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Can reading a story make you a vampire?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

Apparently, the answer is yes. And it can also make you a wizard. The key (according to this research) is in what you are reading. We’ve talked about the power of stories (told well) to transport the listener. This goes beyond transporting listeners into something that is frankly strange.

Researchers looked at the narrative-collective-assimilation hypothesis.  [I would like to digress for a moment and point out the obvious—that social science researchers don’t do any focus group research on what to call their hypotheses.  This is a good example.  Researchers should get out a bit more.  And in the meantime, we would like our readers to share with us the names of other weird research effects/hypotheses/theories for our mutual pleasure.  We promise to share them in a future blog.  Okay—back to the blog post…]

This particular hypothesis is basically the idea that when you strongly experience a narrative, you psychologically become part of the group described within the narrative. So they had participants in the study read (for 30 minutes) selections from either Harry Potter (on wizards) or from the Twilight series (on vampires). Then they asked them questions (like, for example, “how sharp are your teeth?”) and determined that those reading the Potter books psychologically identified as wizards and those reading the Twilight books (you guessed it) identified as vampires.

The researchers further found that those participants who tended to meet their support needs through joining groups were more likely to have stronger identifications as either wizards or vampires.  They also found that narrative collective assimilation was related to both better mood and increased life satisfaction. The more participants associated themselves with vampires or wizards after reading the texts for half an hour, the better their mood and the higher their life satisfaction score.  So the next time you check into a hotel only to find that a Star Trek Convention or a meeting of the Jimmy Buffet Parrotheads of the Delaware Valley are everywhere you look, know that these people are quite possibly happier and more cheerful than you are.

So what does that mean for litigation advocacy? Certainly not that you can convince your jurors they are either vampires or wizards! But it does give you more reasons to inquire in voir dire about the whole idea of transportability and about jurors ways of finding social support.  It suggests that people who are attracted to membership in groups such as these are able to suspend disbelief more readily, and might be able to accept a less ‘realistic’ view of the facts.

Last month we worked on a commercial case where we found [among other things] that one side wanted to have happy and empowered people and the other wanted those who were disgruntled and felt cheated.

If you want happy and empowered jurors for your case, the current research  implies that you should choose readers who belong to book clubs and other groups.

If you want the disgruntled who feel cheated, this research suggests that you choose jurors who are not easily drawn into fantasy or fiction.  You are looking for loners, for less imaginative people, and those who are a bit cynical.

Even silly sounding research can contain good ideas for work in the courtroom. The trick is to not get carried away (dare we say transported?) by the title and to focus instead on the message.   But let us know about the oddly named research effects and theories you encounter.  Even if they aren’t as worthwhile as this interesting study, they ought to be good for a laugh.

If you read us and find us useful, helpful, entertaining, or in any way enlightening–please consider nominating us for this year’s Blawg 100 listings. You brought us into the Blawg 100 for 2010–how about helping in 2011? Nominate us for the ABA Blawg 100 here.

Gabriel S, & Young AF (2011). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis. Psychological Science PMID: 21750250

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