Every holiday season, you have new worlds at your fingertips. Reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching films and TV shows can help you break away from the frenzy of everyday life, and journey into other possible worlds.
As with any kind of travel, the journey affects you. The degree to which you become engaged with a story is known as narrative transportation. This effect causes feelings and thoughts consistent with the narrative world. The more a story transports you, the more likely you are persuaded to adopt the beliefs espoused within it.
Deeper changes occur too. Previous research shows that changes of attitudes and intentions are part of the narrative transportation effect. My colleagues Stephanie Feiereisen, Luca Visconti and I were interested in what factors predict a greater narrative transportation effect, so we used meta-analysis to measure the power of stories to both engage and change people.
Factors that increase narrative transportation
Meta-analyses aggregate the results of a large number of published empirical studies, which can greatly increase confidence in a phenomenon. No meta-analysis had been performed on narrative transportation for five years, so we investigated all the published research since.
We averaged the results of 64 different papers, reporting 138 separate effects, based on results from more than 20,000 participants.
We discovered that three factors reliably influence the narrative transportation effect: whether a story is commercial or noncommercial, whether it is user-generated or created by professionals, and whether there are other people present while you are engaging with the story.
A transporting story is 16% more likely to affect you if it has commercial profit, rather than an artistic or other value, as its primary aim.
Many films and TV series are primarily made for commercial purposes with the intention of making a profit. If you are not aware of this profit motive, the effect of narrative transportation is strengthened. As a result, you will be inclined to buy products – and even animals – featured in films and TV series.
For example, 101 Dalmatians made families want spotty dogs. Likewise, Finding Nemo led to a rapid growth in the trade of clownfish as pets – which, in turn, contributed to the decline of wild populations.
A transporting story is 11% more likely to change you if it is made publicly available, reflects a certain amount of creative effort, and is created outside of professional routines and practices.
Many books and podcasts are user-generated, meaning they are self-published at their authors’ own expense. A creator’s emotional participation in the story strengthens the narrative transportation effect.
Take Andy Weir’s book The Martian. In 2011, after a long search for a professional agent, he gave up on big publishing. Instead, he posted the book to Amazon. It was soon climbing the charts and he attracted a dedicated, worldwide following. It was later made into a feature film starring Matt Damon, that was hailed for its attention to scientific detail.
Other examples of this kind of creator influence include teenagers like Charlotte D’Alessio, who became an overnight Instagram fashion sensation. Stand-up comedians at open mic nights are further examples of nonprofessional creators who are telling impactful stories.
Whether you’re alone
A transporting story is 10% less likely to influence you if you are with others, rather than alone, when you are consuming it.
Social groups weaken the narrative transportation effect. As a result, you are less likely to be persuaded if you share the experience with family or groups of friends.
Live-action role playing games are a case in point. These increasingly popular fan happenings encourage you to experience beloved films and TV series together with others. This collective form of narrative consumption protects you somewhat against the influence of a story.
The more you are transported by a narrative, the more likely that your beliefs, attitudes and intentions will converge with those of the story. This is neither good nor bad. Yet being aware of this effect – and the factors that increase it – could help you think critically about your desire to get a new pet after watching a movie.
When vacations return there is only one place many people want to be: ensconced in a story. Books, podcasts, films and TV series are prepackaged journeys. Just make sure that you steel yourself for what lies within.
Tom van Laer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.