. Power Corrupts. Better they use their powers to get rich and find mates.

This blog is becoming an episode of "Big Bang Theory". Life imitating art or are academics really this goofy.

three positive (healing, invulnerability, and flight) and three negative (fear inducement, psychic persuasion, and poison generation)

Does healing cover others, or just yourself? Invulnerability to others? Does poison generation include antibiotics? How powerful is psychic persuasion - there is a difference between "can get anyone and everyone to do anything at any distance" and "can persuade other people to shoot you in the head from a safe distance". Although even a limited ability to encourage people to tell the truth could be useful to the legal system.

I wonder how many of these Bill O’Reilly thought he had.

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