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Voir Dire Tip: Are you ‘transported’ by a good story?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

As a kid, I loved a good story, especially scary or suspenseful ones. And I still do. It’s just that now I tend to listen to them on my iPod while driving or flying across the country.  As a trial consultant, it’s part of the job to help craft a case narrative into a really good story. But not just any old story—instead, a story crafted to fit the potential audience you’ll find in the jury box.  And when its right, the story grabs the attention of jurors and they stay engaged throughout the trial. But stories are not for everyone—as new research is showing us.

Recently, researchers looked at “individual differences in transportability, the tendency to become transported into narratives”. They hypothesized that those persons rating themselves “high” in transportability—would more likely respond [by changing attitudes] to emotional rather than rational appeals.  They love a story that moves them.

To test this hypothesis, researchers used two different stories: one story about tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals and the second story looking at the success of race-based affirmative action.

In the first study (with the theme of acceptance/tolerance of homosexuality), participants read a story about two friends—one recently converting to Christianity and one who had just publicly come out as being gay. The story “demonstrated that homosexuals experience many of the same anxieties and pressures as Christian converts and, more generally, that homosexuals are deserving of compassion.”

The researchers found support for their hypothesis that ‘high transportability’ ratings did result in more attitude change and that the attitude change was based on emotional as opposed to rational responses.

In the second study (with the race-based affirmative action theme), researchers assessed need for cognition (that is, the enjoyment of thinking) as well as ‘transportability’ and added a non-narrative condition (no story).

This time, participants read two different stories: “One story focused on the ability of affirmative action to increase social diversity. The second was based on the role affirmative action plays in redressing generations of discrimination and disenfranchisement. Another portion of participants read one of two analogous rhetorical communications that, again, focused either on social diversity or historical oppression and were composed of simple listings of related arguments.”

The researchers hypothesized that higher transportability would again be related to increased persuasion but only in the story conditions. And they were right.

Highly transportable folks were more responsive to the narrative and their attitude change corresponded to changes in emotional responding (empathy) as opposed to rational appraisals (objective thoughts).

But it only worked in the story format! The non-narrative condition (i.e., “the analogous rhetorical communications”) did not change attitudes.

And! Remember how the researchers also measured ‘need for cognition’? As it turned out, need for cognition made no difference at all in whether participants were persuaded.

What a terrific area for voir dire! “How many of you are regularly ‘transported’ by reading a good story?”  The research doesn’t address whether a love for narrative dramas on television is as effective a screen as reading (a past-time not embraced by all).

If your story is one with more emotional appeal—you want jurors who are “high in transportability”.

If your story is one with a more rational appeal—you want those jurors who look at you when you ask that question with a bit of disdain or confusion.

And we might suggest that if you are really looking for jurors who are low in transportability, the challenge will be to observe the jurors who sit disinterested as the “transported” jurors tell their stories.

Mazzocco, PJ, Green, MC, Sasota, JA, & Jones, NW. (2010). This story is not for everyone: Transportability and Narrative Persuasion. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1 (4), 361-368

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