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Tell me a story: narratives, behaviour change and neuroscience

Radharani Mitra

Global Creative Advisor, BBC Media Action

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“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American proverb

I recently spent the day in a San Diego hotel room with 49 people who are obsessed with telling stories. Focused on overcoming public health and social justice challenges, we were gathered to discuss how to design, develop, monitor and evaluate communication responses based around storytelling.

The day we spent together was a story in itself: interesting characters…full of discovery…with not a single dull moment! I hoped it would never end, so, to re-live the thrill of it all, I thought I would share some of my highlights from the fabulous talks I heard: 

How narratives influence ideas and behaviour

Stories are powerful, a quality captured by social psychologist Melanie Green in her presentation with the concept of ‘narrative transportation': the experience of becoming so caught up in a narrative that the real world fades away. Being in this state of immersion makes us more open to having our beliefs and attitudes changed, as our tendency to argue is reduced. 

Reading up on Green’s ideas post-conference, I was reminded that when faced with an attempt at persuasion, we typically put our guard up and have our counter-arguments at the ready. Stories circumvent these instincts, proving effective at challenging entrenched views without us even realising what’s happening.

The theory is intuitive, but do we see these ideas play out in practice? Addressing this question, Jeff Niederdeppe said yes, we do. The Cornell academic talked about how stories can enhance support for health policies, like restricting the sale of soft drinks in schools and putting graphic warning labels on cigarette packets.

Delving into Niederdeppe’s work later, I learned about a study of his which involved asking people to read a story about ‘Cynthia’ and her daughter – who tries smoking in one scenario and grapples with weight issues due to drinking soda in another. Reading these narratives made the study’s participants more resistant to the kinds of messages industries put out to oppose healthy policies.

In addition to ideas, fiction can also influence behaviour. One study I found – led by academics in both medicine and communication – showed that watching just a 12-minute video could convince women to go get themselves screened for cervical cancer. It could also close the screening gap between different ethnicities. Mexican American women who watched the Tamale Lesson went from having the lowest rate of screening initially (32%) to the highest (82%) when surveyed six months later.

Comedy is the new serious

Suitably equipped with a broad overview of what storytelling can inspire people to do, let’s drill down into what different genres can achieve. As an organisation, Media Action has talked a fair amount about how drama can be used to broach difficult topics, such as gender-based violence. But comedy shouldn’t be overlooked, argued Caty Borum Chattoo, Director of the American University’s School of Communication, as it can bring its light touch to bear on serious issues.

Looking up some such gags-for-good, I came across toilet humour and condom-blowing competitions used to help people get over their self-consciousness and engage with topics like HIV and sanitation, which they might otherwise be reluctant to address. That’s not to mention all the satire putting transgressing politicians under the spotlight of public ridicule.

Here in Media Action’s India office, we’ve seen how comedy can reach and preach beyond the choir through our TV ads and PSAs on tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections and condoms – the last of which features a puppy christened by a parrot.

Neuroscience is becoming communication’s new best friend

Many within the development sector would nod their heads approvingly at the examples above. They just want more hard evidence. Communication and media interventions certainly haven't had as much of a scientific basis as biomedical ones. But things are changing.  

In San Diego, two new matadors in the narrative arena, René Weber and Ralf Schmaelzle talked to us about how they use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see what stories do to our minds. fMRI measures brain activity by detecting changes in cerebral blood flow.

At the conference, I discovered that fMRI can tell us a lot but it wasn’t until perusing one of Schmaelzle’s studies afterwards that I came to appreciate quite how much. For example, the brain signals of someone consuming a piece of health communication can help determine: the strength of an argument, its novelty, how visually engaging it is and whether it's tailored to their race or sexuality. And that’s just looking at some of what just one part of the brain – the 'medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus' – is telling us.

fMRI can also be used to determine what target audiences ‘tune in’ to. In the study, Schmaelzle and his co-authors assessed the effectiveness of different public service announcements (PSAs) in convincing young adults about the risks of alcohol. They suggest that the messages which resounded the most engaged more of people’s brains.

The news tells us that even Facebook is getting in on the action. The social media company is due to open a neuroscience research lab, which will examine how users spend their time on the site by recording their eye movements, skin responses, heart rate and facial expressions.   

These were just a smattering of topics covered at the event. One more worth a quick mention here was how to best leverage transmedia storytelling (sharing narratives across multiple platforms). As the day progressed, it became increasingly obvious that narratives have transcended the borders of ‘entertainment-education’ on television and radio; they are now embracing new platforms and trends like gamification, social media and graphic novels.

Clearly, storytelling as a tool for social change is still an unfolding saga. If neuroscientists are now getting involved, who knows who else will join us in our quest!

Communication Professor (and MC extraordinaire) Arvind Singhal summed it up aptly, "In my 31 year long involvement at ICA [the International Communication Association], never before I was witness to so many who cared about the social use of narrative power, to come together, to parley, to transport, and to enrich one another in mindful intellectual and heartfelt communion. We inspired each other with our narratives - shared and contested!"

This blog was based on presentations delivered at the Innovations in Narrative-based Interventions pre-conference at the 2017 International Communication Association conference. Presented by BBC Media Action, Asian Institute of Technology (Bangkok), University at Buffalo and USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the pre-conference was organised by Angeline Sangalang, Helen Hua Wang, Joyee S Chatterjee and Michael J Cody.

Radharani Mitra is National Creative Director and Executive Producer of BBC Media Action’s India office. She tweets as @radharani_m.

Related content:

Blog: A dramatic end to violence against women?

Blog: Using storytelling to make statistics accessible

Blog: Human stories inspire positive change

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