What Makes A Story Persuasive?

Poking my head out briefly to say hi. Dissertation writing is taking quite a bit of time... (surprise surprise)

What was the last time a work of fiction changed your view on an issue? For me, it was Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which made me think seriously about government intrusion on privacy. Fiction to make a point is nothing new. But what makes a story persuasive? A study from researchers Melianie Green and Timothy Brock points toward one ingredient.

These researchers were interested in what they called "transportation," the extent to which someone is absorbed and engaged in a story. They wanted to know if transportation made readers more likely to take on story-consistent beliefs.

Green and Brock had participants read a story about a college student whose little sister was stabbed to death by a psychiatric patient at the mall. After participants read the story, they answered a “Transportation questionnaire,” which included questions like "While I was reading the narrative, I could easily picture the events in it taking place," and "The narrative affected me emotionally."

The researchers found that readers with higher transportation scores had more story-consistent beliefs. They were more likely to think that stabbings were common in the United States, and that psychiatric patients should be supervised when they go out into the community.

Of course, correlation does not equal causation. It could be that transportation encourages story-consistent views, or it could be the other way around, that people who already held story-consistent beliefs were more easily transported into the story. So the researchers did some follow-ups. In one experiment, they surveyed participants about their views 5 to 9 weeks before they read the story.  It turns out that initial beliefs did not predict transportation. In another study, the researchers manipulated transportation by having participants circle difficult vocabulary words while they were reading. As expected, this task distracted the readers. They reported both lower levels of transportation and less agreement with story-consistent beliefs.

So the bottom line to persuading with your fiction? Draw people in. Make them emotionally involved. In other words, write a good story.

Have you read any fiction that changed your views?

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Also, friend of the blog Passive Guy a.k.a. David Vandagriff a.k.a Darius Acheson recently released his novel The Titanboar Touchstone.  Check it out!

When Jager touches a dead titanboar in the forest, a fierce power blazes into him. From that moment, his girlfriend, Rolinda, is condemned to a lingering death at the hands of corrupt Emperor Dragene. Jager’s titanboar magic is as changeable as his moods, working with breathtaking power one moment, but failing when he needs it most. The titanboars call him Bright One as he struggles to understand their cryptic expectations. An old man in the village, Wazdan, has a collection of talking cats and talented vultures. Wazille appears to be a gentle grandmother who enjoys cooking, but she also delights in green explosions in the midnight sky. As Dragene seeks Jager, Wazdan and Wazille try to prepare him for the dangerous challenges ahead. The secretive titanboars are drawn from their clandestine life in the forest by a need to protect Bright One from his expanding collection of enemies. Terrifying night creatures track Jager by a glow only they can see. Shadow Man appears in his dreams and Dragene sends flying orrocks to hunt him down. The titanboars are a riveting new magical creature in this epic fantasy. They are vastly superior to humans, but they desperately need one human, Jager, to ensure their survival.

  Green, Melanie C.;Brock, Timothy C (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


  1. Persuading people with fiction? It's often called propaganda. Were Green and Brock saying that people were convinced that stabbings were common by the story they read as part of the study? Kind of depressing to me. I'd prefer that people look into the facts on such matters.

    It seems somewhat obvious to me that initial beliefs wouldn't predict transportation. I don't by any stretch of the imagination believe the weird, fascinating worlds China Mieville creates exist, but his stories transport me utterly.

    As to your question, has any piece of fiction changed my view, it's a very interesting one. Offhand, I can't think of a book, but I do believe in the transformative power of art. A recent film comes to mind.

    When Nixon was president I came to loathe, and I mean really loathe him for the way he abused the powers of his office during his administration and the way he infringed on basic American civil rights. (His crimes seem almost quaint compared to some recent changes in the law of the land, but that's another story.) I carried that loathing for years, though I acknowledged he achieved certain things. (Only Nixon could go to China, as the saying went.)

    When I saw the film "Frost/Nixon," however, I found myself empathizing with his point of view and even sympathizing with his feelings of being wronged and misunderstood. That was a huge change in my view of him.

    BTW, being busy with your dissertation you may have missed this piece, Your Brain on Fiction, in the NYT Review section yesterday:

    Sample quote: "The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated."

    1. Shelley -

      As much as we wish that people would think logically, the truth is that we don't think like computers, but instead make decisions based on experience and heuristics. This is why people are afraid to ride airplanes even though it's statistically as safe or safer than driving, and why people are more likely to be concerned about global warming on a hot day than on a cold day.

      I was actually pretty surprised that beliefs did not affect transportation, and I'm still convinced that given the right conditions, they would be able to find cases where it did. You're right that people don't actually have to believe in fantastical elements, but I think it's a different case for themes and messages. I have a distinct memory of a former roommate complaining about not being able to get into one of Orson Scott card's books because of the way he portrayed unborn fetuses as people (she was pro-choice). Likewise, I can't see someone who's very homophobic being engrossed in Brokeback Mountain.

      Thanks for the link to the article. It's always nice when people send me relevant stuff.

    2. Well, of course you're right that people don't think logically. However, I believe it's possible for reason and compassion to govern human behavior. I'm a child of the 60s. What can I say?

      Maybe someone who is homophobic would be transported by Brokeback Mountain just the way I was by Frost/Nixon.

      My son just finished his prelims. Incredible stress. Is the dissertation harder? Good luck with yours!

    3. Yup, either could happen w/ the Brokeback scenario.

      Not sure what prelims is, but the dissertation is more of a research report than a test. Both are hard in their own way, I'd guess. Thanks for the well wishes!

    4. Shelley and Livia—thank you both. I can absolutely relate to what Shelley says about Nixon. That was my experience too.

    5. Now I feel like I should see that movie!

  2. What a great example. It explains where so many erroneous viewpoints may arise. People reading fiction do apply it to their outlooks and sometimes take it as fact.

    1. Thanks Suzanne. Fiction is a great vessel for getting a message across, and it can be used in both good and bad ways.

  3. The Hunger Games made me more aware of our tendency to de-humanise reality show contestants, thinking of them more as characters than real people. It's made me think twice before making snide remarks about contestants. A tenuous link perhaps, but that's the one my mind made! :-)

  4. Thank you for this post, which leads me to hope well-crafted fiction can induce readers to consider concepts they might be inclined to dismiss(1,2).

    1. Westen D, Blagov PS, Harenski K, Kilts C, Hamann S., Neural bases of motivated reasoning Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 11/06;18(11):1947-58.

    2. Political bias affects brain activity MSNBC.com, Jan 24 2006

  5. sometimes i imagine being a computer :)
    David in Maine USA