Once upon a time, there were two intrepid researchers who wanted to understand stories.
The conventional wisdom said that using stories—also known as narratives—to convey information was an effective tool for persuasion. But when the researchers looked into it, they found the evidence was mixed. Sometimes stories were convincing: they led people to view a product or idea more favorably. But in other situations, stories didn’t seem to change people’s views more than facts alone.
The researchers— Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, and PhD student Rebecca Krause—were intrigued. Why did stories sometimes help and sometimes hurt? When are facts alone better than stories? So they set out on a great journey, hoping to learn all they could about narratives and persuasion.
For Rucker and Krause, this particular story has a happy ending in the form of a new paper answering those very questions.
They found that the persuasiveness of narratives depends on whether the facts they contain are strong or weak. If you have a powerful case and an ironclad set of facts on your side, stories might do you no favors, the research revealed—you’re better off presenting that content in a straightforward way, like a list. By contrast, if you are trying to sell people on slightly less convincing information, stories can vastly increase your audience’s receptiveness.
Why? Narratives demand a lot of attention. When we’re tracking character and plot, we’re often not able to notice whether the embedded factual information is strong or flimsy.
“This is a clear demonstration that, when it comes to persuasion, storytelling has both good and bad aspects to it. Stories can be fantastic; you might want to use them. However, there’s a ‘but’—and I think it’s a pretty important one,” Rucker explains. “A story can limit our ability to process facts.”
The Power of Stories
Rucker and Krause knew from other research that stories appear to reduce what psychologists call counterarguing—those skeptical thoughts that make you think “no way” when presented with information. But previous research didn’t explain why this result was being observed.
Two theories emerged. The first theory was that, because stories are innately pleasurable, they make us less aware of, or even make us avoid, our negative thoughts. If a car commercial contains an entertaining story, we are less likely to want to notice that the vehicle didn’t really accelerate that quickly; we are too focused on the fun we’re having watching the ad. The researchers refer to this shift in focus from negative to positive as “biased processing.”
“Stories can be fantastic; you might want to use them. However, there’s a ‘but’—and I think it’s a pretty important one.”
— Derek Rucker
The second theory was that, because stories demand more of our attention, they make us less aware of facts, whether positive or negative. The idea is that we are so engrossed by the story that we don’t notice the poor acceleration—or the really important statistics about the car’s safety features. They refer to this theory as “reduced message processing.”
So which of these theories explained why stories limit counterarguing? How could the researchers differentiate between them?
The researchers hypothesized that if biased processing—fewer negative thoughts—is the explanation, stories should be more effective at persuading people than a list of facts, regardless of whether the information the story contains is strong or weak. But if reduced message processing—less attention overall—is the mechanism, stories should only be more persuasive when facts are weak. When facts are strong, people should also gloss over this information, and thus the stories should ultimately be less persuasive.
Plot Twist: Stories Won’t Always Make the Sale
To start answering these questions, Rucker and Krause designed an experiment involving a fictional cell phone called the Moonstone. They recruited 397 online participants to read about various attributes of the Moonstone and then rate their impressions of the product on a scale of 1 to 9.
The researchers developed two sets of facts about the Moonstone, one containing strong information (for instance, that the phone could withstand a fall of up to 30 feet) and the other containing similar, but weaker information (the phone could withstand a fall of up to 3 feet).
Study participants were presented with either the strong or weak facts about the Moonstone in one of two formats: a simple list, or a narrative involving the phone’s ability to withstand falls.
The results were clear: participants given the weak set of facts had much more favorable impressions of the phone when those weak facts were presented in a story. The difference was striking: participants’ rating of the Moonstone soared from an average of 4 to an average of nearly 7.
But this is not what happened for participants who saw the strong set of facts. Their impressions of the phone were significantly weaker when the facts were presented as a story (an average of 6.82) compared to a list (7.5).
This result provided important evidence that reduced message processing, rather than biased processing, was part of the explanation for the persuasive effects of stories.
“Stories appeared to shut people down from scrutinizing the information carefully,” Krause says. “So when people saw a really impressive product within a compelling story, the story backfired; they failed to appreciate just how great the product was.”
When Stories Get in the Way of Facts
The first experiment strongly suggested that narratives bring about reduced message processing—that is, that stories make us pay less attention to all facts, whether strong or weak. But Rucker and Krause wanted to gather additional evidence, so they designed another experiment.
This time, participants completed the experiment in person, not online, and learned about a (fictional) soon-to-be-released flu medication. And, importantly, instead of just rating how favorably they viewed the product, participants were asked to provide their email address if they wanted to receive an update when the drug went on the market.
“This was more consequential,” Rucker explains. “Participants weren’t just indicating how they felt about the product—they were indicating whether they would offer personal information in order to learn more about the product.”
As in the first experiment, the researchers developed a strong and weak set of facts about the medication. Those facts were presented to participants as either a story about a sick child or a list. After reading the narrative or the list about either the strong or weak set of facts, participants indicated whether they would give their email address to be notified when the product became available.
Only a fraction of participants, about 18 percent, agreed to provide their email address—a sign they took the request seriously, Rucker and Krause note. Within this group, only 8.2 percent were willing to provide their email address when weak facts were presented as a list, compared to 13.5 percent when those weak facts were presented in narrative form. The trend was reversed when facts were strong: 34.3 percent of these participants were willing to provide their email address when they received strong facts alone, compared to 17.6 when they received strong facts in story form.
“When people saw a really impressive product within a compelling story, the story backfired.”
— Rebecca Krause
This finding was further evidence of what Rucker and Krause had seen in the first experiment: when people interact with a story, it blunts their attention to facts. This is good news if your facts are weak—a story can sugarcoat less-than-compelling information—but not if you have strong data on your side.
The Moral of the Story
What does this mean for advertisers and marketers?
Stories shouldn’t always be your go-to tool, Rucker argues. “Stories can have either positive or negative consequences for the storyteller,” he explains. “If the storyteller is trying to actively persuade an audience, and the facts are weak, the story can obscure those and increase persuasion. But the story can backfire when you have strong facts.” In that situation, presenting information in the most straightforward way possible might be a better route.
And for the rest of us, Rucker says we should consider raising our guard when stories become part of a sales pitch. If a salesperson spins a great yarn, go back and do your homework before you buy, he says. “You might want to exert extra effort to process those facts and understand whether you’re being sold by the story or by the factual piece of information.”
About the Writer
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
About the Research
Krause, Rebecca J., and Derek D. Rucker. 2019. “Strategic Storytelling: When Narratives Help Versus Hurt the Persuasive Power of Facts.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
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