Narrative Persuasion and Overcoming Resistance

Authors: Sonya Dal Cin, Mark P. Zanna, & Geoffrey T. Fong (University of Waterloo)

Publication: Resistance and Persuasion. Ed. Eric S. Knowles & Jay A. Linn. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers

Year: 2004

Focus Area: Persuasion, Resistance, Prevention

Relevance: Fraud prevention efforts struggle to convince potential victims of their own vulnerability, of the prevalence of fraud, and of the magnetic appeal of many fraudsters.  These messages might be more effectively received if they were presented in a narrative, or story format.

Summary: Narratives are particularly effective for overcoming strong resistance for a number of reasons, including:

  1. People don’t expect to be influenced by a tale, and so don’t summon the same degree of resistance.
  2. Given that narratives inspire careful attention, targeted messages are attended to that might otherwise be ignored.  People generally avoid information that is incongruous with their existing attitudes (e.g., Sweeney & Gruber, 1984), but narratives convey a message “under the radar.”
  3. Arguing against the “real” experience of someone in a story is more difficult than arguing against a hypothetical situation.  While fictional stories may not be true, if they appear plausible then they may still carry the same persuasive impact.
  4. Beliefs can be presented implicitly in a story, as opposed to being stated explicitly in an argument.  With no specific arguments to resist, the beliefs are more difficult to oppose.
  5. When people are cognitively and emotionally invested in a story, they are left with less ability (mental resources) or motivation to resist the targeted message.
  6. As people are more inclined to accept information from someone they like and feel kinship with, stories can present messages from likable characters with whom people can relate. (For example, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) negotiated with television networks to include anti-drug story lines in popular series (Forbes, 2000).  The opportunities for message placement are substantial.

Author Abstract: Narratives are ubiquitous. Consider the vast numbers of people who are consuming stories at any given time. Casual observation of rush-hour passengers on the subway in Toronto (and we imagine those in Chicago, New York, and Paris) reveals a large number of commuters reading newspapers, magazines, and novels. At the same time, commuters driving the city’s major highways are listening to the radio—hearing stories about what is happening in the world. Children in day care and at school spend part of the day reading (or being read) stories, selected as age-appropriate and noncontroversial in their content, lest impressionable youth be led astray. Meanwhile, adults at home avidly tune in to soap operas. After school and after work, millions of people around the world switch on the television, expecting to be entertained by dramas, comedies, and “reality” television.

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