This is a draft of an article I submitted to Nautilus Magazine, a “new magazine on science, culture, and philosophy,” for their issue entitled In Transit. Nautilus already had plans to cover the topic of my story, narrative transportation, so they politely declined my submission, which I share here with you. Their magazine is off to a great start, I encourage you to check it out.
People spend a lot of time trying to get places. According to a 2012 study out of Texas A&M, Americans spend an average of 38 hours a year stuck in traffic – and that number spikes up beyond 50 hours in big cities. People spend countless hours riding subways and buses, planes and trains, or waiting at bus stops, train stations, and airport terminals. Commuting can leave people stressed and unhappy and feeling like they’re wasting their time. But this time can also be an opportunity. When I was a graduate student, the hour that I spent traveling by train from San Francisco to Palo Alto each morning, and back every evening, was one of the few times in the day I had to myself to settle into a story. When people read stories (or watch or listen to them), the stories themselves become the vehicles that transport them, psychologically, away from the here-and-now and into a world in which they are absorbed in a narrative. There are many possible benefits to getting absorbed in a story instead of fixating on the frustration of motionless traffic or delayed flights – one benefit is that stories provide a uniquely powerful opportunity for science communication.
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Melanie Green is a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In 2000 she published the first in a series of articles on the theory of narrative transportation. The theory, as she explains it, “describes how, when people get absorbed in a story, they stop paying attention to the world around them and focus their thoughts and emotions and mental imagery on the story.” The theory also offers an account of why, when people are absorbed in a story, they become more open to persuasion, thereby providing an opening for effective science communication, particularly on topics that people are sometimes resistant to, such as anxiety-provoking health information, or scientific data that may be inconsistent with their beliefs, like the benefits of vaccination or the threat of global warming.
People have been aware of the persuasive power of stories for a very long time. From Aesop’s fables, to Jesus’ parables, to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, people have embedded morals into narratives. They have also been quick to attack books that have carried messages they fear might have a corrupting influence, banning them from libraries and burning them in bonfires.
To understand what makes narratives so persuasive, it’s worth considering how people respond to ordinary rhetorical persuasion, in which a persuasive appeal is made based on facts and arguments without a narrative structure. When people are confronted with facts and arguments that they disagree with or don’t want to believe, their typical response is to counter-argue. This is particularly likely to be the case when people have been forewarned that they are the target of an attempt to persuade. People are generally very good at finding reasons to dismiss or undermine arguments they would prefer not to believe. When people’s beliefs come under attack they put their defenses up, which can make persuasive science communication very challenging.
The strength of narrative persuasion is that it can evade many of these defenses. In his recent book, Contagious, Jonah Berger, Professor of Marketing at Wharton, likens the persuasive power of stories to the tale of the Trojan Horse. In Homer’s epic, the Greek army offers the gift of an enormous wooden horse to the people of Troy after ten long years of failure in trying to breach that city’s walls. The Trojans, taking the gift at face value, wheel the horse within their walls willingly, only to be undone by Greek soldiers who had been hiding inside the horse. Metaphorically, this is how narrative persuasion works. When people are absorbed in a story they let their guard down. They don’t try to dispute every claim that the story makes – as they might do with a rhetorical argument – because they become too absorbed in the story to muster the effort or the inclination to quibble over the details. People who are absorbed in a story don’t feel like they’re being persuaded, so facts and arguments can sneak through their defenses, invited in uncritically, just like the Trojan Horse. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge prefigured almost two centuries ago, when absorbed in an engaging narrative, the audience willingly suspends its disbelief.
In her research, Melanie Green and her colleagues have found that the more transported people are by a story, the more they report having beliefs that are consistent with that story. To measure how much an individual is transported by a story, Green developed a scale which includes questions like “I was mentally involved in the narrative while reading it,” and, “I could picture myself in the scene of the events described in the narrative.” In Green’s research, the more people reading a story report that it transported them, the less often they detect “false notes” in the story – that is, occasions where something seems amiss and may trigger them to question the story’s claims. Finally, the research on narrative transportation shows that the more people are transported by a story, the more they like its protagonists. This also is helpful to persuasion, because people tend to be more easily persuaded by someone who they like. Taken together there is a compelling case that a narrative, and particularly one that is crafted well enough to absorb its audience, is a uniquely powerful vehicle for persuasion.
It’s worth noting, however, that there is a potential dark side to narrative persuasion techniques as well. They can just as easily be used to promote negative behaviors or to convey misinformation. For example, Sonya Dal Cin, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan finds across numerous studies that exposure to movies in which characters smoke can lead viewers to have a more positive attitude towards smoking. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Marsh and Lisa Fazio find that people are more susceptible to believing misinformation that they read in stories. It’s critical, then, to be aware that far from being a science communication panacea, narrative persuasion can, under certain circumstances, lead to an increase in false beliefs.
There is, of course, much more to science communication than just persuading people of facts that they may prefer not to believe. Narratives can be a very effective mode of communication simply because they are more interesting and engaging for many audiences. One of my favorite books growing up was Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. It tells the story of a group of castaways, stranded on an island in the South Pacific after escaping from a Confederate prison aboard a hot air balloon during the Civil War. The castaways do more than simply survive their ordeal – using their training and ingenuity they manage amazing technological feats, such as making an electric telegraph and producing soap, ceramics, and nitroglycerin, all out of raw materials they find on the island. As a reader, I was completely absorbed in the unfolding drama, oblivious to the fact that I was learning about science. And yet, the story, and my interest in science, have stayed with me even decades later. By the end of Verne’s tale, he reveals the identity of the island’s mysterious inhabitant, who had been secretly helping the castaways when their situation became desperate (by the way, did you know that quinine can cure malaria?). Their secret benefactor turns out to be Captain Nemo, the hero of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and, fittingly, the captain of the Nautilus.