Transportation Theory Applied to Health and Risk Messaging
- Melanie C. GreenMelanie C. GreenDepartment of Communication, University at Buffalo
- and Kaitlin FitzgeraldKaitlin FitzgeraldDepartment of Communication, University at Buffalo
Transportation Theory: Narrative transportation theory focuses on the causes and consequences of an individual being immersed in a story, or transported into a narrative world. Transportation refers to the feeling of being so absorbed in a story that connection to the real world is lost for some time; it includes cognitive engagement, emotional experience, and the presence of mental imagery. This experience is a key mechanism underlying narrative influence on recipients’ attitudes and beliefs, particularly in combination with enjoyment and character identification. Narrative persuasion through transportation has been demonstrated with a wide variety of topics, including health, social issues, and consumer products. Transportation can occur across media (through written, audio, or video narratives) and for both factual and fictional stories. It is typically measured with a self-report scale, which has been well-validated (Green & Brock, 2000). Transportation is conceptually similar to flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and presence (Klimmt & Vorderer, 2003), although both flow and presence pertain more to being immersed in an experience, rather than specifically in a narrative. While individuals are transported, their mental systems and capacities become concentrated on events occurring in the story, causing them to lose track of time, lack awareness of the surrounding environment, and experience powerful emotions as a result of their immersion in the narrative. Transported recipients may also lose some access to real-world knowledge, making them more likely to adapt their real-world beliefs and behaviors to be more consistent with the story to which they are exposed. Transportation theory suggests several mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, including reduced counterarguing, connections with characters, heightened perceptions of realism, the formation of vivid mental imagery, and emotional engagement. Personality factors can also affect the extent of transportation: narrative recipients vary in transportability, or their dispositional tendency to become transported; and they may be influenced differently by narratives due to a difference in their need for affect (individuals high in need for affect are more likely to be transported into narratives). Additional factors such as story quality and points of similarity between the reader and the story can also influence transportation.
Storytelling, Narrative, and Persuasion
For centuries, stories have been a primary means of communicating information. Oral storytelling allowed individuals to share and pass down knowledge before written communication was widespread, and even today, stories are a central part of interpersonal and mass communication. One important function of stories is to persuade: individuals’ attitudes and beliefs can be shaped by the stories they hear. The power of stories has long been recognized on a societal level. For example, authoritarian governments regularly censor or destroy books that are seen as a threat to their worldview. Research in psychology and communication has focused on the underlying processes that allow stories to affect individuals’ real-world thoughts and actions. The current chapter focuses on one of these processes, narrative transportation.
Definition of Narrative Transportation
Narrative transportation refers to the experience of being consumed by the world of a narrative, of being so immersed in a story that connection to the real world may be lost for some time. Transportation can occur in written, spoken/audio, and visual narrative (e.g., text and video), and can result from both fictional and nonfictional narrative. As long as a narrative structure is present, it is possible that transportation is also present. In addition to traditional forms such as novels and short stories, narrative structure is also used as a tool for a variety of communication domains, including entertainment (e.g., television series, movies, video games), health education (e.g., health interventions, educational programs), and advertising (e.g., campaigns, commercials).
While transported, a person’s mental systems and capacities become concentrated on events occurring in the story, causing individuals to lose track of time, lack awareness of the surrounding environment, and experience strong emotions as a result of the narrative. In this context, a narrative can be defined as a story or series of events that has an identifiable beginning, middle, and end, during which characters may encounter and then resolve a crisis or crises. Narratives typically have the elements of character (the story is about a person or people, or person-like entities such as animals), temporality (events occurring over time), and causality (the events are linked in a cause-and-effect sequence; Dahlstrom, 2014).
The term “transportation” was adopted by persuasion researchers Green and Brock (2000) from Richard Gerrig (1993), a cognitive psychologist who drew an analogy between narrative experience and the literal experience of traveling (going some distance from a world of origin), in which the traveler returns somewhat changed as a result of the journey. Similarly, when people are transported into a narrative world (going some distance from the real world), they may be more likely to change their real-world beliefs and behaviors to become more consistent with the story. In other words, to the extent that individuals are transported in a narrative world, they may show effects of changed attitudes and behaviors as a result. Transportation theory suggests several mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, including reduced counterarguing, connections with characters, heightened perceptions of realism, story-relevant mental imagery, and emotional engagement. These mechanisms will be discussed later in this entry.
Transportation theory and research has important implications for message design. Specifically, this research suggests that stories that are more transporting will be more effective at creating attitude or behavior change. For example, research has shown that individuals who were more transported into advertisements showed more positive attitudes toward products (Escalas, 2004); individuals who were more transported into a story about affirmative action policies were more supportive of such policies (Mazzocco et al., 2010); and individuals who were more transported into a video story about cervical cancer screening were more positive about getting a screening test (Murphy et al., 2013). Below, we discuss elements of transportation and factors that influence transportation; message designers can draw on this knowledge when constructing their own stories or campaigns. For example, narratives that are high quality, provide opportunities for mental imagery, and create emotional connections with characters may be more likely to affect an audience.
Many studies of narrative-based attitude change have examined only immediate effects, such as an attitude or belief change within a single experimental session (e.g., Green & Brock, 2000; see also van Laer et al., 2014, for a review). Although research on the effects of transporting narratives over time is still underrepresented, initial studies are promising in demonstrating both persistence effects (attitude change maintained over time; e.g., Hormes, Rozin, Green, & Fincher, 2013) and sleeper effects (a message becoming more effective over time; e.g., Appel & Richter, 2007; Moyer-Gusé, & Nabi, 2010).
The standard instrument used to capture the experience of narrative transportation is the Transportation Scale (Green & Brock, 2000). The scale was created with the intent to capture the major dimension of Gerrig’s (1993) exposition of transportation, including emotional involvement in the story, cognitive attention to the story, feelings of suspense, lack of awareness of surroundings, and mental imagery. The original scale included 15 items, including 11 general transportation items and 4 imagery items all relating to a specific narrative. These items included the following:
While I was reading the narrative, I could easily picture the events in it taking place.
While I was reading the narrative, activity going on in the room around me was on my mind. (R)
I could picture myself in the scene of the events described in the narrative.
I was mentally involved in the narrative while reading it.
After finishing the narrative, I found it easy to put it out of my mind. (R)
I wanted to learn how the narrative ended.
The narrative affected me emotionally.
I found myself thinking of ways the narrative could have turned out differently.
I found my mind wandering while reading the narrative. (R)
The events in the narrative are relevant to my everyday life.
The events in the narrative have changed my life.
*(R) indicates that the item is reverse scored.
Four additional items (12–15) measure the individual’s “vivid image” of the story’s main characters or settings. These items should be adapted to include the character names of the narrative used (i.e., “I had a vivid image of [Harry]” if using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).
Green and Brock (2000) conducted an exploratory factor analysis that yielded a three-factor solution. The aspects represented by the three factors were labeled cognitive (Items 1, 3, 4) emotional-affective (Items 5, 7, 11), and visual imagery (Items 12–15). Four items were unaccounted for by any of the three factors (Items 2, 6, 8, 10).
The 15-item transportation scale was refined to a short-form scale with 6 items by identifying items that constituted a reliable and valid brief form of the transportation scale (Appel, Gnambs, Richter, & Green, 2015). The short form may be especially useful for field settings or other contexts where questionnaire brevity is important. The six-item TS–Short Form (TS‒SF) is as sensitive as the long form and is available in English and German. All items in both the TS and TS‒SF are measured on a seven-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “very much.”
A closely related measure is Busselle and Bilandzic’s (2009) narrative engagement scale, based on the idea that narrative engagement is a process of constructing mental models of narrative events. The narrative engagement scale measures four dimensions of experiential engagement in narratives: narrative understanding, attentional focus, emotional engagement, and narrative presence. Although this scale tends to be highly correlated with measures of transportation, it is useful in cases where researchers may wish to focus on specific dimensions of the narrative experience.
In addition to measuring transportation responses that naturally occur in response to narratives, researchers have created experimental manipulations designed to increase or decrease transportation. Such manipulations are important for theory testing, enabling researchers to examine the effects of transportation while controlling for other variables, such as the content of the story. In some cases, these manipulations may also have practical value for helping to increase or decrease transportation in more naturalistic settings.
For example, transportation can be affected by the instructions given to readers or viewers. Instructions to focus on the surface aspects of the story, such as difficulty and grammar, produce lower transportation than instructions to simply read the story normally. Transportation can also be manipulated by changing aspects of the story; changing a story to nonchronological order or reducing the quality of writing (poorer word choice, digressions) produces lower transportation. Further, manipulating narrative suspense (providing general information to suggest a forthcoming dramatic event in the narrative) can increase transportation (Tal-Or & Cohen, 2010).
Although these manipulations have primarily been used in experimental contexts to help understand the processes and effects of transportation, these manipulations may also relate to message design (e.g., messages that avoid digressions and have a clear chronological structure are more likely to be transporting).
Individual Differences (Transportability, Need for Affect)
Dispositional or personality variables can also affect individuals’ likelihood of being transported into a narrative. Research has investigated traits or tendencies that are associated with increased narrative engagement and/or persuasion. In particular, research has focused on transportability, need for affect, and need for cognition, although other audience characteristics may also be relevant.
Not all people equally likely to experience narrative transportation (Mazzocco et al., 2010). Some individuals have a higher likelihood of being transported than others due to their general predispositions or traits. Factors like narrative comprehension ability (how well people understood the story, characters, conflicts), tendencies toward mental imagery production (how well they are able to imagine the events, characters, etc., in the narrative), and tendency toward emotional responding, should affect transportability. Transportability is defined as the tendency or likelihood to become transported into narratives. It can be measured using the Transportability Scale (Dal Cin, Zanna, & Fong, 2004), which contains questions such as “I can become so absorbed in a story that I forget the world around me.” All else equal, individuals who are high in transportability are more likely to become transported into particular narratives that they encounter.
In addition to differences in transportability, some individuals are higher in what psychologists refer to as “the need for affect” (an individual trait involving a strong disposition to approach emotions) than others. These individuals tend to enjoy and seek out situations that allow them to experience strong emotions, whereas individuals low in need for affect prefer to avoid emotion-evoking situations. People higher in need for affect are more likely to become transported into narratives; experience more intense transportation; and as a result, experience strong persuasive effects from the message (Appel & Richter, 2010).
Although need for cognition (individuals’ tendency to enjoy thinking, or effortful cognitive activity; Petty, Cacioppo, & Kao, 1984) typically has only a low positive correlation with transportation, need for cognition may affect what types of narratives individuals are most likely to become transported into. Specifically, there is some preliminary evidence that individuals higher in need for cognition are more likely to be transported into relatively higher-effort media (e.g., books) whereas individuals low in need for cognition are more likely to be transported into relatively lower-effort media (video). Future research might consider the relationship between need for cognition and transportation into complex or challenging storylines (e.g., films such as Inception or Memento that do not follow a typical chronological sequence, and therefore require more mental processing from the audience to comprehend their intricate plot and timelines).
It is important to distinguish between narrative transportation and other related concepts. In particular, the similar psychological mechanisms discussed below are also forms of engagement that lead to attitude and belief change.
Transportation vs. Cognitive Elaboration
Dual-process models such as the elaboration likelihood model (ELM; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986) and the heuristic-systematic model (HSM; Chaiken, 1980) were developed to explain traditional persuasive messages (e.g., editorials, advertisements). These models focus on how much attention or thought an individual devotes to a message. When individuals devote a lot of attention—in conditions of high elaboration—central or systematic route processing is employed. That is, the person offers more careful consideration of the central arguments of the message. Alternatively, when people devote less attention—in conditions of low elaboration—peripheral or heuristic processing is employed. In peripheral processing, the recipients offer less or shallow consideration of the message or rely on simple rules to process it.
In transportation theory, message processing differs from these dual-process models of persuasion. Transportation is considered an immersive and convergent process in which a transported individual is so engaged with the narrative they become less likely to counterargue (argue against) story-consistent information and some real-world facts become inaccessible. Transported individuals may also emotionally connect with characters in the story by identifying with some aspect of the character’s personality, experience, etc. This leads to an increased likelihood for individuals to agree with story-consistent beliefs. Attitude change may therefore be the result of persuasion through these mechanisms (e.g., reduction of counterarguing and increases in character identification).
On the other hand, elaboration is considered to be a divergent process in which people consciously access their own real-world knowledge, thoughts, opinions, and experiences. As a result, the high-elaboration person is effectively able to evaluate the message. Attitude change in elaboration therefore occurs as a result of careful consideration and evaluation of arguments, in contrast to the immersive experience of transportation.
Transportation vs. Identification
As mentioned, character identification is an important element in narrative persuasion. Identification and transportation are both mechanisms through which a narrative can alter a person’s attitudes and beliefs. However, identification in particular occurs when people are able to experience the narrative through the perspective of the story character (Busselle & Bilandzic, 2008; Cohen, 2001), whereas transportation is a more general immersion in the story world. Identification and transportation are often highly correlated, and current research shows mixed results about whether one is more important than the other in terms of attitude change.
The experience of identification can be conceptualized as the individual adopting the goals and motivations of the character. When a person identifies with a story character, he or she is able to experience the emotions of the character as if they were his or her own. When the character achieves goals, individuals experience the emotions of achieving that goal, but when the character fails to achieve those goals, individuals experience the emotions relating to this failure (Oatley, 1994). Identification may not be constant throughout the course of a narrative; individuals may experience different intensities of identification or identify with more than one character. Like transportation, identification may alter a person’s attitudes and beliefs to be more consistent with those in the story. When people identify with a character, a connection with that character is created. Through this connection, individuals may accept the characters’ perceptions and implications of experiences in the story. By vicariously sharing those experiences with the character, people may shift their attitudes to be more consistent with those of the character (Mar & Oatley, 2008).
Transportation vs. Flow and Presence
Transportation is conceptually related to flow and presence, although both flow and presence pertain more to being immersed in an experience, rather than specifically in a narrative. Flow refers to a mental state that occurs while an individual is performing some activity in which they are fully absorbed, causing feelings of energized focus, involvement, and enjoyment. Flow shares several characteristics of transportation (e.g., losing track of time, failing to notice changes in the environment, etc.); however, transportation differs because it applies specifically to experiences with narratives.
Similarly, presence describes a perceptual illusion, or state of consciousness in which a person may perceive physical presence in a mediated world (Klimmt & Vorderer, 2003). This concept is most frequently used in studies of virtual reality (e.g., Slater & Wilbur, 1997). Like transportation, presence involves a feeling of experiencing a world outside of reality. However, transportation refers specifically to experience the world of a narrative. For example, individuals may feel present in virtual environments such as a roller coaster or a narrow bridge across a chasm; this experience may be quite vivid and affect individuals both psychologically and physiologically, but this form of presence does not require a storyline or narrative. Ultimately, transportation is distinct from these related concepts of flow or presence (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Engeser, 2012) because transportation is particularly focused on the experience of stories or narratives.
Transportation and Attitude/Belief Change: Mechanisms
As noted above, there are several ways that transportation may help create belief, attitude, and behavior change. These mechanisms include reduced counterarguing (that is, coming up with fewer arguments against the implications of the story), connections with characters, heightened perceptions of realism, story-relevant mental imagery, and emotional engagement.
Transportation-based attitude change can result from reduced counterarguing. In some cases, transported individuals may not be aware that a narrative is persuasive. Due to the entertaining nature of some narratives, individuals may not expect to be influenced and thus spend less time actively considering the imbedded message of the story. Attitudes and behaviors depicted in the narrative may thus be accepted by the person without much attention. (However, such lack of awareness is not a necessary prerequisite of either transportation or persuasion; for example, some stories used in health communication have an obvious message—for example, promoting cancer screening—but are nonetheless engaging and effective.) Furthermore, transportation may reduce the motivation to counterargue. When people are transported in an entertaining narrative they may also become unwilling to interrupt their enjoyment to argue with the story (i.e., the story’s events, claims, or overall message). (For additional discussion of the concept of prerequisites and consequences of enjoyment, see Vorderer, Klimmt, & Ritterfeld, 2004). In order to not disrupt their own transportation by breaking from certain points of the narrative, individuals reduce counterarguing. Transportation may also reduce individuals’ ability to counterargue. If all of a person’s mental resources are devoted to imagining a story, they may not have the cognitive capacity to generate counterarguments while reading or watching the narrative. Reduced counterarguing can lead to greater persuasion.
Connections with Characters
Readers or viewers may also change their attitudes and beliefs in accordance with those of a narrative character. Identification with, and liking of, story characters has been shown to increase the adoption of beliefs advocated by the character (Cohen, 2001, 2006). Although identification and transportation are separate processes, individuals who are transported are more likely to identify with characters. Putting oneself in the place of the character and adopting the character’s goals may facilitate attitude change. For example, if people identify with a character who was able to quit smoking, they may feel more positive toward quitting. (These ideas are related to Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which focuses on vicarious learning through observing role models.) People may even alter their self-concept to see themselves more similar to characters they liked or identified with, at least temporarily (Sestir & Green, 2010). Other forms of connection with characters, such as parasocial interaction (seeing the narrative character as a friend), may also be sparked by transportation and may contribute to attitude change.
One way in which a narrative might prompt self-examination and change is by reminding individuals of experiences in their own lives that relate to those in the narrative. Strange and Leung (1999) highlighted the role of “remindings”—links between story content and the person’s past personal or media-based experiences—in narrative impact. Individuals who were more immersed in a story showed greater generalization of the beliefs implied by the story. Whether or not the story brought to mind events from the individuals’ real lives seemed to be important in determining narrative impact. Strange and Leung suggest that having exemplars both from one’s real life and from the media presentation strengthen the impact on later judgments (a process that has also been referred to as resonance).
Heightened perceptions of realism. Heightened perceived realism has also been demonstrated as an effective mechanism in transportation-based belief change. Realism in this instance is not the same as the real-world truth value of a story (whether it is fictional or nonfictional). In fact, research suggests that real-world truth value has little impact on the extent that individuals are transported (fictional stories may be just as or more transporting than nonfictional stories). Instead, perceived realism here refers to an individual’s subjective evaluation of the story’s plausibility. In other words, the plausibility of a narrative relates to its ability to realistically portray attributes that are representative of real people (Hall, 2003). Research has shown transportation and perceived realism to be positively correlated. Transported readers believed narrative situations to be realistic or the perception of realism led to greater transportation (Green, 2004).
It may also be more difficult to discount narratives because stories tend to be concrete, presenting the experience of particular (real or fictional) others, rather than abstractions. That is, a person may disagree with the implications of a particular story or argue that the story is unrealistic or atypical, but at least in the case of nonfiction stories, a person cannot completely reject the storyteller’s experience. Although concreteness is a general characteristic of narratives, transportation may enhance such effects because transporting stories may seem more vivid and realistic.
The transportation-imagery model (Green & Brock, 2002) highlights the role of visual imagery in transportation-based belief change. According to the model, images take on meaning from their role in a story. The transportation experience links the vivid images with beliefs implied by the story (e.g., the image of a person suffering from skin cancer may be linked with beliefs about the importance of sun protection). This connection between images and beliefs may be one basis for the power of narrative persuasion. It may be difficult for verbal or statistical arguments to overcome the power of a mental image; even though a person may know rationally that airplane travel is quite safe, she may not be able to shake the mental picture of a plane crash (similar to the availability heuristic). Images can affect beliefs even in the absence of a story, but the theory suggests that when individuals are transported, they are more likely to form mental images from texts, and those images are likely to be more impactful.
Additionally, the transportation-imagery model suggests that over time, recalling the image may re-evoke large parts of the original communication, thus reinforcing the story-relevant beliefs. An implication of this perspective is that individuals’ imagery ability and situations that allow for the formation of rich mental images increase the persuasive power of a story, and such influence may persist over time.
Finally, narratives are particularly powerful when they evoke strong emotions. Powerful affective responses to narratives may make them more impactful and be especially influential for attitudes. Emotions here should be understood to mean those evoked by the characters and events in the story, rather than by pure aesthetics (e.g., appreciation of the artistic value of the narrative). Emotional engagement differs among fictional and nonfictional narrative in terms of action tendency (viewers of an alien film do not fear being abducted from their seat) and duration of the emotional experience. However, the immediate experience of the emotion appears to have the same qualities regardless of real-world truth value. Individuals who are transported are more likely to experience strong emotions in response to a narrative than those who are not.
Influences on Transportation
The extent to which a person becomes transported into a narrative may vary depending on characteristics like narrative quality (e.g., coherence, production value, etc.), and the development of plot and characters.
Narratives that lack verisimilitude (i.e., realism, or the appearance of being true) tend to be less transporting. Realism in this sense does not refer to the literal similarity of the story world to the real world; recipients can be just as easily transported to fantasy worlds. Rather, a more important element is psychological realism or believability. That is, even in a clearly fictional setting (e.g., science fiction, fantasy), characters should act like real people. Additionally, written narratives that are difficult to read, understand, or imagine also tend to be less transporting. The same is true for other types of narrative (e.g., video or film): if the quality of production is poor, the audience member will be less likely to become immersed in the narrative world. (See Kreuter et al., 2007, for further discussion of elements of narrative quality.)
The more familiar a person is with the material in a narrative, the easier it is for him or her to be transported in it. For example, in one study, readers who were members of fraternities or sororities were more transported into a story that was set at a fraternity (Green, 2004). Similarly, the more a story character resembles the reader (or the story events resemble the life events of the reader), the more transporting the story may be.
The presence of other people may also influence the transportation experience. Readers are often experiencing the narrative world alone, but television, movie, or theater viewers may be in the presence of friends or strangers while watching. Recent research on co-viewing by Tal-Or and colleagues suggests that the reactions of others can affect the attitudinal impact of a program (e.g., Tal-Or, 2016; Tal-Or & Tsfati, 2015, 2016). Watching a video with a person who responds enthusiastically increased acceptance of the video’s message, while watching with a person who acted bored decreased acceptance of the message. These effects were mediated by transportation. Thus, health communication research and interventions should take into account the social setting as well as the content of the narrative.
Although high levels of transportation have been demonstrated with stories using third-person perspective (“he” or “she”), there is some evidence that stories using the first-person perspective (“I” or “me”) might be especially effective at encouraging identification and perhaps transportation as well (CITE). (Second-person perspective [“you”] is more rarely used and has received less research attention.)
Evidence for Transportation in Health Contexts
Storytelling strategies are being used more and more often to disseminate health-related messages to the public and may be useful for multiple health outcomes, from awareness to screening to treatment decisions (Kreuter et al., 2007). Transporting stories may be particularly useful for health topics because they may help overcome barriers to persuasion. For example, some health information may seem complex or overwhelming; stories may seem more inviting and accessible. Some health campaigns have to overcome individuals’ illusions of invulnerability; narratives may personalize the issue and increase its relevance. Accordingly, transportation is evidenced in several contexts of health communication research.
Transporting narratives can evoke self-relevant emotions, which can, in turn, cause people to perceive themselves as more at risk of an injury or disease and therefore more likely to protect themselves from it (Dunlop, Wakefield, & Kashima, 2008). Narratives can be effective in promoting screening or prevention behaviors; for example, one study suggested that video stories can be an effective means of helping high-risk individuals quit smoking. Individuals who were more transported were also more likely to report attempts to quit smoking at a two-week follow-up (Williams et al., 2011).
Transportation has also been associated with viewers’ knowledge gain from narrative messages (Murphy et al., 2013). In a recent study, participants were surveyed before and after viewing a narrative aimed at increasing knowledge of cervical cancer. Transportation was found to be the construct most predictive of increased knowledge, and the only construct to be associated with behavioral intent after viewing the film. This result, in which viewers’ self-reported level of transportation was related to behavioral intentions is evidenced in additional studies (Kim et al., 2012; Murphy et al., 2011).
Attitudes concerning unhealthy behaviors (e.g., alcohol abuse, smoking, failing to wear sunscreen) may result at least in some part from the activation of an implicit attitude. Implicit attitudes are unconscious associations that individuals have with an attitude object (e.g., a person trying to quit drinking may have negative beliefs about alcohol but may have unconscious positive associations with alcohol). Individuals may not be aware of implicit attitudes and thus cannot control their activation. Implicit attitudes have become an increasingly important area of study in recent years, and evidence suggests that for some issues, these unconscious attitudes have independent effects on behavior. Although relatively little research has explored the effect of narratives on implicit attitudes, narrative transportation should affect these types of attitudes as well. For example, evidence from a study of popular movies suggests that stories can indeed alter implicit attitudes toward smoking (Dal Cin et al., 2007). In the study, participants—including smokers and nonsmokers—viewed clips from the movie Die Hard. In one condition, participants viewed the protagonist, John McClane, smoking cigarettes. Both smokers and nonsmokers in this condition who claimed to identify with John’s character reported stronger implicit associations between smoking and the self. Smokers in this condition further reported increased intentions to smoke in the coming month and to smoke more in the future. The increase of implicit associations and intent to smoke in the participants demonstrate how perceptual input of a behavior (i.e., viewing John smoking) can activate behavioral schema. The results of this study and similar studies also demonstrate how some unhealthy behaviors can be made more salient in the minds of viewers, influencing the likelihood of the behavior to occur (e.g., Stacy, Newcomb, & Ames, 2000).
Evidence in Other Contexts
More evidence of transportation in the persuasiveness of health messages is found in the communication strategy known as Entertainment-Education (EE). In EE, a media message (often a health message) is designed and implemented to increase viewers’ knowledge about the issue and change their behavior, but the message is conveyed through an entertainment program such as a television or radio drama. (Entertainment-education may also take other forms, such as songs, which are less closely related to transportation or narrative persuasion.) Entertainment-education is grounded in drama theory and partially in social cognitive theory, which focuses on characters as role models for behavior (Sabido, 2004). However, recent EE research has incorporated transportation. The effectiveness of EE messages fundamentally depends on the viewers’ character identification and their level of transportation. That is, without transportation, successful persuasion of the message is unlikely (Slater, 2002). EE has been used in the prevention of HIV and unplanned teen pregnancy, and in the reduction of drunk driving, among a wide range of other issues.
Entertainment Overcoming Resistance Model
One recent model that attempts to explain the effectiveness of EE is the entertainment overcoming resistance model (EORM; Moyer-Gusé, 2008). This model links different narrative processes with different forms of resistance. EORM contends that narratives may be successful in changing attitudes and behavior particularly through their ability to overcome reactance. Reactance can be defined as a form of arousal in which a person feels as if his or her freedom to choose his or her own attitudes and behaviors is being threatened (Brehm, 1966). An example of this may be of a college student reading a passage on the benefits of wearing sunscreen. If the student perceives the passage as trying to convince him of or “sell” him the behavior, he may react against the message. Alternatively, if the student is entertained or transported by the passage, reactance may be reduced and he may become more likely to change his attitude about sunscreen in accordance with the message. According to the model, reactance may also be reduced when individuals form parasocial interactions (PSI) with characters, or develop a liking of narrative characters. PSI refers to the relationship between media users and media figures (e.g., characters, actors, celebrities), in which the user responds as if they had an existing social relationship with the media figure; that is, they come to see the media character as a friend (see Giles, 2002 for an overview). PSI also reduces other forms of resistance such as counterarguing, selective avoidance due to inertia, and perceived norms.
In addition to reactance, EORM helps to explain the reduction of other forms of resistance including counterarguing, selective avoidance, perceived invulnerability, and perceived norms. EORM posits that because narratives are entertaining, they reduce cognitive resistance by the perception that the message is meant to entertain instead of persuade (Moyer-Gusé & Nabi, 2010). According to the EORM, transportation is most effective at reducing counterarguing, while other related narrative processes address other forms of resistance. While the EORM provides a theoretical framework for understanding narrative effects, there have been relatively few empirical tests of this model.
Marketing and consumer psychology studies have also shown that transporting narratives can be effective in advertising contexts. Transportation can occur in very brief persuasive appeals. For instance, Escalas (2004) found that when an ad directed readers to imagine themselves using the product, their liking of the product was not affected by the quality of arguments in favor of the product. Rather, readers were transported into their own imagined simulation, and had fewer critical thoughts about the product and an increase in positive feelings about the product.
Further research has found that consumer response to advertising depends on their transportation in the television program in which the advertising appears. One study investigated the placements of ads relative to other transporting content (e.g., television shows). When an advertisement interrupted a highly transporting narrative, people formed more negative attitudes toward the advertised product (Wang & Calder, 2006). However, when an ad accompanied a transporting story without interrupting the experience (e.g., appeared after the story was finished), people liked the product more than when they were transported. A similar study found that, assuming an ad is placed in a way that is not intrusive and the viewer is transported in the narrative content, the ad will be positively impacted if it matches the narrative (i.e., it is thematically compatible; Wang & Calder, 2009). If a compatible ad is intrusive, however, it is shown that high transportation is disrupted and this negatively impacts an ad. Additionally, high narrative transportation increases the transportation with an ad that is not intrusive and this increase in ad transportation in turn increases advertising effectiveness. The results of these studies indicate that transportation can have both positive and negative effects on advertising, depending on placement of the ads and compatibility of the ads with the narrative.
Although most of the research on narratives in health communication has been focused on persuasive effects (e.g., encouraging individuals to engage in screening or prevention behaviors), narratives may also be useful in promoting informed decision-making. Narratives from individuals who have made a particular treatment decision or experienced a particular condition may be useful in helping new patients mentally simulate what possible outcomes might be like, and may help inform them about emotional or social aspects of different courses of action. Although the effect of transportation has not been directly investigated in this context, it is possible that more transporting narratives may be more useful in helping individuals understand the consequences of different courses of action.
Narratives may also provide vicarious social support. For example, individuals who have received a diagnosis may benefit from hearing or reading stories of others who have gone through a similar experience. Such narratives are common on health websites and in support groups. Although research suggests that this type of support can provide psychological benefits, the role of transportation in affecting perceptions of vicarious social support has yet to be studied; one possibility is that more transporting stories may provide greater benefits, perhaps due to greater emotional impact.
Although transporting narratives can be persuasive, the use of this persuasive power in health communications should be carefully considered. In particular, narratives or testimonials often present the story of a single individual. A single story may not be representative of treatment outcomes or other aspects of a health situation. For example, one person may have a bad experience with a treatment that is generally successful, or a person may experience a “miracle cure” from a treatment that is ineffective for most people. Such stories would likely not be a good basis for a new patient’s decision-making. However, research suggests that individuals are relatively insensitive to information about whether the outcomes described in the story are “typical” or not. Individuals appear to generalize from stories regardless of whether they are described as typical or atypical (Strange & Leung, 1999). Therefore, communicators should choose their narratives carefully to avoid misleading their audience.
Another possible approach would be to use multiple narratives that illustrate different aspects of a disease or treatment, or different individuals’ experiences (Simons & Green, 2013). However, there is little research evidence on how people respond to multiple narratives (e.g., are people affected most strongly by extreme narratives? Are people able to integrate the information from multiple stories?).
Narratives may also be combined with numerical or statistical information (for example, information on the likelihood of treatment success or statistics about the risk of contracting a particular disease). Research suggests that individuals low in numeracy may be more influenced by narratives than statistical information; when using narratives with low-numeracy individuals, communicators may need to take extra care to make sure that the numerical risk information is also understood and considered in any decisions.
More broadly, although most existing work has focused on stories with relatively prosocial messages, transportation and narrative persuasion could also be used to promote negative or dangerous ideas. Because transportation could be used for both beneficial and harmful ends, future research should explore ways that people might resist or protect themselves against story-based influence. There are also other important ethical issues involved in message design more generally and narrative persuasion specifically: for example, the accuracy of messages (including facts conveyed by fictional stories), the potential use of messages to manipulate audiences, and the consent of the subject of the story (if the story is about a real person). An in-depth discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of the current chapter, but message designers should take them into consideration.
Theory and Measurement
The current self-report measures of transportation have provided valuable insights, and the development of a short-form measure is likely to be particularly beneficial for field settings or other circumstances where long measures are not feasible. However, self-report measures also have their limitations. For example, the current measures assess an overall experience of transportation that individuals report retrospectively; measuring moment-by-moment transportation could provide additional advances for theory and practice. Such measures might help answer the conceptual question of whether transportation is a continuous state (e.g., people experience a range of levels of transportation) or a binary one (e.g., people are either transported or not, but may be transported during more or less of the story), for instance. Assessing the experience of transportation without interrupting or distracting from it is a challenge for developing such measures. However, techniques such as eye tracking, the use of dials to capture continuous reactions to stimuli, or even facial recognition software may be promising directions for future study.
Additionally, although transportation studies have been conducted in various countries and with participants of different ages (primarily adults), there has been little systematic attention to possible cultural or age differences in the causes, outcomes, or experience of transportation. These areas, as well as explorations of developmental aspects of transportation, are useful directions for future research.
Neuroscience of Narrative
Although the research on the neuroscience of story immersion is still relatively rare, Mar (2011) provides a summary of related findings on narrative comprehension and production. Mar (2011) also provides several examples of new directions linking stories and the brain, including studying differences in brain activity when the text is a rich sensory experience compared to when the text is an abstract representation. Research by Zak and colleagues has also suggested that stories can lead to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that appears to be related to interpersonal trust. The physiological effects of narrative transportation remain an exciting area for future research.
Current research is also exploring the effect of different kinds of narrative content on both transportation and persuasive outcomes. Dahlstrom (2012) has found that within a story, narrative information that is part of the causal chain of the story, rather than simply incidental information, is better remembered. Furthermore, health communicators often have the choice to share positive, inspiring stories or more tragic cautionary tales (analogous to gain or loss framing for traditional messages). Is it more transporting or impactful to have a story of a patient who survived a disease or one who did not? Similarly, stories can focus on groups (e.g., a particular community) versus individuals; one of these approaches may be more effective than the other for some issues.
Niederdeppe and colleagues have also been exploring the effect of narratives that focus on individual versus societal attributions for obesity. The obesity issue can be viewed as a personal problem (an individual’s poor eating choices or lack of willpower), or a societal issue (the availability of fresh food in a person’s neighborhood, safe areas in which to exercise). The effects of highlighting one aspect of this problem or another are complex, and may interact with political ideology. This research highlights the point that even if a story is transporting, it may have different effects on individuals depending on both the content of the story and relevant individual factors, and the interaction of story content with prior relevant beliefs or positions.
Future research may also consider transportation in the context of a new type of emerging narrative. Restorative narratives are stories that depict how people and communities learn to rebuild and recover following trauma and tragedy (Tenore, 2014). Often when news media report disasters and national tragedies, the stories are portrayed in a way that may leave readers or viewers feeling distraught and unable to cope. Restorative narratives shift the focus from tragedy to recovery. According to Images and Voices of Hope, a nonprofit dedicated to the use of media in creating a better world, a restorative narrative should capture hard truths, highlight a meaningful progression of an individual, and reveal universal truths that awaken a sense of human connection. They should also involve sustained inquiries (because recovery is a process that takes time), and be both authentic and strength based. Because these narratives focus on resilience, restorative narratives have a more beneficial effect on mental and physical health compared to traditional problem-focused narratives. Although the concept of restorative narrative originated in the context of journalism, restorative narratives may also be found in other forms, including documentaries or possibly even fictional accounts (such as inspiring films).
Individuals who read or watch restorative narratives may experience moral elevation, a warm and uplifted feeling that occurs after watching an individual act with compassion or courage. This feeling supports people’s belief in the goodness of humanity, induces positive emotions, and inspires people to act more altruistically (Aquino et al., 2011).
Narratives vs. Statistics
Additionally, research continues to investigate the question of when and for whom narratives will be more or less effective than other forms of communication (e.g., statistics or didactic presentations). Narratives typically tell the story of particular individuals, whereas statistics typically present summaries of group outcomes; stories tend to be more concrete and specific, whereas statistics or didactic presentations may be more abstract. The degree of transportation into a particular narrative may help determine its relative effectiveness compared to other types of messages. That is, a transporting narrative may be more effective than a matched statistical message, whereas a less-transporting narrative may be less effective than the statistical message (although this hypothesis remains to be tested).
Multi-media or Interactive Narratives
The increasing prominence of electronic media in individuals’ lives has opened the door to different types of narratives. For instance, interactive narratives allow individuals to determine the direction of the plot at key points in the story. Such narratives might be primarily text-based, similar to “Choose your own Adventure” books, or might be narrative-based video games with sophisticated graphics and sound. An exciting future direction for research is to determine how transportation affects belief and behavior change in these new narrative contexts. Initial research suggests that interactive narratives may be most effective for individuals who are willing and able to put mental effort into these stories, and that such stories may have the added benefit of increasing the sense of personal responsibility for the events that occur in the narrative (Green & Jenkins, 2014). This sense of responsibility may translate to increased real-world attitude and behavior change.
Furthermore, individuals today may engage with narratives in multiple ways and on multiple platforms. For example, a person viewing an entertainment-education program may also discuss that program on social networking sites or may use the Internet to find out more about the actors and about topics illustrated in the show. This type of transmedia engagement with narratives is a fertile ground for future inquiry. It is possible that these increased avenues for engagement may increase transportation into the story and thus may increase the story’s impact. (However, it is also possible that such engagement may reduce or change transportation; if an online discussion leads a viewer to focus on plot inconsistencies or to a greater focus on the actor than on the story, transportation may be reduced.)
In sum, transportation theory highlights the importance of becoming transported (immersed) in narratives for attitude and behavior change from stories. The theory also highlights the more specific processes that occur when individuals are transported (e.g., cognitive and emotional engagement, mental imagery).
Discussion of the Literature
Narrative transportation theory was originally proposed by Green and Brock (2000), and has since been tested and extended by these authors and a number of other researchers across disciplines (e.g., psychology, communication, marketing, health). Narrative transportation was defined as “ a distinct mental process, an integrative melding of attention, imagery, and feelings.” To the extent that individuals are transported into a narrative world, they should show story-consistent changes in their real-world attitudes and beliefs. Their work was inspired by Gerrig’s (1993) book that used transportation into narrative worlds as a metaphor for narrative experience. Gerrig’s research examined the cognitive psychology of text processing, and Green and Brock extended this work with a social psychological perspective and focus on persuasive effects. Their initial paper was followed by the Transportation-Imagery Model (2002). A short form of the transportation scale was recently validated (Appel et al., 2015).
Importantly, Green and Brock’s (2000) paper presented a self-report scale for measuring transportation, which helped encourage research into this area. The theory has been particularly influential in communication research, but it has had interdisciplinary and international reach, with transportation studies addressing health topics, social issues, and consumer products. Transportation studies have taken place not only in North America, but also in Europe, Australia, and Japan. In general, these studies show the same pattern of effects (e.g., higher transportation leading to greater attitude/belief change).
There have been several streams of research on transportation theory. Initial work focused on establishing the effects of transporting narratives on attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and on the additional finding that fictional stories can be as persuasive as factual ones. Research has also focused on understanding the antecedents of transportation: that is, what factors help individuals to become transported into narrative worlds? This line of research included studies on individual differences in the tendency to become transported into stories (transportability). Work has also focused on the mechanisms of transportation-based persuasion, with a particular focus on emotional responses and reduction of counterarguing. Research has also attempted to distinguish transportation from related processes, such as identification and enjoyment.
Although transportation theory was initially tested using written texts, research has demonstrated transportation effects across media (particularly video). Early research also focused primarily on attitudes and beliefs; more recent studies have demonstrated behavioral effects, effects on implicit attitudes, and the long-term influence of narrative persuasion.
Current research is extending transportation theory to different types of media (e.g., narrative games, interactive narratives) and exploring the relationship of transportation to similar concepts, such as presence. Current research is also investigating questions of narrative content; for example, are stories of survivors more or less effective than stories of those who died of a disease? Transportation may also be relevant beyond the persuasion context; transporting stories may be helpful in providing vicarious social support to individuals facing disease or other challenges. Additionally, most transportation research focuses on the effects of a single story; an important question for future research is how people respond to multiple stories.
Finally, research is also examining the boundary conditions for transportation effects. Narrative persuasion is not equally persuasive for all individuals or all topics, so an important research question is to understand when and for whom narratives will be a useful persuasive tool.
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