One of the most fascinating aspects of fiction is our ability to become completely immersed or transported into the world of a story (Gerrig, 1993; Green & Brock, 2000). But does this experience of being transported into a narrative world change depending on whether the individual is engaging with that story for the first time, or for a repeat trip? It is possible, for example, that a repeat story would be less engaging due to boredom and lack of suspense; on the flip side, it may be that experiencing a story for a second time allows for greater fluency and deeper understanding. And furthermore, how might story medium (text versus film) affect this process?
Our recent paper in Media Psychology investigated these questions, using a field study and a laboratory experiment (Green et al., 2008). For the first study (N = 88), we recruited people at movie theaters. We were interested in whether their transportation into the movie (one of the Harry Potter series, and replicated with one of the Lord of the Rings films) would be affected by whether or not they had previously read the book version. Results showed that people who read the novel before viewing the film version were more transported into the film, compared to non-readers. A prior visit to the narrative world increased engagement with a new version; novel-readers seemed to have heightened emotional reactions to the film.
While this study provided suggestive evidence that repeat exposure could be beneficial to narrative experience, it was open to alternative explanations – perhaps most obviously, the possibility that individual who were bigger fans of fantasy or of these series in particular might be both more likely to read the book and to become transported into the movie. In Study 2 (N = 71), participants came to the lab on two separate occasions to either read a passage or watch a movie clip. Results replicated Study 1: reading followed by watching provided the greatest transportation (a significant increase from the first to the second session). However, watching the movie clip twice resulted in lower transportation at the second session (and the other two combinations showed no change in transportation at the second session). It appears that repetition can indeed enhance one’s narrative experience, but not always – perhaps the movie version did not provide enough new food for thought to be engaging a second time around.
An even more interesting finding emerged when we examined individual differences. We measured a variable called need for cognition (Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984), which assesses how much people like to think. High need for cognition individuals enjoy effortful cognitive activity (puzzles, debates, thinking of all sorts), whereas low need for cognition individuals tend to think hard only when they need to. We found that across both sessions, high need for cognition individuals were more transported when reading, whereas low need for cognition individuals were more transported when watching a narrative. In other words, individuals were more transported when a narrative medium matched their preferred level of cognitive effort (following the commonly-held assumption that reading is more effortful than watching).
As a whole, these studies make two key points. First, a match of desired cognitive effort with the challenge of the text seems to matter for becoming transported into the narrative world. Although we investigated these effects with differences between film and text, these findings have broader implications as well (for example, for comparisons between simple versus complex stories). Second, repetition can (under some circumstances) enhance transportation into a narrative world. Transportation does not solely rely on the excitement of wanting to find out what happens in the end. Rather, traveling back to a familiar storyworld allows individuals to engage again with beloved characters or perhaps to find something new in a familiar story.
Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Kao, C. F. (1984). The efficient assessment of need for cognition. Journal of Personality Assessment, 48, 306-307.
Gerrig, R. J. (1993). Experiencing narrative worlds. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Green, M. C. & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701-721.
Green, M.C., Kass, S., Carrey, J., Feeney, R., Herzig, B., & Sabini, J. (2008). Transportation across media: Print versus film comparisons. Media Psychology, 11, 512-539.