All posts in “Behavior Change”

lego diving into water

Immersed, Transported & Persuaded by Story

How the Right Story Can Shape Our Attitudes – and Even Our Behaviors

A Wonderlab Interview with Melanie Green

Dr. Melanie Green studies the psychology of storytelling. Her research examines how becoming immersed in a story, known as narrative transport, can influence attitudes and change behaviors.


Why did you become interested in storytelling?

“Stories have the power to make children go to sleep and soldiers go to war.” That’s a quote from Jens Eder, who also studies the psychology of storytelling. I love this quote because it really captures something important about stories. On the one hand, they can be really simple and very easy to understand. On the other hand, they can have the power to create social change.

Dr. Melanie Green

Melanie Green examines the power of narrative to change beliefs and behaviors.

Your research has focused on what you describe as narrative transportation. What is it and why is it important?

Narrative transportation is the experience people have when they become so engaged – or immersed – in a story that the real world just falls away. Transportation is important because it focuses the attention of the audience, elicits strong emotional reactions and generates vivid mental images. As a result, after they exit the world of the story, the transported story audience tends to maintain story-consistent beliefs. In fact, studies show that those who are more transported into narratives are more likely to show attitude and belief change.

How can transporting stories help to change people’s beliefs?

Often times when we encounter a persuasive message that doesn’t fit with what we believe, our first response is to come up with arguments against the message. But there seems to be something special about transporting stories that reduce that tendency to argue. This concept is commonly referred to as suspension of disbelief or reduction of counter arguing.

Transporting stories can also make narrative events seem like real experiences. There is a lot of psychological evidence that the very best way of changing people’s attitudes is giving them real experiences with an attitude object – a person, place, idea or event about which you can express an attitude or make a judgment. But stories may be the next best thing — stories are concrete, specific, emotional, and vivid and all of those characteristics are similar to the way that our minds store memories of our real experiences. So if we’re engaged in a story that seems like things we’ve experienced, it holds greater weight.

What story elements and factors are needed to change people’s beliefs?

Audiences are more likely to be transported – and, therefore, more likely to be persuaded – if they can relate to a character or imagine themselves in a situation that the character finds themselves in. Research suggests that there are also personality factors and individual differences that influence the transportability of a person. That is, some people tend to become immersed in stories more easily than others. ‘The need for affect,’ which is a psychological tendency to seek out emotion inducing situations, influences transportability. The quality of the narrative itself also impacts transportation; the higher the quality, the more transporting. Psychological fluency, or how easy something is to think about, impacts the influence of the narrative as well.

What are some examples of stories that have created attitude or behavior change?

Stories have the ability to impact attitudes and change behavior in a variety of ways. One project gave children Manga comics where the character gets transported into a world where he has to fight the bad guys by eating healthy food. This led children to change their food choices and select more healthy snacks. As another example, while reading a story about homophobia in college fraternities, those that were familiar with the Greek system ended up being more transported into the story and more persuaded about issues in the story than people who didn’t have that familiarity or background. There’s also some great work by Sheila Murphy showing how a video story increased viewers’ likelihood of getting screened for cervical cancer.


Mural of people's faces

#GeekReads: 4 Quick Reads + 1 Watch that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: the surge of singlehood; hashtag activism; moral flip-flopping; universal story structure; irrational preferences.

Families of choice. There has been a shift in the traditional form of family, from marriage and nuclear families to more of an emphasis on individualism. From Bella DePaulo via Nautilus.

#Change. New research from American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact examines the power of hashtags to ignite movement in social change. From American University via PsyPost.

Moral flip-flopping. Research suggests that, for most individuals, moral character is very stable and not so likely to change. From Gerry Everding via Futurity.

From exposition to denouement. Professor Paul Zak discusses the effects of the classic dramatic arc on our brain chemistry, and ultimately on our decisions and actions. From Future of Storytelling via Aeon.

Rationalizing being irrational. A new study examines how our irrational choices go hand in hand with making better choices overall. From Nathan Collins via Pacific Standard.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/Garry Knight CC BY 2.0

Case Study: Peace of Mind for Terminally Ill People

Persuasion Strategies: How We Partnered with Compassion & Choices to Make Aid in Dying a Legal Option for Terminally Ill People and Their Families in California

For more than 20 years, advocates had worked unsuccessfully to pass a law allowing the option of medical aid in dying in California.

In 2014, Compassion & Choices approached Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, Wild Swan Resources and Wonder: Strategies for Good to lead public opinion research and to develop a successful messaging and storytelling strategy in California.

Previous unsuccessful efforts made it clear that the issue did not fall along neat partisan lines in otherwise “blue California.” Voters and legislators had both previously rejected efforts to allow this option for terminally ill people.

Our research showed that people’s lived experiences – including their experiences with doctors who had somehow “gotten it wrong” when it came to a terminal diagnosis, as well as watching their own loved ones die, made many Californians uncomfortable with this type of legislation.

Our role: Using Public Opinion Research, Psychological Analysis & Storytelling Strategies to Understand and Shape Attitudes

Goodwin Simon, Wild Swan and Wonder worked in partnership
 with Compassion & Choices to develop the research methodology and messaging strategy. To begin, Wonder led a media audit to determine how the issue had been framed in California and other states as well as social listening research to understand how ordinary Californians talked about the issue.

Wild Swan developed a psychological analysis of the media audit and social listening research led by Wonder. Wonder also led a pop culture analysis to better understand how stories about aid in dying have been told over the past 20 years in television shows, documentaries and feature films. Together, we created and tested message and story strategies in various qualitative research methods led by Goodwin Simon among African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino and Anglo voters in California.

Goodwin Simon developed an analysis of the qualitative research, which included a psychological and narrative analysis by Wild Swan and Wonder. The analysis helped us to better understand the competing needs, concerns, values and other conflicts that would prevent voters from being supportive and the messages and stories they needed to hear to manage those heartfelt conflicts.

Goodwin Simon, in partnership with Wild Swan, also developed a statewide survey that tested legislative language among California voters. Based on our research, we created a message and storytelling guide that guided Compassion & Choices in their public communications and legislative advocacy.

Complimenting their grassroots advocacy work, we worked with Compassion & Choices to feature the stories of California families struggling with the terminal illness of a loved one and how the law would give those families peace of mind even if they didn’t use the option. Compassion & Choices tapped their network to find families willing to share their stories.

Those emotionally powerful stories helped to generate empathy among reluctant audiences – even those who would never consider the option if they were terminally ill. The stories featured diverse characters including Catholics, Latinos and Republicans.

In an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, civil rights icon Dolores Huerta recounted the prolonged, agonizing death of her mother from breast cancer. In her appeal to legislators, she wrote:

For those caring legislators who could never imagine considering this option for themselves if they were terminally ill – because it may conflict with their values and beliefs – this vote must be especially tough.

My lifelong work as an advocate for social justice has taught me that these difficult moments require our utmost compassion, the wisdom to imagine walking in another person’s shoes and the ability to respect the wishes of others. Those of us who have cared for a loved one and witnessed a lengthy and painful dying process are urging legislators to act now. 

Our messaging strategy also emphasized the many safeguards included in the legislation to assure concerned Californians that the law would work as intended.

Change Created: After More Than 20 Years, Advocates Succeeded in Making Aid in Dying a Legal Option for Terminally Ill Californians and Their Families

On October 5, 2015, Gov. Brown signed legislation making California the largest state in the nation to allow the option for medical aid in dying – more than 20 years after voters rejected a similar proposal at the ballot box.

In his letter approving the legislation, Gov. Brown reflected the messaging framework we developed that had proven most powerful in persuading reluctant audiences – honoring and respecting the decision of a terminally ill person. He wrote:

In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death. I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.

Advocates are now looking to take the momentum from the victory in California to advance aid-in-dying policies in other states.

Frosted cupcakes on display

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: gratitude’s sweet side effects; how coming out increases empathy; biases about biases; how segregation leads to hate; the social impact of suppressing emotions.

Sweet talk. Flavor classifications are used as metaphors for emotions, but research has found that feelings of gratitude can actually lead to increased consumption of sweets. From Ed Kromer via Futurity.

The empathic impact of coming out. A study finds that white gay and bisexual men are more empathetic toward other minority groups than white heterosexual men. From University of Houston via PsyPost.

Bias blind spot. Since biases operate unconsciously, we are quick to see biases in others but have trouble noticing them in ourselves. From Jim Davies via Nautilus.

Segregation’s toll. Read civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph’s perspective on the emotional chain reactions of social segregation. From Big Think Editors via Big Think.

Fake it ’til you make it? Social psychologists study the negative ramifications of suppressing emotional responses. From Jesse Singal via Science of Us.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/Martin Kirkegaard, CC BY-ND 2.0

Danbo the carboard box robot listens to iPod

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: how racial biases impact our listening comprehension; mimicking those we agree with; working through difficult conversations; hacking the moral compass; an argument against generational thinking.

Listening bias. Racial stereotypes and expectations can impact the way we hear and understand others. From University of British Columbia via PsyPost.

Repeat after me. Research has found that we subtly mimic the speech patterns of people we agree with. From Shaunacy Ferro via Mental Floss.

Bringing balance to the boardroom. Difficult conversations are difficult for a reason, but good agenda design and facilitation can help bring about a positive outcome. From Jennifer Rutley via Collective Next.

Malleable morals. A recent study shows that stimulating the brain with electrodes can alter moral reasoning. From Kate Wheeling via Pacific Standard.

Generation generalization. Rebecca Onion argues that generational thinking is a flawed mode that facilitates prejudices and generalizations. Via Aeon.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/Craig Dennis, CC BY 2.0

#GeekReads: 4 Quick Reads + 1 Watch that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: the exhilarating experience of the sublime; how human attention changes with social context; corporations with a conscience; toddler bystanders; instincts vs. second guesses.



Simply sublime. A BBC Radio 4 video explains Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime, and why we find overwhelming experiences both terrifying and delightful. Via Aeon.

Look into my eyes. A new study challenges the popular belief that people predominantly focus their attention on other people’s faces. From Bournemouth University via PsyPost.

Noble edge. Corporate social goodwill can elevate a company’s profits by improving consumers’ perception of its products. Via Coglode.

Help wanted. The bystander effect has been well-documented with adults, but what happens when you test diffusion of responsibility amongst toddlers? From Jesse Singal via The Science of Us.

Trust your gut? We’re conservative in questioning our instincts because “losing feels worse than winning feels good.” From Robert Montenegro via Big Think.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/JD Hancock, CC BY 2.0

Dr Strange gives Charlie Brown psychiatric advice

#GeekReads: 4 Quick Reads + 1 Watch that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: debunking dubious “science”; creating network-oriented nonprofits; capturing attention on social media; how trust shapes the brain; fighting anti-Muslim sentiment with comedy.


Neurobollocks. Neuroscience has been used to lend credibility to some dubious claims about human psychology. Dr. Christian Jarrett cuts through the hype in a new video. From Simon Oxenham via Big Think.

The webs we weave. By strategically building social networks that are mobilized around a common goal, nonprofits can increase their impact as movement makers. From Charlie Brown via Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Look over here! How do we rise above the noise on social media? A look into the science of capturing people’s attention. From Will Yakowicz via Big Think.

Can I trust you? Researchers have discovered structural differences in the brain reflecting how trusting people are of others. From University of Georgia via PsyPost.

Laughter is the best cure. Comedian Maz Jobrani uses comedy to challenge Muslim stereotypes and bridge cultural divides. From Robin Wright via The Atlantic.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/JD Hancock, CC BY 2.0

frightened computer D.A.R.Y.L.

#GeekReads: 5 Quick Reads that Made Us Smarter

In this week’s #GeekReads: when good men and women do nothing; a healthy dose of wonder; how personality affects perceptions of time; the stress of social exclusion; safety in an age of fearful overreaction.


From anonymity to action. How often do bystanders take the opportunity to help a stranger? Do social norms pressure people to look the other way? From Dwyer Gun via Aeon.

What a wonderful world. Research suggests that feelings of awe and wonder may be correlated to good health. From Melissa Dahl via The Science of Us.

Time is relative. Personality helps explain why some individuals are more punctual than others. By Orion Jones via Big Think.

Longing to belong. Studies show that social exclusion can be especially stressful for people from individualistic cultures. From Eric W. Dolan via PsyPost.

Be not afraid. In a hyperalert society that anticipates danger, we distrust reports that we’re safer than ever. Are American perceptions distorted?  From Jonathan Rauch via The Atlantic.


Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.

Image: flickr/Daniel Oines, CC BY 2.0

#GeekReads: 4 Quick Reads + 1 Watch that Made Us Smarter

This week’s #GeekReads: the danger of the vaccination debate becoming politicized; our brain’s optimism bias and its downsides; why memory isn’t an automatic and needs to be turned on; the benefits of teaching kids empathy. Finally, can mindfulness help us to manage media-manufactured fear?


Political vaccinations. Why parents, not politicians, are the best messengers to make the case for vaccination – and the danger of turning this into a politicized debate. From Conor Friedersdorf via The Atlantic.

Good news brain. When it comes to thinking about our future, our brains deliberately choose to ignore information that we don’t want to hear, while embracing the good things. There’s a downside to optimism bias. Via Cognitive Lode.

“Turn on” our memories. Our memories are like a camcorder: We need to hit record to remember. From Victoria Indivero, Penn State via

Kindness curriculum. What if kids were taught kindness and empathy along with reading, writing and arithmetic? From Melissa Dahl via The Science of Us.

Attention Overload? Peter Baumann talks about how mindfulness can calm our over-stimulated minds distracted by everything from smart phone pings to 24-hour news cycles. Here’s our question: Can mindfulness calm media-manufactured fears – from the spread of Ebola to fear of our American Muslim neighbors? – Via

Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.


Image: flickr/Robert Couse-BakerCC BY 2.0

#GeekReads: 4 Quick Reads + 1 Quick Watch that Made Us Smarter (Jan 24)

This week’s #GeekReads: contagious emotions; the problem with absolute truths; achieving more by doing less; the importance of staying true to ourselves; and how identity influences our habits.


What if 2 +2 ≠ 4? If you’re in search for the truth, a belief in absolute truthfulness may be your biggest obstacle. From David Deutsch via

Human see, human do. Do mirror neurons make emotions contagious? From Braincraft via

Doing more by doing less. There are often days we wish for an extra hour, but what if a new clock isn’t what’s needed to deal with a lack of time, energy, or patience? From Lisa Evans via

New habit, new identity. A change in our everyday behavior may first require a change in the way we perceive ourselves. From Melissa Dahl via The Science of Us 

“My blackness is not a secret.” A woman’s story of suppressing her true self in order to ensure the comfort of others. From Priscilla Ward via

Tweet us your #GeekReads at @w0nderlab.


Image: flickr/MorganCC BY-SA 2.0

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