What Is Narrative Transportation?

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Narrative transportation, which is often simply referred to as transportation, is the experience of being immersed in a story. When one is transported into a narrative in any medium, from print to film to podcasts to virtual reality, they are absorbed cognitively, emotionally, and in the imagery of the story.

Narrative transportation can result in greater enjoyment of a story and story consumers may be become more easily persuaded by the story's messages.

What Is Narrative Transportation?

When conceptualizing the idea of transportation, scholars Melanie Green and Timothy Brock drew upon the analogy made by Richard Gerrig in his 1993 book Experiencing Narrative Worlds. Gerrig compared becoming immersed in a story to physical travel in which a traveler has transported away to a place where they are unable to access elements of their daily life and then return somewhat transformed by the trip.

Thus, narrative transportation involves a media consumer focusing all their mental capacities on a story. (The term consumer is used in this article to indicate anyone who consumes a piece of narrative media, including books, films, TV shows, podcasts, video games, or other interactive narratives.) Green and Brock "conceptualized transportation into a narrative world as a distinct mental process, an integrative melding of attention, imagery, and feelings." Transportation can happen regardless of the medium of the story, whether it's fact or fiction, short or long.

Characteristics of a Transporting Narrative

Of course, in order for a consumer to experience transportation, they have to watch, read, or listen to a narrative they can become absorbed in. There are several factors that contribute to transportation into a particular narrative, including features of the text itself and individual differences between consumers.

Features of the Text

Well-crafted narratives are more likely to capture consumers' imaginations than poor-quality narratives. One measure of quality is whether a book, movie, TV show, or other narrative has achieved external success, either critically or with general consumers.

For example, research has shown that texts that are considered canonical were more transporting than texts written by psychologists.

Kreuter and his colleagues suggested several features that should be incorporated into a quality narrative that is likely to make it particularly transporting. These include coherence, plot and character development, adhering to the rules of the narrative world, suspense and dramatic tension, the perception of realism, emotional intensity, and using visual and linguistic conventions that are familiar to the intended audience.

Situational Characteristics

Even the most well-crafted narrative will fail to transport a consumer if the situation is distracting. A child talking in a movie theater or a dog barking while one is reading will reduce a consumer's ability to be transported by the narrative because their attention will be split between two stimuli.

On the other hand, if someone is consuming a narrative to avoid boredom or tasks that they'd rather not do, even a subpar narrative may be transporting because the consumer is particularly motivated to escape their current circumstances.

Individual Differences

No two people are exactly alike, and their individual personality traits impact which stories they will find most transporting. When it comes to transportation, one of the most important individual differences is referred to as transportability, the extent to which a media consumer is likely to become immersed in a story.

Highly transportable individuals are likely to experience transportation into even the shortest narratives, while people who are less transportable may not experience transportation into even the most high-quality narratives.

Other individual differences impact transportation as well. For example, a study showed that research participants higher in the traits of empathy and sensation seeking, or the desire to experience varied and heightened feelings and sensations, were more transported into the films Up and Casino Royale than participants who scored lower on these traits.

Similarly, another study demonstrated that individuals with a higher need for cognition, or the need for mental activity, experienced greater transportation when reading, while those with a low need for cognition experienced greater transportation when watching a movie.

Prior Knowledge

It's also been shown that prior knowledge of or experience with the world depicted in a narrative can help consumers find a story more transporting.

For instance, in a study in which participants read a story about a gay man attending a reunion for his college fraternity, those more familiar with American fraternities and sororities or who had LGBTQQIA+ friends and family members were more transported into the story.

Personal Preferences

The experience of transportation is also impacted by people's preferences for one genre or kind of story over another. For example, if someone dislikes romance stories or black-and-white movies, they are less likely to find these kinds of narratives transporting.

Impact of Narrative Transportation

While we often think of consuming a story as something we do purely for entertainment, there are consequences to narrative transportation that are both positive and negative.

Enjoyment

Scholars have posited that one of the reasons people seek out and consume stories is because it's a pleasurable experience, and research has shown that narrative transportation is highly correlated with enjoyment.

Green, Brock, and Kaufman suggest people may enjoy being transported into a story because it can lead to specific benefits, including leaving concerns or fears behind.

It may also help consumers explore different places outside their everyday reality, enable consumers to experience the perspective of people in different situations and environments than themselves, and assist with mood management.

Moreover, consumers may even enjoy being transported into a narrative that leads to unpleasant emotions like anger, fright, or sadness because this enables them to vicariously explore their ability to handle these emotions within the safety of the world of the story.

Persuasion

Transportation can also persuade people to adopt beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors consistent with the narratives they've consumed. This can be used positively.

For example, people who decide to eat more vegetables after consuming a narrative about healthy eating habits will benefit from their experience of being transported into the narrative.

On the other hand, this can lead to negative outcomes. For example, adolescents who are transported into a narrative that makes it seem as if all teenagers engage in unsafe sex practices may come to believe everyone is having unsafe sex and that, if they want to fit in, they should too.

Studies have demonstrated that greater transportation into a narrative leads to stronger story-consistent beliefs. There are several reasons for this, including:

  • Reduction in counterarguing: Counterarguing entails arguing against or resisting the message of a narrative. Transportation leads consumers to become more open and accepting while consuming a narrative, leading those who are highly transported to be less resistant to the story's messages.
  • Connecting with characters: While identifying with and liking characters are distinct from transportation, transportation has been correlated with these experiences. So transportation can be a route through which consumers connect with characters, and when an individual likes or identifies with a character, they may be influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, to adjust their beliefs or attitudes so they are more in line with those of the character.
  • Memorability of images: Emotionally intense images experienced while transported into a story, whether that image is described in a text or shown on a screen, might be especially influential on consumers' beliefs because the image becomes linked in their minds with that belief. For example, the image of the way a drug habit physically impacts a character may come to mind whenever a person thinks about the importance of avoiding drugs. Not only will this impact beliefs and attitudes following a transporting experience, but the memory of the image will continue to evoke the narrative and reinforce the message the consumer took away from it.
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