Transcript: Interview with Melanie C. Green from Episode 014

This is the interview with Melanie C. Green from episode 014 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.


Melanie C. GreenMelanie C. Green is a social psychologist who developed the transportation into a narrative worlds theory that helps explain total story immersion and how it translates into influence over our real-world behaviors. You can find her on Twitter @NarrProf.

David: Alright, Melanie Green, I am so happy to have you on the show. You research storytelling. You research narrative. And your research suggests that narratives exert – really powerful influence over us, over our minds. When we say minds, we’re talking about beliefs and behaviors. So from your perspective, from your expertise, what does your research have to say about how narratives exert influence over our minds?

Melanie: Yeah well, I mean that’s exactly right. We see narratives everywhere. We listen to narratives, we tell narratives. And so it’s a little bit surprising that there had been a bit of a neglect of people looking at how exactly that works. And now it’s become a bit more of a booming area. But what my research suggests about how narratives work, is that at least one aspect of it is the fact that we get so immersed in narratives. And in my research, we’ve called this being transported into a narrative world. And the idea there is that we’re mentally engaged, our cognition’s engaged. Our emotions come to bear on this. We might have mental imagery if we’re watching something, or we’re imaging it from a text. And so you get all of these different mental systems working together to create this narrative world. And because we have this, this in-depth and this vivid experience, that we take the information from the stories and bring it into the real world with us. So we learn from what happens to the characters in the stories, and that can change the way we think and do things.

David: Now you took part in editing a sort of a text book on this called, “Narrative Impact.” And in that book, they – you write about how and your fellow editors write about how this is different from advertising. This is different from propaganda or speeches or campaigns. And how is the way you perceive narrative to be different from those sorts of storytelling techniques?

Melanie: Yeah, and the kinds of things that we were really drawing a contrast with there were the kinds of messages that we get where there’s a list of arguments as to why you should do something. So, “Here are 5 reasons that you should vote for my candidate.” Or, “Here are 5 statements about why my product’s the best.” So these kind of very straightforward or non-story like, persuasive messages. And there’s a ton of great research coming out of social psychology for really decades and decades, about how those messages work. And a lot of that research focuses on the idea that – what makes the difference in those kind of persuasive messages is how much we’re thinking about the message. So if we’re not thinking about it or elaborating on it much, we could be persuaded by sort of surface features of it, like is there an attractive spokesmodel? If we’re thinking or elaborating on it a lot, then we get persuaded by the central arguments – and is this person saying something that makes me respond with positive thoughts that I think will be of benefit to me. And this is the basis of things like the elaboration likelihood model and other models. And where the research that we’ve done and that narratives comes in is that this kind of critical thinking, this elaboration is just not what happens when we read stories. That’s not how we approach stories. We step into them, we don’t stand back from them and kind of analyse them in that more critical way.

David: Yeah, and what’s weird about stories I think is that – since they are so ubiquitous, they’re everywhere. Books, magazines, movies, television shows. And it’s really, it’s a huge part of being a human being. And whenever we create a new technology, storytelling flows into that technology and starts using that with – even today with maybe story– stories that are told through apps or told through video games or whatever. But the power for that to affect our behavior and our minds, I think is – it’s odd to me that psychology would’ve taken so long to get to it. You – in the book, you say, “Rhetoric, rather than poetic’s has been the focus of scientific study when it comes to persuasion.” What do you think it is that we’ve saved storytelling for so long? We’ve saved it for – almost for last when it comes to considering persuasion.

Melanie: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I should note that there are areas of research from communication in particular that was looking at stories in some ways too – with things like how we use entertainment for education and things like that. But why did we leave it for last? I think part of it comes from the methodological approach that social psychologists use. And we like experiments, we like things to be tightly controlled. And so when you have a list of arguments, you have pretty good control over making sure that everyone’s going to see those in the same light. And stories are a little bit messier. You have details and you have characters, and you have all of this stuff going on. So I think some of it is – that it’s just a little bit more challenging of a kind of stimulus to use in an experiment. And I think the other reason is maybe a little bit more subtle is that – because stories themselves have often been seen as something that’s in the domain of the humanities of literature. These other kinds of fields. There was maybe a sense that, “Oh that’s sort of not a scientific kind of thing. That’s not our playground to play in.” Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I think that may have been part of the resistance too, that that didn’t feel like a social science topic.

David: Right. Which is – because, it’s weird to me, because I think it like– I mean, this is how we mostly talk to one another. We tell each other stories and we– I mean, billions of dollars are spent in Hollywood to generate stories. And we are – it’s a big part of the human experience, and it seems– It so falls under the umbrella of scientific investigation. So let’s dig in a little bit to some of the stuff that you actually researched. What are your – or some of the ways that you’ve seen that stories affect our beliefs and our behaviors?

Melanie: Well so we’ve seen the effects of stories on our beliefs and behaviors in a variety of different domains. So they can change our beliefs and behaviors about health topics. So using stories to do things like help encourage people to quit smoking. And researchers like Jennifer Escalas have done studies looking at them in advertisements. And they can shift our attitudes about consumer products. One of the areas that I think is most exciting is – because narratives are fundamentally about characters and relationships, one area that I think they have particular promise – and there’s evidence as well – in shifting people’s attitudes toward other groups in society. So attitudes about other racial or ethnic groups. Those kinds of inter group interaction kinds of things. Narratives are good at helping us step into somebody else’s shoes. And so it can evoke our empathy, and that can – can be used in some prosocial ways. In terms of reducing inner group negative opinions and so on.

David: Now you mentioned it earlier, and you use this phrase a lot in your research of transportation. Being transported into the narrative world. Could unpack what that means?

Melanie: Sure, sure. So what we mean by that is – experientially I think this is something that most or all of us have probably had the feeling of – where you get so immersed in a good book, that the world that’s actually around you really just falls away and fades away. So the example that I always use is that – you’re up reading an exciting mystery novel, and it’s 2 in the morning. And your spouse or roommate comes into the room behind you, and you don’t even notice it until they’re right there. And then you jump out of your skin. Because you sort of – mentally you weren’t there. You were in the world of the story. And so, it’s this kind of engagement that we’re talking about. And so, what that involves is – it involves the cognition of thinking about and simulating the events that are going on in the story. It typically involves emotionally responding. So sympathizing with the characters or identifying with them, reacting to the events that happened. And then mental imagery of having this – these images or visual pictures of the kinds of scenes that are taking place there. So it’s all of that kind of stuff going on together.

David: It makes me wonder if – if this is just – if this is something that is unique to the way the human mind works. To the way the mammalian brain is constructed. And that – in storytelling, it may be just sort of a– A reaction to it is a by-product of the way that we’re built to perceive the world. Do you know of any research into like maybe how this came to be our default method of communication?

Melanie: Yeah, yeah. I mean there’s some interesting ideas about that. And I think all of them are – may be a little bit speculative.

David: Super speculative.

Melanie: Yeah but one that I think has a lot of promise is the idea that – being involved in stories is kind of mentally simulating events. And other areas where we do that are kind of remembering the past and thinking about the future. And being able to remember and learn from the past, and being able to project into the future and imagine different ways that events might unfold – are really adaptive in a survival kind of sense. That if you can predict to some extent what’s going to happen, that can really help. And so, there’s some suggestion that narrative is sort of a little – maybe a more sophisticated way of using these kind of simulation abilities that developed, along with this kind of cognitive complexity of remembering and projecting. So I think that’s one – one thing that’s also a promising explanation for why we like stories. One that’s kind of related to that, that maybe doesn’t go back quite as far evolutionarily. But this is a theory that was proposed by Lisa Zunshine, who’s actually a literature scholar. And what she says is that, one reason why narratives might be so engaging and fun for us, is because it’s an opportunity to practice our skills at theory of mind. And what theory of mind means is, it’s simply this idea that I know that I’m a person and I have my perspective on the world. And you’re a separate person, and you have your own perspective that’s not the same as mine. But it’s very advantageous for social life if I can try to figure out what your perspective is. What you’re thinking and what you’re going to do. And so, what stories do is they give us a means to sort of practice those skills in a context where there’s not going to be bad consequences. If I’m trying to predict your behavior in the real world and I’m wrong, then that could make a social interaction go downhill pretty quickly. But if I do it in a story and I’m wrong, then I find out that I’m wrong and I learn something from it. But there’s no negative consequence. So I think that’s sort of a really interesting idea that it helps us hone our social skills. And there’s some empirical data that backs that up as well. That narratives can help increase our social skills.

David: I like that. I like that because – when we first met, we discussed– It was right around the time that Breaking Bad was coming to it’s conclusion. And I was – what I love about the idea of a show like that, or any kind of story that has a strong anti-hero. Is that, in Breaking Bad, Walter White is sort of a despicable person, and gets more despicable over time. But you are still compelled to pull for this character and follow them to the end of their story. Because – and this is just my layperson theory. Is that you are identifying with that character’s struggle within a context that, if you think to yourself, “Okay, what if I was in that – the same situation as him, would I be struggling in that same way and how would I do it differently?” And it seems to me that a lot of what makes storytelling compelling are characters, and how we relate to those characters. What sort of research – what have you seen in your research that has to do with character?

Melanie: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think characters are really central to a lot of this kind of work. So there’s a lot of research – in addition to research on transportation of sort of being – stepping into this narrative world. There’s also a lot of work on identification. Where you specifically put yourself in the place of a character. And in the research literature, identification’s one of those terms that people have used a bunch of different ways. So some people thinking it’s liking the character, sympathizing, or thinking that you really are the character. But I think a commonality across all of those things is that, when people connect with a character, that’s a really important pathway that the narrative influence can happen. And again, I think we see this most clearly perhaps in these studies of stories of people who are in a different social group or racial or ethnic group than the reader. That people come to really sympathize often with those characters, and that that’s something that can sort of generalize out to other members of the group. So yeah, I think that’s definitely – important part of narrative impact.

David: You talk about – when you talk about transportation in your research, you bring up that it can be very powerful in belief change. And one of the ways you mentioned that it can do that is that it reduces counter arguing. Could you sort of explain how that works?

Melanie: Yeah sure. So counter arguing is a term that means kind of what it sounds like. And if you think about – if we see an advertisement, say the prototypical one for a used car, something like that. Our knee jerk or default response is often to think of reasons why we shouldn’t believe that. Like, “Oh, they’re probably not telling the truth about that.” Or, “That’s wrong because of this.” We come up with arguments against the message. And one of the neat things about story is – perhaps for better or worse, depending on the content of the story. Is that tendency that’s often evoked by a very straightforward or non-narrative, persuasive message. Is – really seems to be reduced in terms of narratives. And there’s a few reasons why that happens. So one of these is – happens when we first encounter a message. Stories are something that people typically find interesting, they enjoy, they seek out. And so, if you think about trying to deliver a health message for instance, if you do it in a more standard way, people might kind of throw up their hands and say, “Don’t preach at me, I’m tired of this.” They just don’t want to engage with the message. But a story, it’s like, “Oh hey, let me hear what happened to somebody else.” That’s a more appealing way to get people into a message. And then once people have gotten into this narrative world, it seems like there’s a couple of things that could be going on there. So one traces back to this enjoyment idea. Is that, if you’re along for the ride, you’re enjoying the story, you’re having the pleasure of that experience. You’re not really very motivated to step out of it, and start arguing with the story. Which is not to say that it never happens, right? I think many of us have had the experience where you’re watching a movie, and then something just utterly implausible happens, right? I have a friend who’s a physicist, who has this problem with watching science fiction movies, and is like, no wait a second, that’s not right.

David: Right.

Melanie: So it can happen. But we’re sort of motivated not to have it happen. ‘Cause we want to just keep rolling and enjoying the story. And then, second piece of it is that – to counter argue takes mental energy. It takes cognitive capacity. And if we’ve got all our cognitive capacities engaged in this mental simulation, and imaging the story – we may be just sort of less able to come up with counter arguments. Especially because – in many cases, we don’t think that stories are going to be persuasive. We don’t sit down in front of a sitcom and go, “Ooh, I’m worried about what beliefs this is going to show me.” It just kind of sneaks in the back door so to speak.

David: Yeah but it’s – I mean, so this is another one of those things where we live in that – we swim in that sea, we don’t notice that we’re wet. So like the – but stories definitely have greatly impacted individuals, psychology and the psychology of social movements throughout the entirety of human history you’ve got–

Melanie: Absolutely.

David: You took, you think about how – the societal impact of a movie like Philadelphia, that really changed people’s attitude toward AIDS. You write about it in the book about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and how that greatly affected people’s opinion about things. I know that like, when something happens in someone’s personal life, like Dick Cheney has a homosexual member of his family – and that changes his opinion on homosexual marriage. But whenever you don’t have that in your personal life, sometimes, oftentimes a compelling well-made story can put you in the place of those characters and give you a special kind of empathy that you wouldn’t be able to gain any other way. Is that sort of what you’re saying in the – what happens when you get transported effectively?

Melanie: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think it – it sort of shows us a different side of things. It’s good at capturing the human side of things. And so, often that can evoke empathy and these other kind of positive responses.

David: What are some–

Melanie: Not to say it always does, narratives are not always used for good purposes. But that’s what I kind of prefer to focus on, yeah.

David: So along those lines, do you see that there are some stories that seem to be universal to all human cultures?

Melanie: Oh goodness, that’s a great question. So, certainly there are things like Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. And others have written about this, that there seem to be certain very prototypical stories. The struggle and the triumph of the hero and these kinds of things. There also is cultural variation across sort of what kinds of things people expect in stories. Like how much do people expect things to be neatly wrapped up in an ending? Or just different cultural patterns that get reflected in stories. So I think my kind of take home on it is that – there are some things that do seem to be relatively universal with broad kind of story structures, but then variation within it. Probably the story of just about everything, but applies to narratives as well.

David: And certainly every culture – what’s universal is that all cultures generate stories and generate mythologies that we live by. And that in itself is what’s so amazing about being able to research this stuff. And I think oftentimes we don’t realize that some of our – some of those stories that we share are actually a shared mythology, and they’re not the true story. You mentioned in your book things like Christopher Columbus. Could you sort of unpack the nature of how that kind of story gets embellished, and why we do such things?

Melanie: Right, so with that kind of thing– To some extent, it’s a little bit like the game of telephone. Stories sort of get told and retold and shaped in a society. They often tend to converge on something that makes a better story structure, even if it’s not something that’s as clear a reflection of what actually happens. And I think some of that is what kinds of needs people want the story to mean. Other times it can be – people intentionally manipulating or sharing stories in a certain way, to achieve particular goals in society. So I think there are a variety of ways that that can happen. That stories can get simplified and reduced and removed – in order to make a better story. But a better story that may be further from reality.

David: But what’s great about – what fascinates me about the Christopher Columbus story, and maybe like the story of Thanksgiving and many of the other stories that we have in the United States. Is that we don’t really have a shared mythology, and so we sort of have invented one on the fly, with the founding fathers. And all the stories that we learn in school that – when you get older you realize, “Oh wait, a whole lot of that was completely made up.” And it seems like it speaks to a compulsion that we – if we are without a shared mythology to cohese us, that we will generate one. Is that an accurate estimation, or am I just going way off the deep end there?

Melanie: No, I mean, that’s a little bit outside the bounds of what I study, but that rings true to me. That this is something that is a – kind of a powerful glue for holding groups together and societies together. And so, yes, so if it’s not there, people are going to generate it.

David: Okay. So I want to get to some questions that came from people on Facebook. Before that, there was a – there was this one line I saw in your research that really stuck out to me. And I thought that was just so interesting, I wanted to ask you about it. Was – does the storytelling ability of a particular individual – like if they’re really great at storytelling, does that tend to change the way other people respond to him or her?

Melanie: It does. This is some relatively recent research that we’ve been doing in my lab. And I’m very excited about it. So it seems to change things in 2 ways. So one that we’ve found recently – and this hasn’t been published yet. But it’s the idea that – if people use stories rather than other forms of information in interpersonal interaction– And the kind of scenario that we’ve used is, if somebody asks you for advice on something. And then you can respond back either with a story or with maybe some statistics and facts. That if you use a story, that increases perceptions of somebody as being sort of warm and friendly. Whereas, if you use statistics and facts, that increases perceptions of competence. So they just need to draw on these different domains of person perception. Which is kind of a neat thing, so it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it – can make a difference there.

David: That’s fascinating. Because I think we all have someone in our friend group or our family who is – you’re like – that’s the one who really is great at telling stories. And you want to gather around that person and have them talk about something.

Melanie: Yeah, absolutely. And then the other thing that we’ve found in our lab is that if people are – if they’re the ones that are good at telling the stories, what that seems to do is increase perceptions that either that person is of a higher status in a group. Or that they have the potential to achieve higher status. That sort of makes people be perceived as leaders or potential leaders. Or people who are going to succeed.

David: Oh wow.

Melanie: And so yeah, it’s really interesting that that seems to happen.

David: I can remember when I was a child. I would – there was a restaurant in my home town, really small town. And I don’t remember the man’s name. I would have to ask my parents. But I remember that he would sit down in the restaurant and no one would be eating, they’d just have coffee. And they would all be around this one guy, telling stories about – I don’t know what? But I remember very vividly that he was a beloved character, and if he walked in the door, people are like, “Oh yeah, okay. I came on the right day, because this guy’s going to tell us something about his childhood, or he’s going to tell us something about what happened to him last week.” And he was – I would like to think that sort of stuff is still happening out there somewhere.

Melanie: That is very cool, yeah absolutely. We love those great storytellers.

David: Okay, let’s get these questions. These are all incredible questions, and I’m just going to start with this one. This comes from John Padilla, and he asks – this might be an obvious question, but has she come across specific narratives which have a higher conversion rate? And he supposes that perhaps maybe they’d be religious texts? But he’s interested in things like stories that get passed around like A Christmas Carol. Are there – so are there specific narratives that you know of that have a higher chance of converting the listener?

Melanie: That is a great question. And I can answer it a little bit on sort of a really general level. And that’s the idea that stories that are better able to transport us are going to be more effective. And that seems to come down to – and this is not a – perhaps a particularly surprising answer. But narrative quality in various ways. So is the plot coherent? Are the characters engaging? If it’s a video narrative, are the production values good? So all of these kinds of things that play into it being a good story, also tend to relate to it being a more effective story. And then there’s some neat research on things like urban legends, or more recently on what goes viral. These kinds of things. And it’s interesting that the emotion seems to be really key to that process. So things that tap into emotion – these sort of activating emotions that makes us want to share some things that surprise us or make us angry or make us excited. That makes us want to pass along these kinds of things. Be it an urban legend or a video on Facebook or these kinds of things. I also think – kind of a third answer is, that it goes back to what we were talking about a little bit earlier. That sometimes these things that tap into really fundamental human concerns or story structures. I mean like with the Christmas Carol, this redemption story that Scrooge can come back from being mean and see the light. This is a really powerful type of narrative. And so I think things that tap into those kinds of stories that we share as a society can be powerful as well.

David: Awesome. Thank you John, that was really cool. And this comes from Anthony Vincent. Anthony’s question is – how should we train people–? In his mind – especially children to be aware of persuasive narratives that might be used by marketers and politicians in the popular culture? How can we best prepare a person to withstand belief change?

Melanie: That is a fantastic question. The 64 thousand dollar question. And it’s actually – it’s more difficult than you might think. So there’s research in my lab, where we’ve tried to do things like– Let me take a step back. So we’ve had the consistent finding in my work that it doesn’t really matter whether you tell somebody that a story’s fact or fiction. And people seem to be transported into it, they’re persuaded by both of them. People think that it should matter, but when it comes to the effects on people, it seems generally not to. And what we did – in one of our studies, where we tried to push this a little bit further, and say, “Hey, this isn’t fiction, this is somebody that made this up to lie to you. This is fake.” To see if that would be enough to get people to not be effected by the story. And the funny thing is, is that people are like – oh they were mad. Like, “This author shouldn’t be lying to us.” But yet, they were still showing some attitudinal effects of reading the story. And so that was really surprising. That even when people were sort of upset and didn’t want to be persuaded, they still sometimes seemed to be. And Beth Marsh, who’s a psychologist at Duke University has done a series of studies. Where they’ve tried to get people to not gain misinformation from stories. With things like slowing down, warning people that there’s going to be misinformation. And it takes a lot, it takes a lot to get people to not fall for this. And so I think some of it may be – a little bit of awareness of having the time to step back from the story and think about bringing in those critical parts of our mind that might not be typically active during reading the story. Stepping back and analyzing it. “Okay, what information was that implying? Where does that come from? Does that resonate with other things that I know? Other facts that I can find in the world? And the tricky thing about that is that we may not always have the time to do that. We may not always have the resources, either mental or kind of – the informational, can we find out about these things? So I think – so awareness and media literacy kinds of things can do some of it. But I think it’s an especially– It’s a big challenge with narratives, as to how to create that resistance. An important challenge.

David: I love that – what’s great about all these questions is that this is – this research is very new. We’re just sort of – we just now are starting to like really get our claws into it. So I love the idea of being on the forefront of something like that.

Melanie: Yeah, exactly. it’s exciting. But it does mean there are some unanswered questions, absolutely.

David: Sure. And one more question, this is really neat. This comes from JA Callahan. Can the same narrative hold a different amount of power if told by one person, compared to another?

Melanie: That is a great question. And I think this is also one where that’s a grey area where research needs to go a little further and find that out. One answer that comes to mind is that people’s preconceptions about the person who’s telling the story can matter. So – and political polarization is the example here is – if a politician that you like tells a particular story, you might be going, “Yeah, that’s exactly right.” Whereas if the guy or woman across the aisle is telling that same story, you might be ready to pounce on it and pick holes in it. So certainly from that perspective I think – who tells the story is going to matter a lot if you have a pre– Going into it, you have ideas about whether you’re going to agree with that or not. And I think it also can hook back into these narrative quality issues, where – again some people just have sort of a gift for telling stories compellingly. Or they have amazing voices or things like that. I suspect that matters too.

David: Right. Well, I know we could go on and on about this, ’cause I love hearing about it. And this is just one of the most fascinating areas of psychology right now. But I have to say goodbye at some point. So what I want to do though is give people an opportunity to keep up with what you’re doing. So if somebody wanted to find you on the internet, how would they do that?

Melanie: Yes, you can type my name into Google, and I’m at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I can give you the web address to– Shall I say it right now or do you want to–

David: Oh yeah go for it.

Melanie: Okay, actually I have to pull it up and make sure I’m getting it right. But my Twitter handle is @narrprof. So they can find me on Twitter. And they can find me on the web at – I should have this off the top of my head, but– It’s [Not active]

David: Alright.

Melanie: And they can keep up with me there.

David: And so, what are you working on right now? What does the future hold?

Melanie: Well we’re working on a couple of exciting things right now. One of them is to try to extend this research out to look at not just what happens when we get involved with one story. But how do we manage the situation when we have several different stories that are all dealing with the same topic, and how do we choose or integrate the information from those? And another thing that we’re looking at is how narratives change when they become interactive. So what happens when people can start having control over where the plot goes? So I think those are 2 exciting directions for looking at these questions.

David: That is so cool. Thank you so much for coming on, and I look forward to seeing what you’re going to produce in your research. I really appreciate it.

Melanie: Well thank you so much, it was great fun to be here.