Ideas from psychology that are helpful to writers: Transportation-Imagery Theory Part 1.

I have recently been revisiting some of the research I read while I was conducting my PhD over 15 years ago. At the time I was interested in understanding why stories can be more persuasive than facts or reasoned arguments, (which turns out to be quite an evergreen topic in itself – more on that in future posts).

At the moment I have been taking anther look at these things because I am interested, as a writer, in what can be learning from the psychological research on how readers respond to stories, and I thought other writers may be interested too.

I’m going to start with one of the main theories I worked with during my PhD – Transportation-Imagery Theory by Melanie Green and Timothy Brock (published 2000 – the abstract is linked here for anyone with an interest but unfortunately the whole paper is not publicly available).

Why Transportation-Imagery Theory?

The term ‘transportation was first coined by Richard Gerrig in his book Experiencing Narrative Worlds (published in 1993 – available here (Affiliate link), but FYI it is pricey so I suggest you look for it in a local library if you are interested), and later expanded upon by Green and Brock in their peer reviewed paper ‘The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives’ (published 2000 – the abstract is linked here for anyone with an interest but unfortunately the whole paper is not publicly available).

They were interested in developing a theory about why embedding ideas into narratives can be so persuasive, at times more persuasive than factual information or reasoned arguments. For this reason I think that this theory may have points of interest in it, both for writers who want to convey particular messages in their work, but also perhaps for writers who want to avoid perpetuating harmful messages too.

In our current social and political climate, this kind of thinking feels more, rather than less relevant than it did when I originally started working on my PhD 15 years ago. Whether we intend it or not, most stories contain some kind of message (Gail Carrigers Book, The Heroine’s Journey makes this point very well (Affiliate link)), so it can be helpful for most writers to understand the potential impact their work may have.

What does ‘transportation’ into a story mean?

The idea here should make intuitive sense to anyone who has ever been an avid reader, and has ‘lost themselves’ in a book. It’s that feeling of being transported into a different world, while losing touch with what is happening in your own, of time passing without you noticing as you follow the twists and turns of events happening for the book’s characters. Its that feeling of being able to see and feel and smell the environment that the characters are in, and of reacting to the emotions that the characters feel.

So you may be thinking at this point, we know that this is a thing, do we really need a psychologist to tell us that? The work of researchers in psychology (and basically any other field of study) is to try to describe a phenomenon in a way that allows them to test different theories about how it works. This is the way in which scientists learn how things do, and do not work. What Green and Brock were trying to do was to describe the experience of transportation in a way that would allow them to test the impact of it on readers, and learn more about how it worked from the inside.

In their chapter in the book Narrative Impact (which I am using as my main source for this article – it was published in 2002 and now is available on amazon (affiliate link) here but FYI it is pricey so again, as at your local libarary!) they describe transportation as a “convergent process, where all of the person’s mental systems and capacities become focused on the events occurring in the narrative” (Page 324). This may account for that sense of dislocation one feels when being disturbed when reading a really good story, and of needing to take a moment to ‘come back into the room’.

Their main argument is that the more a person becomes ‘transported’ into a story, the more likely it is that they will find any messages embedded within that narrative to be persuasive, which may even result in changes in attitudes and beliefs.

Why are those messages more persuasive when found in a story?

There are a number of reasons why this process of transportation results in people being more likely to believe messages that are embedded within a story, and many of these reasons draw on the work of other scientists and psychologists. Over the next few months (or possibly years) I’m going to be writing about some of that work so if you are interested in learning more be sure to follow my blog here, or over at Medium if that’s where you prefer to read things.

In brief, some of the reasons why a transported reader may be more persuadable are:

  • Narratives mimic episodic memory – the kind of memory we use to remember important moments and events in our lives – so can be easier to understand and remember for many people
  • Processing narrative and stories may be a process that draws on many resources of the brain, as it involves understanding or constructing images, characters, settings and emotions, and more, all weaved together at once – there may not be many resources left to identify and think about messages we receive in this way, let alone form counter arguments to them
  • Often people engage with stories for the sake of enjoyment or distraction, they don’t go into the experience with the aim of critiquing messages they find there
  • The experience of transportation results in a kind of psychological distancing from everyday life, meaning that some facts, ideas and other forms of ‘real world’ knowledge that may contradict those messages may be less accessible to transported readers

It’s worth mentioning here that all people are different, and not all brains work in the same way, so the above effects may be more or less prevalent for different people.

I hope you have found this interesting, in Part Two (read here) of this mini-series I will explain some of the insights from this theory that may be helpful (or not!) to the process of writing.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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