Science of Story Building: Narrative Transportation

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“The traveler goes some distance from his or her world of origin, which makes some aspects of the world of origin inaccessible. The traveler returns to the world of origin, somewhat changed by the journey.”- Richard Gerrig, professor of psycholinguistics, Stony Brook University¹

Have you ever gotten so involved in a story that you lose track of time and even forget where you are? Researchers refer to this experience as narrative transportation. It is a sign of a great story, and it is also a powerful tool for driving attitude change. Whether it is fiction or a true story, when people become immersed in a story, the experiences they have in the world of the characters become their own and can serve as an anecdote for their beliefs.

Researchers have tested and debated a number of elements that lead to narrative transportation. We’re especially interested in three of themdiscuss three of them: empathy with the characters, identification with the characters, and vivid imagery.

Empathy

To experience narrative transportation, the audience should experience empathy with the characters. Social psychologists Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby argue that when audiences take the perspectives and experiences of the characters in the story they “lose themselves and assume the identity of the character, adopting the character’s thoughts, emotions, goals, traits, and actions and experiencing the narrative as though they were that character.”²

Some of the most famous characters stick with us because we empathize with their experiences. Whether that is feeling the injustice felt by Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen as she worked her way up in a male-dominated ad agency, feeling the anger of Harry Potter as he witnessed Draco’s prejudice toward Hermione when he called her a “filthy little Mudblood,” or experiencing the mental break down of Nina in Black Swan as she is pushed to her breaking point at the end of the film.³

Perspective-taking has the power to lower prejudice and discriminatory behavior toward marginalized groups.⁴ Stories can reduce prejudice by creating space for the audience to imagine interacting with and taking the perspective of people different from them.⁵ As Kaufman and Libby write:

“In transporting us to another place and time, literature allows us to imagine ourselves as characters who possess personality traits that are distinct from our own… Moreover, works of fiction often let us experience the life journeys of people from backgrounds and identity groups quite different from our own, opening our eyes and minds to the unique struggles and triumphs of individuals we may not otherwise have the opportunity or inclination to encounter in our daily lives.”⁶

For example, in one study researchers tested the potential for a countersterotypical story about a free-willed Arab-Muslim woman in the United States to induce empathy and lower prejudice toward this group. One group of participants read a short one-page summary about the woman, another group read a longer story about the woman that included descriptive dialogue and language, and a control group read an unrelated document. The researchers then measured participants’ empathy and prejudice toward Muslim-Arabs. The story reduced prejudice and increased empathy, and for some participants that felt anxiety about interacting with Arab-Muslims, the story also reduced anxiety. The researchers theorize that the story reduces prejudice through indirect contact with Arab-Muslim characters.⁷

Character Identification

When people identify with a character — including similar demographics, values, experiences or worldviews — they are more likely to experience narrative transportation. Organ donors, as compared with non-donors, are more transported by organ donation stories.⁸ People who know someone who is gay and are familiar with fraternity life are more likely to be transported in a story about a gay man who visits a fraternity.⁹ And Hispanic and African American women who read stories about cervical cancer screenings and prevention were more likely to be transported, identify with the Hispanic characters in the story, report positive feelings toward screenings and report intentions to get a pap test, as compared to white women who read the same story and participants who read a non-narrative on HPV.¹⁰

When people identify with a character they are more open and susceptible to changing their beliefs to match those presented in the story. As health communication and storytelling scholar Sheila Murphy and her colleagues write:

“people learn not only from direct experience but also by observing others and modeling the observed behaviors. In essence, individuals are more likely to mimic behaviors that they have seen modeled than behaviors that have been recommended but not demonstrated. Furthermore, individuals appear to more readily adopt behaviors demonstrated by models they consider similar to themselves…In addition to the importance of perceived similarity, individuals also seem to learn more from characters whom they like, want to be like, or feel as if they know.”¹¹

Mental Imagery

To be transported, the audience must lose a sense of awareness of their physical surroundings and be transported into the world in the story. To do that, stories must use a lot of vivid language and images.¹² When we include vivid images, audiences are able to remember the events in the story similar to how they would remember a real event in their own lives.¹³ Vividness through “crisp imagery and or sound” is more likely to capture the interest and attention of the audience. As a result, it draws their attention away from competing information, requires less mental work, and leads to easier absorption into the story.¹⁴

Green and Donahue describe the experience of mental imagery:

“Imagine a person immersed in a favorite mystery novel. This person may not hear others enter or leave a room while she is reading. She may stay up late into the night, because she does not realize how much time has gone by. Her heart may start beating faster during tense moments in the plot, or she may laugh or cry along with the main characters in the story. She may have a vivid mental image of the appearance of these characters. Being lost in a book, or what we call being transported into a narrative world, can have all of these effects and more.”¹⁵

Vivid images can be distracting for the audience if they distract from the story. “Imagery should be relevant to the central message being conveyed,” writes Green. “For example, a story should encourage imagery related to a family’s joy after a mother’s successful treatment for breast cancer, rather than creating vivid mental images of (say) the family’s hometown.”¹⁶

Narrative Transportation for Belief Change

Narrative transportation is a powerful tool for persuasion and belief change. By being transported, psychological barriers are reduced through an engaging story.¹⁷

For example, in one study, participants read an excerpt from the book How We Die.¹⁸ Some were told the story was fiction and others that it was a true story. The story was about a young woman named Katie, who went to the mall on a Saturday morning. She ran into a psychiatric patient who, without warning or reason, brutally stabbed and killed her.

After reading this story, participants were asked how they felt reading the story and then how they saw the world, responding to statements like “someone is getting stabbed to death somewhere in the US.” Choose from from a series of answers ranging from “every 10 minutes” to “every month.”

Participants who experienced narrative transportation were more likely to have story consistent beliefs, report that the world was unjust (because an innocent girl was randomly stabbed), and were more likely to support policy around the control of psychiatric patients and believed that violence was more frequent in the US. The story did not share statistics, data or discuss policy on the issue of violence and mental health. Instead, a single story was able to shift beliefs on the issue to reflect the world in the story. This was true for both true and fiction stories.

“Transportation effects work through reducing counterarguing, creating connections (identification and liking) with characters and increasing perceptions of realism and emotional involvement,” say Green and Clark.

Green and Clark provide three ways narrative transportation works to change beliefs:

  • People perceive less intent to persuade.
  • People identify with and like the characters and then adopt the beliefs of those characters.
  • People may remember the events in a story as their own.

As we think about how to construct stories with intention, including characters people can identify with, that incite empathy and include vivid images and language can be powerful in capturing attention and influencing beliefs.

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  1. Gerrig, R.J. (1993). Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  2. Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103(1), 1. Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2015). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(2), 105–121.
  3. At a panel at the 2014 Oscars’ event: The Science of Cinematic Perception, Talma Hendler, a neuroscientist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, discussed research findings that the audience’s brain mirrors the same experience of schizophrenia as she hallucinates turning into a black swan.
  4. Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(4), 708.
  5. Vescio, T. K., Sechrist, G. B., & Paolucci, M. P. (2003). Perspective taking and prejudice reduction: The mediational role of empathy arousal and situational attributions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33(4), 455–472. Shih, M., Wang, E., Trahan Bucher, A., & Stotzer, R. (2009). Perspective taking: Reducing prejudice towards general outgroups and specific individuals. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 12(5), 565–577.
  6. Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103(1), 1.
  7. Johnson, D. R., Jasper, D. M., Griffin, S., & Huffman, B. L. (2013). Reading narrative fiction reduces Arab-Muslim prejudice and offers a safe haven from intergroup anxiety. Social Cognition, 31(5), 578–598.
  8. Morgan, S. E., Movius, L., & Cody, M. J. (2009). The power of narratives: The effect of entertainment television organ donation storylines on the attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors of donors and nondonors. Journal of Communication, 59(1), 135–151.
  9. Green, M. C. (2004). Transportation into narrative worlds: The role of prior knowledge and perceived realism. Discourse processes, 38(2), 247–266.
  10. Murphy, S. T., Frank, L. B., Chatterjee, J. S., & Baezconde‐Garbanati, L. (2013). Narrative versus nonnarrative: The role of identification, transportation, and emotion in reducing health disparities. Journal of Communication, 63(1), 116–137.
  11. ibid
  12. Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(5), 701.
  13. Green, M. C., & Clark, J. L. (2013). Transportation into narrative worlds: implications for entertainment media influences on tobacco use. Addiction, 108(3), 477–484.
  14. Riddle, K. (2013). Transportation into vivid media violence: A focus on attention, emotions, and mental rumination. Communication Quarterly, 61(4), 446–462.
  15. Green, M. C., & Donahue, J. K. (2009). Simulated worlds: Transportation into narratives. Handbook of imagination and mental simulation, 241–256.
  16. Green, M. C. (2006). Narratives and cancer communication. Journal of communication, 56(s1).
  17. Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(5), 701.
  18. ibid