‘Transporting’ stories change readers’ minds
Have you ever been lost in a story?
Have you ever looked up and found that hours, not minutes, have passed since you turned on your Kindle and that you are in fact in your own bedroom and not at the palace, about to be crowned queen?
Have you ever rewritten the end of a story in your mind, so that, say, Nick and Daisy get together at the end of The Great Gatsby?
Have you ever thought to yourself, “C’mon, Khaleesi, let’s saddle up those dragons and go show the Baratheons how a real royal rules Westeros” — even though you know that dragons don’t exist, and neither, for that matter, do Westeros, the Baratheons or Khaleesi?
Researchers call that being “transported” through story. And when you transport readers through stories, you can help them see the world differently.
You can even make them change their minds.
Transporting stories are more credible.
Or so say researchers Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock, two members of the Department of Psychology at Ohio State University. They posit that:
- The attitudes we form through direct experience are more powerful than those we form through intellectual enterprise (Fazio & Zanna, 1981).
- Stories give us the feeling of real experience without the suspicions that overtly promotional messages raise.
- The more a story transports us, the more likely we are to be persuaded by it — even if the story doesn’t explicitly state a position. (And when you’re absorbed in the story, you don’t want to stop and analyze the positions it takes.)
In fact, one study showed that transported readers were more likely to buy even ridiculous claims — “mental illness is contagious,” for instance — when they absorbed them through story (Gerrig and Prentice, 1991).
‘Murder at the mall’
To study their hypothesis, Green and Brock asked study participants to read “Murder at the Mall,” the true story of a little girl, Katie, who goes to the mall with her college-age sibling. While at the mall, Katie is brutally stabbed to death by a psychiatric patient.
The story, the researchers say, “is moving and shocking.”
Transportation test. First, Green and Brock determined how much the story transported readers via a true-or-false checklist that included statements like:
- While I was reading the narrative, I could easily picture the events in it taking place.
- I could picture myself in the scene of the events described in the narrative.
- I found myself thinking of ways the narrative could have turned out differently.
Attitude test. Then the researchers asked participants to share their attitudes about violence and mental illness with questions like this:
- “Someone is getting stabbed to death somewhere in the USA …” Responses ranged from every 10 minutes to every month.
- “The likelihood of a stabbing death at an Ohio mall is …” Responses ranged from once every 50 years to once every week.
- True or false: “Psychiatric patients who have passes to leave their institution should be supervised.”
Transporting stories are more believable.
Green and Brock learned some interesting things from the study: Women, for instance, are more likely to be transported by stories than men. And people are just as likely to adapt their positions to the story whether they believe it’s fact or fiction.
But the real bottom line is this: The more the story transported readers, the more likely they were to sync their attitudes with the story.
Are you trying to move your readers with facts and figures? Why not transport them — through story — instead?
Sources: Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock, “The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives” (PDF), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, No. 79, 2000; pp. 701- 21
Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Random House Publishing Group, 2007