A new study finds that a good story can increase the persuasiveness of weak facts, but it may actually decrease the persuasiveness of strong facts.
Previous psychological research on this subject has demonstrated that stories often result in more persuasion among listeners. But why this is so has been less clear. Is it because stories cause people to focus on the good aspects of a message and away from the negative? Or do stories disrupt people’s ability to process complex information?
To test this interplay between facts, stories and persuasion, a team of social psychologists from Northwestern University asked 397 U.S. adults to evaluate a set of either all strong or all weak facts about a fictitious brand of cell phone called Moonstone.
Half of the participants read only facts about the phone, while the other half read a story about the phone that had the facts embedded within it. For a strong fact, the team used “The phone can withstand a fall of up to 30 feet.” For a weak fact, they used “The phone can withstand a fall of up to 3 feet.”
The researchers found that when facts were weak, a story with the facts embedded within it led to greater persuasion than facts alone. But when facts were strong, the opposite effect occurred: facts alone led to more persuasion than a story with the facts embedded within it.
The findings, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggest that stories don’t just direct people away from weak information; they reduce people’s general processing of information. As a consequence, stories help persuasion when facts are weak, but they hurt persuasion when facts are strong.
“Stories persuade, at least in part, by disrupting the ability to evaluate facts, rather than just biasing a person to think positively,” said Rebecca Krause, who coauthored the paper with Dr. Derek Rucker.
Krause replicated the study with 389 U.S. adults and observed similar results.
In a third study, which took place in the lab, 293 people read about a fictitious flu medicine, either on its own or embedded within a story, and were asked whether they would provide their email to receive more information.
While people are generally protective of sharing their email, people’s willingness to share that information varied in a manner similar to the first two studies.
Specifically, stories once again undermined the persuasive appeal of strong facts. In the absence of a story, 34% of participants agreed to provide their email address in response to strong facts. However, when these same strong facts were included in a story, only 18% of participants agreed to provide their email address.
Krause said that avoiding stories isn’t the message they are trying to deliver.
“Knowing that stories may provide the most persuasive benefit to those with the least compelling arguments could be important given concerns about ‘fake news.'” Krause noted.
“But this does not mean a story is indicative of weak facts. Rather, when you feel especially compelled by a great story you might want to give more thought and consideration to the facts to determine how good they are.”