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We could be superheroes: the era of positive computing

Digital technologies have made their way into all aspects of our lives that influence our wellbeing - affecting everything from social relationships and curiosity to engagement and learning. Psychologists…

Technology such as the iPad has been found to affect our wellbeing both positively and negatively. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Digital technologies have made their way into all aspects of our lives that influence our wellbeing - affecting everything from social relationships and curiosity to engagement and learning.

Psychologists have generally focused on the negative impacts of using internet technologies or on the potential of these technologies to be used to help those suffering from mental health problems.

But recent advances in the development of tools go beyond prevention of disorders to actually promote well-being.

In fact, we may be entering an era of “positive computing”, in which technology will be designed specifically to promote wellbeing and human potential.

A positive outlook

The truth is, engineers such as myself aren’t known for our social and emotional intelligence. It’s no wonder we have seldom focused on the impact the technologies we create have on the psychological wellbeing of the people who use them.

n boyd

The advent of positive computing provides us with an opportunity to put human potential and wellbeing front and centre when imagining and creating future technologies.

The press keeps the public anxious about the negative impacts of using internet technologies with regular articles on stress and suggestions for coping.

Psychiatrists themselves are planning to add “Internet Addiction” to their official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

But we are less aware of how these same technologies can be used to help those suffering from mental health problems, or how they might help all of us live happier and psychologically healthier lives.

Researchers have begun to investigate how internet technologies such as e-mail, and social media platforms such as Facebook, could support young people in crisis, adults suffering from depression, and encourage smartphone users to be more mindful.

Those efforts come as we are seeing technology, psychology and neuroscience converge. On one hand, engineers are getting more involved in issues of human emotion, values and well-being, as well as recognising the need for it and the science behind it.

There is also an emerging interest among mental health professionals to understand how technology can be used - not only to treat illness - but also for a larger mission to promote positive psychology and optimum mental health in everyone.

New moves

Ian Hickie and I, at the University of Sydney, recently began a three-year project in collaboration with the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre and the Inspire Foundation, in which we will conduct research to inform the development of an online clinic, a semi-automated triage system and an online hub where young people can download tools and applications to help them improve their wellbeing.


The Young and Well CRC is engaging in multidisciplinary approaches that bring software specialists together with psychologists and other mental health experts to create novel technologies specially designed to promote mental health.

In this, it is not alone. An increasing number of engineers and computer scientists are working, within multidisciplinary teams, on systems that promote pro-social behaviours such as altruism, empathy, resilience and mindfulness.

In a recent study published in PLOS One, a team at Stanford University, led by the cognitive psychologist Jeremy Bailenson, used augmented virtual reality games to develop helping behaviours - altruism, in other words.

Simply super

Half of the 60 participants who completed the study were given the virtual power to fly like Superman (the “superhero” condition), while the other half flew in a virtual helicopter. In the two-by-two design, participants in each of these groups were also allocated to either helping to find a lost sick child or tour a virtual city.

Jerome Ware

At the end of the virtual-reality experience, participants were confronted by someone who needed help (the dependent behavioural condition).

The researchers measured the time to, and amount of, help provided by those in the different experimental conditions, and the results showed those in the superhero condition were significantly faster and helped more than those in the touring conditions.

Six of the touring participants didn’t help at all, while every one of the former superheroes did.

Although the researchers hypothesised that the embodied experience of helping facilitated the transfer of this behaviour to the real-world, other studies have shown similar correlations between “positive” pro-social games and pro-social behaviours with lower tech immersion.

No worries

Technologies that foster the factors correlated to psychological wellbeing are only likely to become more common.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recently funded a project led by neuroscientist Professor Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to develop mobile applications that support the development of children’s mindfulness skills.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently launched wellbeing@school, a component of, a highly successful online service delivered by the internet-based Inspire Foundation. These resources are mapped to the Australian Curriculum and will be offered at no cost to schools.

AAP/Lloyd Jones

Research such as this, together with case studies from around the world, will be described in a forthcoming book I am co-authoring for The MIT Press with digital designer Dorian Peters at the University of Sydney.

The book, Positive Computing: Technology for a Better World, outlines the landscape of positive computing, an emerging field of research and practice dedicated to the investigation and design of technologies that support psychological well-being and human potential.

We believe that this research will bring together research and methodologies well-established in psychology, engineering, education and neuroscience, to begin a new era of digital experiences that are deeply human-centred.

It was Aristotle that said all our efforts in life are ultimately about seeking wellbeing - shouldn’t designers of technology be our allies on this journey?

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. George Michaelson


    What do you think about the use of immersive virtual reality as part of treatments for problems like schizophrenia? Or for re-actualisation of PTSD triggers?

    1. lesposen

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to George Michaelson

      VR works best when it is immersive and thus can trigger intrusive elements of anxiety disorders - doesn't have to have perfect verisimilitude - but enough to trigger what the patient has experienced in situ and finds disturbing, and this further triggering avoidance behaviours - the hallmark of anxiety.

      WRT schizophrenia, there is a general "lore" that one avoids using it with those with a history of reality distortion and confusion, in the belief it exaggerates and can stimulate a further onset. Where it has been used in this context is for the training of mental health professional to "experience" what life is like for those suffering compromised reality testing capacities. So one can introduce "voices in the head", hallucinatory images, paranoid "invitations" by having avatars appear to be talking about the person or giving them directions, possibly of self or other harm. See it as an empathy strengthening tool.

    2. Rafael A. Calvo

      Associate Professor - Software Engineering at University of Sydney

      In reply to George Michaelson

      Hi George
      Sorry for the delay, I have been out of town.
      I do not know about treating schizophrenia, I am not a psychiatrist, but you can check out this blog post for an example of VR used to empathize with schizophrenic patients:

      Some of the people working on VR and PTSD include Gratch and Rizzo at USC (, Giuseppe Riva in Italy.

      best wishes


  2. Ben Mullings

    logged in via Facebook

    Apps and self-guided web-based therapies have some uses, particularly in early intervention. However, one practical aspect of technology which seems to get less attention is the capacity to use the connectivity of the Internet to link people with a real psychologist.

    In a place like Australia, we really need to be harnessing the Internet more to expand access so that people in distant or disconnected situations can link in with support and treatment services. Research has shown in a number of…

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    1. lesposen

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ben Mullings

      And yet, Ben, despite the mounting evidence for distance-based therapies - telepsychology - and the demonstrated value of telephone-based crisis services like LifeLine - the current Better Access program for Australians to access evidence-based psychological services following GP referral prohibits such access. You can only have face to face sessions.

      It's time those in Canberra at DoHA recognise the value of different approaches to therapeutic contact such as tele health. And if we are to be stuck with 10 sessions (despite the evidence to the contrary for successful long-term) outcomes, sessions must be time and location-limited. Why not allow patients to have a 10 session "virtual docket" and patient and therapist work out the most efficacious protocol of usage to achieve the best possible outcome?

    2. Rafael A. Calvo

      Associate Professor - Software Engineering at University of Sydney

      In reply to Ben Mullings

      Hi Ben
      Yes, you are right, that is another interesting use. Our Virtual Clinic project in a way is exactly about that.
      Social networks can also be used to deliver content in novel ways. E.g. Steve Howard in Melbourne has done interesting work for smoking cessation and sexual education.

      best wishes