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?

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.

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.”

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.

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?

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.



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J. Nathan Matias

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