Stories Change Goals

Narratives typically consist of protagonists pursuing goals. … Not only do readers of a narrative process protagonists’ goals in order to understand the story, but they may also appropriate those goals as their own. … There is ample evidence of increased accessibility of goal-related information (com- pared to neutral information) in narrative processing. …

The studies reported here yielded results consistent with the hypothesis that embedding a concept in a narrative is more likely to activate a goal than is priming that same concept out of narrative context. Specifically, embedding the concept of high achievement in a narrative led to greater post-delay behavioral assimilation than did priming the same concept in a non-narrative context, and lower post-fulfillment accessibility. … Narrative processing involves fitting the semantic information presented in a story into a situation model that is centrally structured around goals, and this processing serves to activate that goal. …

Cues that signal expended effort in the pursuit of goals increase the accessibility of goal-related information and increase goal-pursuit. In one study, for example, they had participants watch a short animated film in which a protagonist (a ball) tries to get a kite out of a tree for another character. In different versions of the film, the ball expends more or less effort in attempting to retrieve the kite. When participants were later asked to help the experimenter, those exposed to a more effortful protagonist were more helpful. …

There is growing recognition of the importance and effectiveness of narrative communication techniques in public service domains, such as health-related behavior change. (more)

You may see this as a good thing if you see yourself as a story-teller changing the goals of others. You may see more cause for concern if you see yourself as a story-reader whose goals are being changed by story-tellers.

I also consider this to be weak evidence that stories tend to put people in a more far mental mode.

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  • Stephen Diamond

    I also consider this to be weak evidence that stories tend to put people in a more far mental mode.

    Evidence that this is more true of literary than popular fiction:

  • 007

    Yes I want to be like James Bond for about the length of time it takes me to drive back to my home. Effect is short-lived and very far mode/ mental.


    Isn’t it partly just a mirror-neuron thing: monkey sees, monkey do? Especially when protagonist’s lead more glamorous and/or adventurous lives than most of us it can be pretty tempting to follow their example.

    Mostly, however, stories allow the writer to elicit a heightened level of attention and openmindedness of the reader: a story allows one to walk a mile in the protagonist’s shoes and that’s a very powerful tool to… overcoming bias… It is no coincidence (science) fiction is such effective satire/social commentary.

    Social conservatives who know a gay family member or friend as a human being are a lot more likely to have that persuade them to become tolerant of gay people than rational debate. Reading a book and then at the end finding out the character you like so much turns out to be gay is much the same as having a friend or a family member come out of the closet. Similarly showing the plight of an alien crew member of a 1960s space opera got some people thinking more about desegregation than the civil rights movement ever did because people tend to go on automated (non-thinking) defensive mode of prejudice and tradition, unless you can get them to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

  • Alexander Gabriel

    This reminds me of this Ben Kuhn post:‎

    Pinker also cites literacy as a factor that expands people’s in-group: