Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Fiction is crucial in maintaining our sanity by constructing narratives that feel plausible. No matter what really happened. Scientists have demonstrated how fiction is a hundred times more effective changing attitudes and belief systems than facts and data.
Our own internal narratives are the driving force that decides how we perceive ourselves and the world, it's our own narratives that keep getting out of bed in the morning.
That's the premise and power of narrative psychology.
The Human Mind is Immune to Facts
The problem we face here is as old as humanity: beliefs, perceptions and attitudes are hardly ever changed by rational data, facts or logic – and when commercial interests ride shotgun (i.e., advertising) the mission to persuade even backfires.
Becuase our emotional response is then to slam shut all windows and stubbornly refuse those fact-based arguments entry into our minds and hearts - because we don’t them to wreak havoc on the comfortable worlds we have internally nurtured.
We build, edit and re-edit our internal narratives, about ourselves, about everything. We fiercely protect those narratives because they fuel our life journey, and all of our choices, big or small.
Which renders outside facts and 'truths' useless when pitted against this human psychological defense mechanism that works like a castle, protecting beliefs, perceptions and attitudes behind thick walls with tar-pouring murder holes and alligator-infested moats.
Facts are often seen as 'manipulative tools'
Facts, more than fiction, are easily perceived as the ‘enemy’: peddled by relentless hucksters who try to trick us into accepting and buying things we don’t need.
What’s more important, social evolution has long ago turned facts into tools used to win arguments, to protect personal or group interests and to avoid harm. So much for objective credibility and trust attached to facts. And, by extension, advertising that usually claims to sell 'facts and truths'. Which is one of the reasons why more than 95% of all advertising (in 'advertising' format) fails to have an impact.
So, if communicated ‘facts’ fail to pry open fortified mental castles and persuade inhabitants that the grass is greener outside their emotional dungeons, what does persuade people that your brand and product are what they need?
It’s the delivery, the way you communicate: closed cognitive gates cannot be pried open from the outide - the change must come from inside. What needs to be done is to literally ‘transport’ the castle’s occupant and his/her blinkered mind and attitudes into another world – into the brand narrative's world.
The self-protective cogntive gate needs to open by itself. How? Via a psychological mechanism called Narrative Transportation.
The Magic of Narrative Transportation
The Oxford Research Encyclopedia has this to say: [NarrativeTransportation] focuses on the causes and consequences of an individual being immersed in a story, or transported into a narrative world...[this] experience is a key mechanism underlying narrative influence on recipients’ attitudes and beliefs, particularly in combination with enjoyment and character identification.”
To explain the psychological power of Narrative Transportation, let’s start with the concept of ‘narrative’ itself: narrative is how humans communicate and think. Kids as young as 3 years old have already internalized narrative structure, and they use it actively to learn and make sense of the world around them.
Making the Viewer leave Reality...
Narrative transportation means that a story ‘transports’ the viewer into a narrative world (the brand narrative and all its stories), making her/him imaginatively leave their immediate and real surroundings behind.
The power of the phenomenon is not only mental transportation but the fact that via immersion in a story world the viewer is highly susceptible to attitude change.
This is because Narrative Transportation leads to shutting out the real world – the ‘reality’ of the narrative world now takes over. It becomes real.
It becomes 'Conscious Reality'. This kind of transformation is the holy grail of all brand communication.
...but which only Happens via real Story!
To achieve narrative transportation effect, an adherence to a narrative format - that is, story – is imperative: key elements such as a plot and character arc, fleshed out characters who have to overcome story obstacles and reach goals, narrative logic that must be mixed with emotional intensity, etc.
And how does such narrative transportation change beliefs and attitudes? Via affective and cognitive processes.
The Affective Process: Narratives create affective responses via emotional connections to the character(s) in the story. That’s why having a character whose situation and issues activate empathy, which make the audience feel that those issues are relevant to their own situations, is so important. Emotional relevance, by addressing emotional needs and tensions.
The Cognitive Process: Narrative Transportation reduces the natural urge to ‘counter-argue’ against the message (as the mind tends to do when exposed to advertising). Transported viewers have no motivation to 'break' the experience by arguing against its implications – and they do not question the real-world validity of the story experience.
When presenting facts, people want to argue against those - when pulled into a story, nobody has the urge to dismantle that story, audiences are keen to absorb the thrill they gain from the story - and the 'mind reading motivation' effect (see below).
Transported viewers react to what happens in the narrative as if they were real and representative of reality. This, in turn, leads to real-world generalization of story events.
Transportation runs in both directions: the viewer is transported into the narrative world, and narrative world perceptions are in turn transported back into his or her real world to impact or even become ‘reality’.
In fact, viewers often react as if they were part of the story events which scientists refer to a ‘participatory responses’, or ‘p-responses’. These p-responses are so strong that they lead to physiological responses, such as an increased heartbeat. Perspiration. Tears.
This is persuasion in its most powerful form. Again, the holy grail of all brand communication.
Specificiy creates Universal Impact
Another interesting finding is that narratives must be specific – in fact, the more specific, the harder it is for the (viewer’s) mind to argue against the story experience, its message elements and conclusions. With specific I mean specific character, specific goals, actions, obstacles and results.
The more specific a story, the more universally engaging and persuasive its impact is on a larger audience.
Ensure Story Plausibility
Another aspect is story logic, that is the story must sound and feel ‘plausible’. This is achieved by applying professional screenwriting techniques and an understanding of narrative psychology.
In our narrative psychology research we often discover that people 'beat' their own history into plausibility. Elements in that narrative are sometimes removed from what really happened, in order to create a sense of meaning and purpose to the narrator.
From a psycho-therapeutic view this mechanism is critical to our sense of wellbeing. Psychologists tell us that it is often an individual’s failure to (re-)construct her own narrative that leads to despair and suicide.
So, the story has to ‘ring true’ to create a sense of meaning and purpose, and to be persuasive – what's more, a 'transported' viewer takes the story experience and inherent messages back into their real world afterwards. Again, persuasion in its most powerful form.
Emotional Identification - the Sense of Identity
When transported into a narrative world viewers screen out the real world. This happens via emotional identification: the viewer’s identification with the story character as she immerses herself in the viewpoint of the character.
Identification means adopting the character’s POV and attitude as one’s own. It enhances, sometimes even modifies one's own Sense of Identity.
This is fundamentally distinct from ‘wishful identification’ and a key reason why celebrity worship is not the same and actually much less effective in changing attitudes, compared to character identification - and another reason to avoid celebrity endorsement if you want to instill a brand message into people’s minds and change their perceptions about your brand and products.
Identification personalizes and emotionalizes the story experience, making individuals more likely to be persuaded in mind and behavior.
That’s what a good story does: it is capable of changing even tightly held beliefs and perceptions against which rational arguments fail.
Getting Into Minds, to Change Minds
So why are we willing to suspend disbelief in a narrative world and allow ourselves to be persuaded by messages contained within the story?
Because character identification activates our inherent motivation to recognize another person’s thoughts, perspectives and feelings – also known as ‘mind reading motivation’ which is essential to social interaction: we feel we ‘need’ to get into people’s minds, see and feel their perspectives, to learn, to cooperate – and to protect ourselves.
A narrative world requires the viewer to navigate the various pieces of information of the character’s journey – and so the story becomes an engaging playground to sharpen mind-reading abilities, to experience, to learn and internalize.
And that's why savvy brand managers use real storytelling in their various brand communication channels – having realized that this is an important investment in the brand’s emotional and ‘Persuasive Equity’.