A great deal of past research has demonstrated that reader attitudes can be influenced by what they read. Remarkably, labeling the text in question as either fiction or nonfiction does not appear to have much effect on whether people are persuaded by the content being read. Markus Appel (Koblenz Landau) and Martina Mara (Linz) recently investigated whether another factor might influence people’s attitudes: the trustworthiness of the character. These researcher asked participants to read a story in which one character espouses the importance of fuel-efficient driving habits. Importantly, for a proportion of readers this person was highly trustworthy, a respected expert on the environment and a person of high integrity. A different group of participants read that this person was something rather less than trustworthy, an individual focused on personal appearance rather than substance who drives a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle. Finally, a third group read a control story that didn’t mention green driving habits at all. What the researchers found was that people were in general sensitive to the trustworthiness of the character, with those who received this information from a trustworthy (albeit, still fictional) source indicating higher intentions to drive in an environmentally sensitive fashion compared to those who heard this same information from an untrustworthy source. As an interesting twist, those who were most absorbed or engaged in the story seemed to be the least affected by this trustworthiness information, and more likely to be persuaded by the information regardless of its source. Another important caveat of this work was that no differences were found after a 3 week follow-up, when actual driving behaviors were queried, although this might have also been affected by the lower numbers of participants responding to the follow-up survey. This study provides important nuance to past work how attitudes are shaped by fictional stories, indicating that within-text factors like our impressions of characters can also play a role.
Appel, M. & Mara, M. (2013). The persuasive influence of a fictional character’s trustworthiness. Journal of Communication, 63, 912–932.
* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile).