Why Study Narratives?
Stories and narratives are a central part of human experience. From early on in life, we read books, watch television and films, and these kinds of narrative experiences not only amuse us but also affect our understanding of the world around us, as well as, of ourselves. In order to understand narrative influence, a number of relevant questions should be answered: How can these narratives affect our way of thinking? When and how do we agree with the messages embedded in a story? And which are the psychological processes that enable such influence? The present paper, following a psychological approach, examines the persuasive power of narratives. Its main goal is to review the literature on narrative influence on beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. It especially focuses on the psychological processes underlying narrative influence.
Why is important to examine narrative influence? Examining the influence of stories is important in order to understand wanted or unwanted persuasion (Green, Garst, & Brock, 2004): First, narratives are sometimes used to persuade the audience, as, when, for example, producers of television series present members of a minority group (e.g. Black or gay people) in a positive way so that these representations could lead to decreased stereotyping and prejudice toward these groups (Igartua 2010; Müller, 2009; Ortiz & Harwood, 2007). Another example of purposeful use of narrative and stories with the goal to provide new information and persuade, is when educators use entertainment-education (i.e. prosocial messages embedded into popular entertainment media content) to teach children healthy behaviors (Singhal, Cody, Rogers, & Sabido, 2004). Second, it is important to examine narratives for the cases that false or harmful information reaches and persuades recipients of a story. Such cases would be, when unhealthy behaviors (e.g. smoking, drug use) are presented in a positive way or as normative in a film, or when racist and hate discourse is employed to defame social groups.
Definition of Narratives
What do we mean when we talk about narratives? Narratives are defined as “the symbolic representation of an event or a series of events” (Abbott, 2002, p. 12). These events may concern human experiences (i.e., everything that a person may experience in his or her lifetime), interpersonal relations (e.g. love in a romantic story), problem solving (e.g. survival under life threatening conditions in an action drama, or providing a solution to a mystery in a thriller), and conflict (e.g. fight between groups or individuals in a western or a historic film) (Ryan, 2007). Fundamental elements of a narrative are the protagonists who are (explicitly or implicitly) present and follow a plot line as the narrative unfolds. These characteristics can be found in stories presented in various formats and genres, in traditional media (e.g., feature films, novels, television drama etc.) or new media (e.g. digital storytelling), and are easily recognizable by anyone who has read a book or watched a film.
Narratives have been usually conceptualized in contrast to argumentation, that is, the ordering of claims and evidence linked by logical coherence in support of a position (Ryan, 2007). The social psychological research that mainly focuses on persuasive processes has largely examined argumentation or advocacy messages, for example, advertising, political speeches, health campaigns, propaganda etc. (McGuire, 1986). The scientific literature that examines the persuasive powers of argumentation is vast (see for example the review of Petty & Wegener, 1998), whereas the examination of narrative persuasion has only recently gained researchers’ attention (Green, Strange, & Brock, 2002). However, as Bilandzic and Busselle (2013) argue, although the distinction between argumentation and narrative is heuristically useful, it does not take into account that, more often than not, narratives and arguments combine and merge. So, a narrative may contain persuasive arguments (e.g. a protagonist of a film may explicitly support a clear political stance), while, on the other hand, an argument may contain narrative elements (e.g. a health campaign may present the story of a patient). Notwithstanding their combination, studies have explicitly compared narrative and argumentative messages and found that in some cases the former can be more influential than the latter (e.g. Strange & Leung, 1999). This evidence brings on the next question of what is narrative persuasion and how effective can it be?
Narrative persuasion can be defined as ‘any influence on beliefs, attitudes, or actions brought about by a narrative message through processes associated with narrative comprehension and engagement’ (Bilandzic & Busselle, 2013, p. 171). Research has shown that reading, or listening to, a narrative can form or change beliefs about the world (e.g., Fazio & Marsh, 2008; Green & Brock, 2000; Prentice, Gerrig & Bailis, 1997; Strange & Leung, 1999) and this influence can endure weeks after the exposure to the narrative (Appel & Richter, 2007; Murrar & Brauer, 2017). Studies have found reliable narrative effects on issues such as politics (Iguarta, 2010), slavery (Strange, 2002), terrorist groups (Casebeer & Rusell, 2005). Especially in the field of health, studies have shown that narratives can be influential on beliefs and attitudes toward, among others, condom efficacy (in a situation comedy, Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, & Hunter, 2003), HIV (in a daytime drama, Kennedy, O’Leary, Beck, Pollard, & Simpson, 2004), and contraception (in a prime-time drama, Brodie et al., 2001). Narratives have been also implemented with the goal of reducing prejudice. For example, research has shown that exposure to representations of positive interactions with minority members improved attitudes toward minority group members (Black, gay, Arab/Muslims, and immigrants; Igartua 2010; Müller, 2009; Murrar & Brauer, 2017; Ortiz & Harwood, 2007; Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, 2005). Or, in a context of severe social group conflict, such as in the post-genocide Rwanda, a radio soap opera helped improve perceived social norms for social interaction between members of the two communities (Paluck, 2009).
Generally, a recent meta-analysis (Braddock & Dillard, 2016) of 40 studies (with more than 7.000 participants), all of which had examined the effects of a narrative message compared to a control condition (in which no message or no topically relevant message appeared), showed that exposure to narratives reliably affect beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and behaviors of recipients in accordance to the viewpoints of the narratives. Therefore, the evidence supporting the persuasive power of narratives is undisputed. Next, it is important to understand how narrative persuasion is possible, or in other words, what are the underlying processes that explain it. The theoretical models that address this issue are presented next.
Theoretical Accounts Explaining Narrative Persuasion
Transportation-imagery model. According to the transportation-imagery model (Green & Brock, 2002), the power of narratives is based on the experience of being lost in a book or a film, swept up in a story so much that the book reader or the movie-goer lose contact with the world around them and they are entering the world of the narrative. Central to this process is the evocation of imagery, that is, individuals’ experience of mental images representing components of a story, such as a protagonist, a scene, the setting etc. In other words, individuals are transported to the narrative world and this experiential state of transportation accounts for narrative persuasion. To be transported to the narrative world means that individuals recreate mentally the story with vivid imagery. Transportation is defined as “a convergent process, where all of the person’s mental systems and capacities become focused on the events occurring in the narrative” (Green & Brock, 2002, p. 324).
A consequence of being transported is that recipients partly lose access to the real world and they don’t pay attention to events happening in their immediate environment (e.g. somebody leaving the room). More interestingly, the model assumes that, while immersed in the narrative, recipients distance themselves from real world, not only physically, but also psychologically, so that they do not think facts or other real life related information, which can oppose or contradict narrative world. This way, real life information becomes less accessible and narrative ideas and positions take center stage. Another consequence is that recipients do not return unchanged from their ‘journey’ of transportation. At minimum, they have the memory of what they experienced, or furthermore, their beliefs may have changed, or they experience strong emotional reactions (e.g. moved, inspired, thrilled etc.).
It is important to note that transportation differs from elaboration, as construed in the rhetorical persuasion literature (e.g. the Elaboration Likelihood Model, Petty & Wegener, 1999). Contrary to elaboration, that is defined as an analytical process, transportation is conceived as a holistic experiential state. Green and Brock (2000) argue that elaboration is a divergent process, whereby individuals use information (e.g., their prior knowledge) differently from that presented in a message to evaluate the arguments presented. On the other hand, transportation is a convergent process, whereby all individual’s mental systems are fully focused on the narrative.
According to the model, individuals may differ in their ability to immerse themselves in the narrative and become fully involved in it. This trait of transportability captures individual differences in becoming transported into a narrative (e.g. Mazzocco, Green, Sasota, & Jones, 2010) Also, there are narrative related characteristics that differentially invite recipients’ involvement and transportation. Artistic craftsmanship of a book or a film is one of the most important, but less easily determined, characteristic of a story. Another relevant characteristic is adherence to the narrative format. For example, in order for the suspense to build up, a specific narrative structure needs to be followed, so the reader would wonder about the fate of the protagonist in the next turn of the plot. Also, the medium itself may play a role, for example, a book allows the reader to follow their own pace of reading, while the film has the ability to fix attention and facilitate intense participatory experiences. The authors suggest that books, compared to films, are more likely to instigate greater transportation and, therefore, more likely to induce greater belief change.
Generally, there is strong evidence supporting the model’s basic assumption that greater transportation is connected with greater belief and attitude change in response to the stories (e.g. Escalas, 2004; Green & Brock, 2000; Wang & Calder, 2006).
Extended elaboration likelihood model. Another theoretical account that has been used to explain narrative persuasion is the Extended Elaboration Likelihood Model (E-ELM, Slater, 2002; Slater & Rouner, 2002). Deriving from the long tradition of ELM in rhetorical persuasion (e.g. Petty & Wegener, 1999), E-ELM focuses on the ability of narrative to influence beliefs, attitudes and behavior mainly by reducing counterarguing, that is, the thoughts that recipients produce to challenge or oppose the position of an influential message. According to the model, because recipients are engaged with the dramatic elements of the narrative are less likely to produce counterarguments and therefore are more open to be influenced by the embedded message. In other words, transportation diminish the motivation of recipients to counterargue the story points (Slater & Rouner, 2002).
Another premise of E-ELM is that involvement with characters serves similar processes as transportation. Recipients may perceive a character as similar to themselves ‘or at least as a person with whom they might have a social relationship’ (Slater & Rouner, 2002, p. 178). Identification with characters then, like transportation, undermines the motivation and the ability of the individuals to produce counterarguments and, therefore, they are left open to influence. However, as Moyer-Gusé (2008) argues, identification defined this way does not differentiate among identification and relevant concepts such as homophily, similarity, or parasocial interaction (see below).
Social cognitive theory. Another useful theoretical account for the effects of narratives is Social Cognitive Theory (SCT, Bandura 1986, 2004). SCT suggests that recipients by exposure to narratives can vicariously experience social life. By observing the characters in a narrative can learn how successful a behavior could be in achieving certain goals or, perhaps more importantly, how it is possible to perform a specific behavior. Central to the model is the idea that people are motivated to engage in some behaviors and not in others. Motivation depends on the outcome expectancies, that is, recipient’s perceived consequences of a behavior. Positive outcomes reinforce the behavior in the recipient’s mind. Motivation to perform a behavior also depends on self-efficacy, individual’s perceived confidence in their ability to perform the specific behavior. Recipients, by observing in the narrative how a specific behavior is performed, increase their confidence in their ability to perform the behavior and feel more efficacious about it. According to the theory, attractive and similar characters are more likely to be noticed by recipients (and therefore be imitated) and also to increase perceptions of self-efficacy.
Involvement with characters. Although, not a theoretical account per se, involvement with characters is perceived as a central explanatory avenue to narrative persuasion. A number of different concepts that describe recipients’ interaction with characters and fall under the umbrella term of involvement with characters should be analytically discussed (Moyer-Gusé, 2008). The concepts that have been used in the literature are identification, wishful identification, similarity, parasocial interaction (PSI), and liking. According to Cohen (2001), identification means that the recipient imagines ‘being the character and replaces his or her personal identity and role as audience member with the identity and role of the character’ (Cohen, 2001, p. 251). Identification process has four dimensions: (a) empathic (recipients share similar feelings with character), (b) cognitive (recipients share the same point of view with character), (c) motivational (recipients adopt the goals of the character), (d) absorption (recipients lose self-awareness while they psychologically interact with characters). Identification should not be confused with wishful identification, the process whereby recipients want to be like and emulate the character (Giles, 2002). In this process, recipients understand the distance there is between themselves and the character but they also recognize characteristics of the characters that they would like to assume. They want to become like the characters. Rather, identification is defined as an emotional and cognitive process whereby the recipients take on the role of the character.
Another relevant concept is similarity, or homophily, which refers to the perceived degree of similarity to the character on various dimensions such as physical characteristics, psychological traits, or social values (Eyal & Rubin, 2003). Similarity is perceived as a cognitive prerequisite of identification. Recipients may perceive that they share similar attributes with the characters and, then, they will take on the role and become the character, both cognitively and emotionally.
Another relevant concept is liking which refers to the positive evaluation of the character, and is conceived as a social attraction process (Giles, 2002). It also implies the desire to become (hypothetically) friends with the character. Liking is supposed to proceed recipients’ willingness to initiate a parasocial interaction with the character. Parasocial interaction (PSI) has been defined as ‘the seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer’ (Horton & Wohl, 1956, p. 215) and is perceived as a pseudorelationship with the character that has the characteristics of an interpersonal relationship, except it is not reciprocated by the character (Giles, 2002). PSI should be distinguished from related concepts such as similarity since the latter is not necessarily component of the former.
As Moyer-Gusé (2008) points out, all these concepts have been useful in examining involvement with character but it should be noted that only in identification recipients lose temporarily themselves and take on the perspective of the character. In other concepts (liking, similarity and PSI) recipients maintain their perspective and make judgements about the character, while wishful identification lies somewhere in between, with the recipient simultaneously being him or herself and, at the same time, imagining the character in a wishful way.
Entertainment overcoming resistance model. Moyer-Gusé (2008) developed a comprehensive narrative persuasion model that focuses on how narratives overcome resistance from recipients and thus leading to belief and attitude change. Resistance is perceived as any reaction against change in response to some perceived attempt for change (Knowles & Linn, 2004). The model deals with a number of resistance forms. A significant and potent form of resistance is psychological reactance (Brehm, 1966), which is conceived as an arousal, triggered when individuals feel that their freedom to choose their own attitudes and behaviors is threatened. Recipients reject the change intended message in order to reassert their independence. In health communication especially, reactance has been found to be an important variable undermining persuasion, leading sometimes even to ‘boomerang’ effects, where recipients follow even more strongly the discouraged behavior (Burgoon, Alvaro, Grandpe, & Voloudakis, 2002). Moyer-Gusé assumes that, because narrative does not have an explicit persuasive intent, it may not produce reactance because recipients will not be alarmed. Also, reactance may be reduced by the process of parasocial interaction that may result when recipients like a character, or, when they develop a pseudorelationship with a character that is not perceived as threating or imposing.
Another form of resistance is counterarguing and, according to Moyer-Gusé, it can be overcome, not only by transportation to the narrative, as E-ELM proposes, but, also, through the involvement with character. Recipients that have a PSI with a character may perceive them as more trusting and truthful and, therefore, they will be less willing to produce arguments that oppose their messages.
Another form of resistance is optimistic bias, which refers to people’s perception that they are less likely to be affected by a risky behavior compared to other people. Hence, people may think that they are invulnerable to some potential risk and therefore resist persuasion. However, if they think that they are similar to a character that is portrayed as vulnerable to a risk factor, they might change their perceptions about invulnerability. Moreover, if recipients identify with the character this form of resistance should be undermined even further.
A final form of resistance, according to Moyer-Gusé, is perceived norms, which refers to perception of what kinds of behaviors are acceptable and normative. Involvement with character, especially PSI, could affect recipients’ perceptions of normative ways of behavioral conduct. By viewing that a character that they relate to, performs a specific behavior may create the impression that such (positive) behavior is normative and therefore more acceptable to be followed.
Methodological Issues in Evaluating Narrative Persuasion
How do we know when a narrative has led to persuasion? In order to evaluate the persuasiveness of a narrative, or an entertainment-education program, a number of methodological issues should be addressed (see Wimmer & Dominick, 2011). To ensure that changes in beliefs and attitudes of recipients can be attributed to the exposure to a specific narrative and not to another, unexamined, either internal (e.g. personal interest, individual differences), or external, factor (e.g. exposure to other similar content, experience of a real-life event with consequences on attitudes) a number of methodological steps need to be taken. Controlling the influence of such unexamined factors is essential for the validity of the researcher’s inferences about the narrative influence.
Such methodological decisions concern the setting (what is the context of narrative exposure), the participants (who is taking part in the study), the exposure pattern (to which narrative every participant is exposed to), the narrative content (which narrative should be chosen for the study), and, more importantly, the study design (how the study is set up). One should think about the appropriateness and the feasibility of the research setting. For example, while examining the influence of a film on children’s attitudes towards various social groups, children could view the film on an appropriate device in their classroom, or they can be given an internet link to watch it online from their homes, or they can be brought to a university lab. Every setting has different advantages and disadvantages in terms of the control of factors that may affect exposure to the content (use of a lab may provide more control but not a naturalistic environment, whereas use of home as exposure context may provide a naturalistic environment but less control). Decisions should be made on the feasibility of each choice but also on the quality of data desired.
Another decision should concern the participants of the study. In the same example, which schools and students should be included in the sample? Should be sampled schools from different geographical areas (e.g. rural, urban etc.), or schools representing areas with different socioeconomic status (SES)? The answer to this question should be based on a theoretical analysis that will point out the specific sample characteristic, like SES, which are expected to be related to the beliefs and attitudes under examination and, therefore, should be taken into account and examined in the study.
A relevant decision concerns the question of which narrative content a participant should be exposed to, if more than one is examined, i.e. the exposure pattern. Someone may examine the effects of two different films that may vary the message in terms of strength, or of another quality. For example, influence by a fictional or a nonfictional narrative could be compared. In another case, and this is something that is quite common in this context, one may want to include a group of participants that are not exposed to the specific content but to another, irrelevant one. This is the control group of a study design. In order to decide to which content participants are exposed to, randomization should be implemented. That is, participants should be randomly assigned to the different exposure groups, so that each participant (or group) has equal chances of being included to each exposure group.
Another decision should concern the selection of the relative narrative content. For example, if one wants to examine the effects of antiwar narrative on children’s attitudes toward the war, which film should be more appropriate? After an initial selection of a film, it should be examined whether children understand and interpret the antiwar message of the film in a similar way that the researcher does? Is the antiwar message explicit or subtle? Is the film quite dramatic or not? Does this matter to children? To answer all these questions appropriate pilot testing (i.e., initial examination of various contents) is needed so that the researcher has evidence on how participants understand the content initially chosen.
The most important decision a researcher has to make concerns the study design, or, in other words, the plan of the study, the way that the study will be run. A simple design of three steps may be followed. That would include a pretest, then exposure to the narrative, and then a posttest. First, the researcher measures participants’ relevant beliefs and attitudes, then – and it is better this step to be taken not immediately after the pretest measurement – participants are exposed to the narrative content, and then participants report again their beliefs and attitudes (as they did in pretest). The differences observed between pretest and posttest indicate that exposure to the specific narrative content changed participants’ beliefs and attitudes. Although useful, this simple design cannot exclude the potential influence (or confounding as it is called) of other than content factors on attitudes: for example, did the sample of participants have certain characteristics (prior elevated interest in participating in the study) that may have affected their attitudes? Or, did other events happen concurrently with exposure to the content (e.g. something that attracted attention of national media) that may have made recipients to rethink their attitudes toward a new direction? In both these cases, a researcher cannot disentangle what was the effects of the narrative on beliefs and attitudes, and what was the effect of individual differences (i.e., recipients’ interest to the topic) or of some coincidental media attention to the topic.
One way to overcome the problems noted above is to include another group of participants that they will not be exposed to the narrative content (i.e. the control group) but they will nevertheless provide the pre- and posttest measurements. Care should be taken that the control group has similar to the exposure group characteristics, especially to the ones that are theoretically relevant to beliefs and attitudes. As noted above, the best way to avoid self-selection problems (i.e. participants choosing the group that they will be in) is by assigning participants to the exposure or the control group at random (i.e. randomization).
Possible differences in beliefs and attitudes between the exposure group and the control group can be then truly attributed to the exposure to the narrative and not to some other factor. Of course, there are other study designs that can be used but cannot be presented in the present paper (for analytical descriptions see Christensen, 2004; Montgomery, 1997).
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