Researchers have long been interested in how what we read influences what we think. Many of us may find, for instance, that the plot of a novel sparks our interest in a controversial issue or that its characters help us to see perspectives we hadn’t considered. But how do the stories we read change our attitudes and what makes a given story more likely to do so? Although scientists have put forth many ideas to answer this question, our emotional engagement with stories appears to be a key component to their influence. For example, our attitudes may change in response to a story because of the particular emotions it provokes and strong emotional responses may also motivate us to share the stories we read with others (e.g. Dunlop et al., 2010; Heath, Bell & Sternberg, 2001).
A recent theory by Robin Nabi (UCSB) and Melanie Green (Buffalo) suggests, however, that the way our emotions change as we engage with stories may be equally important (Nabi & Green, 2015). In other words, shifts in how we feel as we engage with a story might evoke subsequent shifts in our opinions and attitudes -- making those shifts more powerful and long-lasting. In their article, "The Role of Narrative's Emotional Flow in Promoting Persuasive Outcomes", Nabi and Green (2015) propose several intriguing possibilities for how this may take place.
First, we must choose to attend to a message in order for it to be persuasive and the desire to change our own emotions may play a role. As Zillman's (1988; 2000) mood management theory suggests, we choose messages that we think will evoke a desirable mood -- for instance, we may choose to read comedy to “perk us up” when we’re sad. Secondly, emotional shifts may influence how we process the stories we're engaged with. The authors give the example that points of emotional change within a story may take up more of our mental energy, and this means we are less likely to argue with its underlying message. Ultimately, this effect makes the story more persuasive. Finally, it is suggested that a flux of emotional experience may change the way we interact with a story's message after we're finished reading. We may, for example, engage in further research about a topic from the story that caught our interest. The authors explain that this is more likely to occur when the events within a story are perceived as novel or surprising and that such events are often tied to emotional changes.
In short, it appears that it is not only emotional quality or depth that influences whether stories can change our attitudes, but also the "twists and turns" of emotions that make stories more persuasive. And in our increasingly complex world, the means by which stories harness the power to open our minds and spark change is certainly a topic worthy of further study.
Post by Shaina List
* For a copy of this article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in About section).
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