Have You Heard About Narrative Transportation?

By Sally Bailey, MFA, MSW, RDT/BCT

Narrative transportation is the experience of becoming absorbed in a story or performance to the extent that you are transported into an imaginary narrative world (Green & Brock, 2000). This often happens when we read a book or watch a movie or a play. A transported person is fully mentally engaged with the story, creating vivid mental images and responding emotionally to the story’s content. Audience members who are highly transported often experience attitude and belief changes in line with those expressed or demonstrated in the story (Green & Carpenter, 2011). Narrative transportation is similar to the willing suspension of disbelief​ that must happen if a theatre audience is to join the fictional world of the performance on stage.

Specific qualities make a narrative more or less likely to transport and, hence, persuade an audience or change an old attitude to a new one (Green, 2008). One of these qualities is identification. Through identification the reader or witness becomes less aware of herself and more connected emotionally and cognitively with a character in a narrative (Cohen, 2001). This “may entail adopting a character’s goals as one’s own, and may make the character a model for desired behavior” (Green, 2007, p. 101). For example, during Little Red Riding Hood a transported reader would vicariously experience Red’s fear of the Wolf when he reveals himself disguised in Grandma’s nightgown, and her relief when the woodcutter saves her life. Ideally, the story would persuade the reader to listen to her mother and not talk to strangers.

Attitude change seems to happen often when it is tied to a character’s goals, particularly if it matches goals that audience members hold (Green, 2008, 2011). For instance, the audience most likely holds similar goals as Red Riding Hood does in terms of wishing for independence from parents, being intrigued by dangerous strangers, and wanting to survive. While reading the story or watching a dramatized version of it, those common goals would take audience members through a similar re-evaluation of attitudes as Red experiences. The creation of empathy with the protagonist plays into the success of identification and attitude change as well (Green, 2007).

I discovered the existence of narrative transportation while working with the Center for Excellence for Food Safety Research, part of Kansas State University’s (KSU) Department of Hospitality Management and Dietetics. Their researchers are focused on improving food safety by making food service professionals more willing to incorporate safety regimens and awareness of food allergies into their daily practices. The KSU researchers have been approaching this task using video narratives based on dangerous situations caused by unsafe food practices. One video I worked on was a real tearjerker. It presented the fictional story of a couple whose only child died of her allergy to dairy products she ate at a restaurant. The waitress did not write down the allergy clearly enough on the ticket, and the cook used butter on the hamburger bun the little girl ordered. The mother forgot to bring the EpiPen®, and by the time the ambulance arrived, the child died from anaphylactic shock. Even though the video begins with a disclaimer that this is a fictional story, the actors are so convincing that viewers forget it did not really happen!

The videos’ effectiveness are evaluated by questionnaires that assess the amount of narrative transportation that has taken place during the viewing, the amount of attitude change that has occurred, and how much information was learned. This is compared with questionnaire scores of study participants who have experienced a non-narrative version of the food safety information. So far, the narrative approach is proving more effective.

As my food service colleague explained their research methodology, a light bulb went off above my head, and I heard a little bell go, “ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!” Dramas are embodied narratives; therefore, narrative transportation is connected to the work drama therapists do. All enactment starts first with a story – a narrative – told by the client, which is then brought to life in the therapy session through improvisation and other drama therapy techniques. Whether the narrative is acted out by the client who told the story or by another group member, narrative transportation occurs for the actors performing the narrative as well as the group members witnessing it.

Research into the narrative transportation strengths related to drama therapy could provide evidence that our modality is able to create positive change in the lives of our clients. Perhaps we would find that narrative transportation is one of the “active ingredients” in drama therapy. We might discover whether drama therapy treatment could be more effective than other forms of psychotherapy for clients who are able to transport themselves more fully into the playspace. This could identify individuals for whom drama therapy would be most effective.

Narrative transportation could be used to measure and validate Passage and Quality, the first and second of Susanna Pendzik’s Six Keys to Assessment (Pendzik, 2003; 2008). Passage deals with the ability to move into and out of the transitional space or imaginal realm in which drama takes place. Narrative transportation! Quality deals with how the client inhabits the dramatic world: either deeply, intensely and emotionally, or shallowly, distractedly and inconsistently. My hypothesis is that someone who is highly transported would experience the first category of Quality and someone who is not transported or is less transported would be in the second category.

Drama therapists often create plays for therapeutic or psycho-educational purposes. Narrative transportation could be used to evaluate if the performance was effectively creating change in audiences. It could also be possible to gauge the amount of change in clients involved in therapeutic performances – fictional or non-fictional – and learn whether clients with high transportation abilities have more attitude/belief/behavioral changes than clients with low transportation abilities. 

My fascination with narrative transportation has motivated me to undertake a research project this spring on the effectiveness of ethnotheatre and social action theatre in changing attitudes in audiences. This spring, three of my graduate students at KSU will produce plays they wrote last year. Dunia, by Joanna Abillama, is a fictionalized ethnodrama that examines the life of a young Lebanese woman from a conservative Muslim family who use aspects of their religion as an excuse to discriminate against women – Dunia, in particular. The play follows the ways in which she responds to the limits this puts on her life. Shepherdless, by Jessie Greenfield, is an ethnodrama that explores gay individuals who feel rejected by their churches. A third play – Catcalls, by Jessica Munoz – fictionally turns the tables on sexual harassment by putting men in the place women most often occupy. Audiences will be asked to fill out a pre-questionnaire about their attitudes and knowledge about the topic of the play and a post-questionnaire about their level of narrative transportation into the play, what they learned, and if their attitudes have changed.

I encourage drama therapists involved in social action and therapeutic performance to begin measuring the effect of their work on their audiences through the lens of narrative transportation in addition to other lenses you currently use. I have a feeling that this lens could be adapted and adopted as a valid and useful drama therapy measurement tool!

For more information on narrative transportation, please see:

Green, M.C., & Brock, T.C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701-702.

Green, M.C., & Carpenter, J.M. (2011). Transporting into narrative worlds: New directions for the scientific study of literature. Scientific Study of Literature, 1(1) 113-122.​


Narrative TransportationSally Bailey, MFA, MSW, RDT/BCT is professor of theatre, playwright, and director of the drama therapy program at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS. A past president of NADTA, she is the author of Barrier-Free Theatre (2010), one of the few resources in print on making theatre accessible for people with disabilities.

 

References:

Cohen, J. (2001). Defining identification: A theoretical look at the identification of audiences with media characters. Mass Communication and Society, 4(3), 245-246.

Green, M.C. (2007). Linking self and others through narrative. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 100-102.

Green, M.C. (2008). Research challenges in narrative persuasion. Information Design Journal, 16(1), 47-52.

Green, M.C., & Brock, T.C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701-702.

Green, M.C., & Carpenter, J.M. (2011). Transporting into narrative worlds: New directions for the scientific study of literature. Scientific Study of Literature, 1(1) 113-122.

Pendzik, S. (2003). Six keys for assessment in drama therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 30, 91-99.

Pendzik, S. (2008). Using the six key model as an intervention tool in therapy. The Arts In Psychotherapy, 35,349-354.

3 Comments

  1. Sally, I think much of what you describe about narrative transportation applies to the Standardized Patient approach, required in training medical students. An SP encounter gives the student an opportunity to interact with a ‘real’ patient, respond in the moment, and take into consideration the person as an individual with a life story–then step back, hear feedback, and reflect. I’ve always thought that drama therapists have so much to offer this approach–as we can bring another ‘lens’–and more readily take the experience beyond the ‘training activity.’ SPs can elicit a compassionate, holistic, and effective response from medical practitioners who in turn carry this experience with them into their practice. Certainly narrative transportation is at play here! –Sally, thanks for sharing this perspective!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Year in Review | Dramascope

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