Narrative Transportation: What It Is and Why Every Storyteller Needs To Know It
I was sitting on a United flight a few days ago. It was a last-minute flight so I ended up with a middle seat in the back of the plane. Before I left I purchased the entire season of The People v. O.J. Simpson so I’d have some solid travel material. So there I was, mid-flight, stuck in the back of a noisy plane, crammed between two people (one of whom had forgotten to shower before flying) and I hit play on episode 7, "Conspiracy Theories."
As I watched, the rest of the world disappeared. It was if I was in the front row of the courthouse eagerly waiting to see if O.J. was going to be asked to try on the glove (and if it would fit). As I watched, there was no more rumble from being in a flying metal cylinder thousands of miles above the Earth. The man's deadly stench dissipated.
Despite being in such a confined and uncomfortable space, I felt like I wasn’t even there.
The experience of being transported to the world of a story is called narrative transportation.
It’s an incredibly powerful experience that can change how we see the world.
Let’s explore what it is and why it matters.
Imagine you were to volunteer to be a part of a short psychology study. You’re not entirely sure what it’s about (intentional on the researchers' part, so as to not bias you), but one day you show up to a small room on a university campus expecting to spend about an hour reading something, then filling out some questionnaires.
You’re escorted into the room by an experimenter who sits you down at a desk. There in front of you is the book, How We Die. You’re asked to open it to page 118 and read one story in particular, "Murder in the Mall." As you get started, the first thing you notice—in big bold letters at the top of the page—is the phrase, This is a true story.
You’re starting to feel a little confronted about what it is you’re about to read, though you venture on. The short story introduces you to Joan, a college student, and her little sister Katie.
One Saturday morning Katie went to the mall, as many kids her age might do. But while there she ran into a psychiatric patient who, without any apparent reason, brutally stabs and kills Katie.
As you reach the end of the story, you’re rather shocked with what you just experienced. It takes you a moment to become aware of your surroundings. It's another moment before you realize that you're back on the university campus.
You then remember the questionnaires and slowly open the booklet of questions. First, you’re asked about your experience while reading "Murder in the Mall." Questions like:
- While I was reading the narrative, activity going on in the room around me was on my mind.
- I could picture myself in the scene of the events described in the narrative.
And then you move onto a series of questions that start asking you about how you see the world.
The first statement suggests that "someone is getting stabbed to death somewhere in the US.” You’re then asked to choose from a series of answers ranging from "every 10 minutes" to "every month."
You finish the questionnaire booklet and start to wonder what this all was about.
A total of 93 university students went through the experience above. The results are eye-opening as it relates to the power of story.
One of the first things they were testing for was how much each participant was "transported" into the story. Being "transported" means having an emotional reaction, a good deal of mental imagery, and losing awareness of your immediate surroundings.
Ever experienced being lost in a story? That’s narrative transportation and it can change how you see the world.
Here's what narrative transportation means in simpler terms, as summarized by professor of cognitive science, Richard Gerrig:
Someone ('the traveler') is transported, by some means of transportation, as a result of performing certain actions. The traveler goes some distance from his or her world of origin, which makes some aspects of the world of origin inaccessible. The traveler returns to the world of origin, somewhat changed by the journey.
But here’s why this matters to you–the experience of being transported can change how you see the world. Sounds like a rather grand claim, but here’s the proof.
- Those participants who were more highly transported into the story also scored much higher on story consistent beliefs.
- They were more likely to say that they felt the world was unjust. Remember that in "Murder in the Mall," a girl was randomly stabbed to death at a mall.
- They were more likely to believe we needed tighter controls on psychiatric patients. Recall that it was a psych patient who committed the stabbing.
- They also believed that violence occurred more frequently in the United States.
Now, it’s important to realize that these questions weren’t asking about how participants felt about the story. They didn’t ask about violence in the mall on the day that Katie was stabbed. They asked about the occurrence of violence across the country.
Those who were more transported into the story started to see the world in a more story-consistent way. That’s huge.
Now you might be thinking, what’s the big deal? After all, it was a true story about a girl being stabbed and so it makes sense that those who really connected with the story reported story-consistent beliefs.
The researchers also tested the impact of fictional stories verses true stories. The results are shocking.
When half of the participants read the story, they found those big bold words, “This is a true story” at the top of the page. Whereas the other half were told that "the events in 'Murder at the Mall' comprise a short story, the fiction feature.” To further push these impressions of fiction and nonfiction, researchers even presented the true-story version as a newspaper, and the fictional version more like a magazine.
In the end, none of it mattered.
Whether participants were told the story was fact or fiction didn’t affect how much participants were transported into the story or—more importantly—how it changed their worldviews.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Telling a powerful story, one that transports your audience into the story, can literally change how they see the world—regardless of whether your story is true or not.
Story is an incredibly persuasive tool. That’s a large reason why we’re always babbling on and on about being intentional with every story decision you make.
In case you missed it, earlier this year we also shared why story is so much more powerful than statistics. Here’s what the researchers from that study had to say:
"Although other forms of communication might also elicit transportation—for instance, a particularly stirring speech might sweep away an audience—transportation more commonly occurs in response to narratives." -- Green & Brock, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000.
Hey filmmakers, listen up! This point is for you. Film is just the medium we most identify with—the storytelling craft transcends that medium. The techniques of storytelling can be applied countless times each and every day.
So if you have something you want to communicate, story is the vehicle that will best help you do that. And while there is so much that goes into crafting a strong story, here are two main things that are critical:
- A story is only as strong as the main character. Here the researchers stated, "...attachment to a protagonist may be an important determinant in the persuasiveness of a story.” Our audience, when transported into the story, can become highly involved with the characters they find there. Finding and developing strong characters is one of the most developed strengths of a master storyteller.
- Conflict is a vital ingredient in a strong story. Here the researchers tested out an alternative version of the story. Rather than "Murder in the Mall", they tested "Bubbles in the Mall" in which Katie runs into a clown blowing bubbles and is overcome with giggles. Perhaps not so shocking, "Bubbles in the Mall" wasn’t nearly as effective at transporting readers.
Remember, we’re all storytellers—people as young as toddlers weave narratives with their favorite toys. We’re hardwired to make connections out of chaos, to bring things together into a story. So our goal then isn't just to be a storyteller—we all do that.