How story sucked me in

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For a long time I instinctively felt that story and narrative can be powerful tools in influencing attitudes and belief systems. I’ve had positive experiences with how fiction shaped my relationship with science. The manner in which it has done so has led me to believe that when we enjoy and get sucked into a story we let our intellectual guards down – that we tend to be less critical of facts. Reasoning and logic may not feature as much when we’re caught up in a narrative compared to situations when we are asked to analyse or make decisions when presented with data and logical arguments.

However, it was only recently when I started my Science Communication degree, that I realised that there is empirical evidence to support my suspicions. Melanie Green and Timothy Brock propose and demonstrate the theory of “transportation” whereby narratives can affect beliefs and attitudes. They define transportation as absorption into a story – it entails imagery, affect and focus in attention. They demonstrated that highly absorbed subjects were likely to have beliefs that were aligned with the story and that they had favourable views of the protagonist. Highly absorbed subjects were also less likely to detect fallacies in a story. They also demonstrated that labeling texts as fact or fiction did not affect how absorbed people were in a particular narrative.

So how has fiction and narrative influenced me? A couple of key texts which drew me into science as a teenager were Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. These novels drew me into a world of biology, microbiology and evolution. Even portrayals of scientists in movies appealed to me. Their representations weren’t always flattering, but I felt the profession had a sense of freedom to it. These guys loved their jobs, they were solving big problems and it seemed really rewarding. I admired this.

But story can have far reaching effects beyond an individual’s belief system. Ruthanna Gordon reviews the scholarly literature to suggest fictional narratives can impact how society navigate likely future technologies, their benefits and the related ethics of their application. This can result in a groundswell of opinion that can affect regulation and funding of science and technology.

Story sucked me in and guided me towards a love for the natural world and an interest in becoming a scientist. Maybe its effect wasn’t exclusive, but it’s one that stands out.

About the author

Don Gomez maintains Science By Fiction and is undertaking a masters degree in science communication at the Australian National University’s Centre for Public Awareness of Science. Donnie loves a good yarn and is interested in the depiction of science in popular fiction.

Follow Don on Twitter @hairycanary