Stories for Good — Melanie C. Green at Cornell

What do stories do in the world, and can they move us to behave in pro-social ways?

J. Nathan Matias
7 min readApr 19, 2021

Speaking today at the Cornell Department of Communication is, Melanie C. Green (@narrprof), a Professor in Communication at the University at Buffalo. Her work has focused on persuasion and belief change. Melanie’s research examines how narratives can change the way individuals think and behave, including the effects of fictional stories on real-world attitudes and the persistence of belief change over time.

Melanie starts with a quote by Jens Eder: stories “make children go to sleep and soldiers go to war.” We tend to think that stories are simple things that have big effects.

To start, what is a narrative? Melanie tells us that stories have a beginning, middle, and end. According to Michael Dahlstrom, stories have characters, they have temporality, and they have causality — the details are linked in cause-effect patterns. And it is this causal chain that gives stories their persuasive force.

When we experience a “transported” state, stories become real to us, and we bring the messages from those stories into our lives.

Melanie has often studied “transportation,” how people get immersed into the stories we read. Transportation is a combination of attention/cognition, imagery, and affect. When we experience a “transported” state, stories become real to us, and we bring the messages from those stories into our lives. Over the last twenty years, researchers have found that this immersive experience can lead to attitude and belief change.

Retaining our Compassion in Difficult Times with Restorative Narratives

Next, Melanie tells us about “restorative narratives.” She tells about Images and Voices of Hope (IVOH), a coalition of journalists and mediamakers who have critiqued the way that many documentaries and news stories focus on problems. For example, journalists tell stories about disasters and injustices but don’t always follow up. IVOH has pioneered restorative narratives as an alternative vision.

What makes a restorative narrative? First, these stories focus on strengths (character strength and resilience). Second, they offer a meaningful progression (a movement from negative to positive).

Can restorative narratives increase pro-social tendencies? In today’s talk, Melanie describes research on this question that she has done together with Kaitlin Fitzgerald, Elaine Paravati Harrigan, and Melissa Moore.

restorative narratives might reduce the need for emotion regulation and help us retain our compassion at difficult times.

Why should we expect that restorative narratives could increase pro-social tendencies (paper here)? Sometimes people get overwhelmed by too much suffering and bad news, says Melanie. Humans have a tendency to shut down negative emotions and try not to think about an issue. This is helpful as a protective mechanism, but it can cause a “collapse of compassion.”

Melanie explains that restorative narratives might reduce the need for emotion regulation and help us retain our compassion at difficult times. It’s possible that restorative narratives provide a pathway for moving out of negative emotional states while still maintaining the empathy and connection to people who are affected by the negative event. For example, a story about people who are working together to support each other during a crisis might help us feel better and still connected to others who are experiencing the crisis.

Restorative narratives might also provide us with “moral elevation,” says Melanie. These stories give us a warm fuzzy feeling inside that leads us to feel more connected to others and more wanting to help them.

So do restorative narratives have these hypothesized pro-social effects? In a Mechanical Turk study (paper here), Melanie and her collaborators showed participants different stories about a person who underwent a lung disease. In the restorative story, they highlighted the person’s positivity, connection to others. In the negative condition, the story focused on the things that the person was missing out on. The researchers then measured emotions, moral elevation, volunteering/donation likelihood, and someone’s desire to share and read similar stories.

In the restorative condition, people reported higher levels of positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions. They also had an indirect effect on people’s intention to help others, influenced through these emotional responses.

Does the Ending of a Story Matter?

Does the ending of a story matter? Actual stories of recovery don’t have a false cheerfulness of success. How much does it matter to end a story on a positive note? According to the peak-end theory (Kahneman, 2000; Kahneman, Katz & Redelmeier 2003), how we remember something depends on how we felt at the end of an experience.

To find out if story-endings matter, Melanie and her colleagues developed a study to test different kinds of restorative stories: (a) positive trajectory, positive ending, (b) positive trajectory, negative ending, and (c) negative story, negative ending. They told the story of someone who loses a child, his wife leaves him, and then he experiences addiction and homelessness. He then goes to a rehab center, changes his life, and finds a new life and career. In the restorative trajectory version, bad stuff happens to him and his life turns around. In the negative trajectory version, he tries, he struggles and wonders if “I may never make it.”

The researchers also altered the ending of the story: in the positive ending, he meets someone and makes a new life. In the negative ending, he meets someone and they both end up in homelessness. After showing people these stories, the researchers then measured people’s emotional responses as well as their intention to donate.

So how much does the end of a story matter? Melanie and her colleagues found that the restorative narratives caused people to feel more positive emotions and be more willing to donate. A positive ending for the protagonist may be a necessary component for restorative narratives to have the greatest influence. Unfortunately, this might mean that people are less inspired to help people who are more in need of help, when we could instead hear stories about people whose lives have turned around. Our emotional responses seem to be what’s driving this, says Melanie.

Moving from inspirational stories to systemic change

But are inspirational stories always good? If you see a story of a school child who saved money to pay off his friend’s school lunch debts, might it be better to see that as evidence of a system that needs to change? And how could we influence people to care about those systemic issues?

In a further experiment with preliminary results, Melanie and her collaborators showed people two versions of the story of a school student who raises money to pay for a friend’s wheelchair. In the “inspiration” story, they framed the story as a restorative narrative. In a “social issue” version, they adjusted it to focus on the idea that the friend shouldn’t need to raise money for his friend. The researchers looked at who should be responsible for helping, their willingness to help, and their judgments of wheelchair recipient, alongside more story-focused outcomes.

small changes in “inspirational” content can increase attention to broader social contexts without decreasing engagement or people’s willingness to help individuals

Both the social issue and inspiration story increased willingness to provide help. The inspiration story actually influenced more people to believe that the person in need should have to pay for their own wheelchair. And only people who received the social issue story showed a significant difference from control in their willingness to engage in societal action (like activism, etc) to help. Researchers also found that the social issue story caused people to believe that the wheelchair situation was less fair and that the need was higher.

Overall, Melanie argues that relatively small changes in “inspirational” content can increase attention to broader social contexts without decreasing engagement or people’s willingness to help individuals.

If social issue stories influence us to donate just as much, while also helping us work toward more systemic change, we are inspiration stories so common? Melanie reports that people enjoyed the inspirational story more, which might be one reason for that pattern.

In the future, Melanie wants to look more closely at calls to action. When we see a story about someone in need, that’s a very easy thing to do. But if the call to action is “fix our healthcare system” or “fix our school lunch system,” we often don’t know where to start. Can these stories include more specific modeling or information about what kind of action people might take in order to address things in a collective and not just an individual way.

Ultimately, working toward systemic change may be the best thing we can do to help. Melanie concludes with a recent quote by Pope Francis: “It is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering.”



J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American