Living in Stories

Revising and extending the Narrative Transportation Theory 

Have you ever gotten carried away by the pages of a book?  I have, and sometimes I would be taken to a magical world where witches and wizards lived secretly and were schooled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Reading the Harry Potter series would make me feel exhilarated. As I’d read the book, I would feel like I was there with Harry, Ron and Hermione studying for OWL’s in the Gryffindor Common Room. I felt like I understood what it was like to fly on a broom, cast spells, and stand up to Lord Voldemort. What I read didn’t necessarily just stay on the pages. Sometimes I’d run through the story and think about it after I’d put the book down, looking for hidden meanings to the brilliance of J.K. Rowling. The characters in her book existed in my mind even after I had closed the book. When I’d get into a fight, I’d recall the times Harry was ostracized and I’d hear Hermione’s words of comfort and advice telling me that everything was going to be all right. Call me crazy, but don’t tell me I’m the only one who gets carried away by a good book.

Narratives can emotionally attach to us so much that we may attempt to bring the story into the real world. An example is the Quiddich matches that various high schools and universities hold. If you really think about it, Quiddich matches in real life are pointless, because we don’t have brooms that fly, which is a principle factor that the game relies on. Nevertheless, we still have Quiddich tournaments and the people who participate in them look like they’re having a great time. The mind doesn’t seem to care that it can’t fly; it is only concerned with re-living the narrative.

A more extreme example of what narratives can do to us is when James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012. This man told police he had dyed his hair orange to look like Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. But it wasn’t just the Joker’s look that Holmes emulated; it was his acts of pure violence that was the greatest inspiration by this villain.

Generally speaking, in any form of narrative we can become immersed in an alternate universe. According to Melanie Green, the reason that narratives have such a powerful effect on us is because they function via narrative persuasion, which unlike the logical and reasonable rhetoric persuasion, is based on emotional connections.

Books can provide us with an escape to an alternate reality where we can find love, hate, vengeance, tranquility, adventure, peace, sadness, happiness, friendship, or solitude. Why people choose the narratives they do is explained by the uses and Gratifications Theory, which says that people seek out to satisfy their needs through media, including narratives. In addition, the relationship with narratives can work the other way around, as what we consume can affect our cognitions, thereby persuading us.

The Narrative Transportation Theory has been used most frequently in previous studies on narrative persuasion. In this essay I will discuss the basic findings and principles to the Narrative Transportation Theory and add to them other theories and concepts in psychology, as well as investigate into unchartered areas in the Narrative Transportation Theory, specifically to its relationship with aggression, loneliness, parasocial interaction (PSI), and social media. One question I will address is whether narratives can take care of our social needs through PSI, and another question is whether or not we can be transported by a social media post.

Narrative persuasion and transportation

First, it is important to distinguish narrative persuasion from rhetorical persuasion. Where rhetorical persuasion relies on logic and reasoning, narrative persuasion lacks straightforward arguments and is driven by the actions and portrayals of characters and themes of a story. In the past sixty years, rhetorical persuasion has been the focus of social psychology; narrative persuasion in contrast is a new field where there is still much to learn about.

In the early 2000s, Melanie Green and Timothy Brock suggested a transportation-imagery model of narrative persuasion, which shows how reading, watching, or listening to narratives can mentally “transport” people into the world of the story. Transportation is a multidimensional concept defined as “the extent that individuals are absorbed into a story” (Green & Brock, 2000, p. 701). The idea of “transportation” was inspired by a man named Richard Gerrig, who used the literal experience of traveling as a metaphor to explain the processes that occur when a reader encounters a text (Gerrig, 1993). Although this view is applicable to books, the Narrative Transportation Theory has been broadened to include other media including verbal communication and films. Transportation – as described by Melanie Green, one of the founders of the Narrative Transportation Theory – is a pleasurable state of media enjoyment.

Transportation

Transportation is the magic that makes individuals more open to attitude change. In addition, people who experience transportation are still described as departed from reality into the imaginary world of the story. The fact that television, films, and books are multibillion-dollar industries illustrates the extent to which people value and seek out transportation experiences.

In history, we have seen narrative’s tremendous power of persuasion over people. For example, the great work of Harriet Beecher Stowe in her publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin has aroused opposition to slavery through vivid imagery and the portrayal of slaves and their slave-owners. In this example, the connection between readers and the characters is mostly emotional, and emotional connections have been proven in social psychology to be very difficult to change. Why, you might ask? Well, according to researchers Fabrigar and Petty, it is difficult to influence emotional attitudes based on rational and rhetoric arguments. Clearly, emotions are one efficient way to plant messages and meanings into the heart, and this is why narratives are powerful: they are resistant to many other forms of persuasion.

Causes of transportation

So how do we measure the individual differences in the likelihood of being transported? Well, one way to measure it is through a 19-item transportability scale, which was developed by Melanie Green. This measurement scale measures cognitive, emotional, and imagery processes through a person’s answers to statements like “I could picture myself in the scene”. Although this form of explicit test relies on people’s honesty and consciousness of the effects narratives have on themselves, it has been proven many times to be a reliable measure. However, this test isn’t the only way to measure transportability, for there are also a great many other factors that can theoretically make transportation more or less likely. This list includes characteristics of the recipients and their need for affect, a good storyteller, imagery, realism, structure, and the appropriate surroundings and context.

The Recipients and Need for Affect:

Characteristics of the recipients themselves can facilitate or limit narrative persuasion.  Recipients who have better imaginative abilities should be more capable of constructing detailed and compelling narrative worlds than those who are less imaginative.  In addition, there are certain individual differences in every person that make them more willing and able to become transported into narrative worlds, and research has shown that those who are more transported exhibit greater attitude and belief change in response to stories (Green & Clark, 2013, 29).

One of those differences is known as the “need for affect”. The need for affect is the motivation to approach or avoid emotion-inducing situations and activities (Green & Clark, 2013, 479). The need for affect has been described as a meta-emotion: a generalized attitude regarding one’s own primary emotions. According to Maio and Esses, individuals who have a high need for affect actively pursue and indulge in emotional situations, which in turn intensify their emotional experiences (Bartsch, Vorderer, Mangold, & Viehoff, 2008). In simpler terms, how people approach a narrative relates to what they will experience by it. Individuals with a strong need for affect should be inclined to experience high levels of transportation.

A good storyteller:

Transportation includes a good storyteller, one who paces the dramatic effect and delivers the plot in an orderly way. Master storytellers can make trivial tales seem like masterpieces, and they are just as important in shaping a story as the contents are to the story itself. Storytellers who are able to describe characters and events in an emotional way and who are capable of evoking imagery are likely to achieve maximum persuasive impact.

Imagery:

When people are able to picture the characters and the scene of events (either indirectly through imagination or literally through a screen), they are more likely to be fully engaged with the narrative world. Furthermore, the creation of these mental images should lead to lasting persuasion that is difficult to counter with less vivid facts.

Realism:

Through incorporating of some degree of realism, recipients will have an easier time constructing the narrative world to the extent that the details of that world are at least somewhat familiar to them.  Even in fiction, it is important that recipients are familiar with the basic human elements of the story (like social interactive themes and basic human motives).  The narrative should also be presented in a way that it can be understood.  For example, Shakespeare’s work can hinder transportation simply due to language difficulties.

Structure:

A narrative simply refers to a story with an identifiable beginning, middle, and end that provides information about the storyline and provides a solution (Dhanda, 2011, 11). A story with a clear causal structure is more transporting than one that has inconsistencies in its plot.  Suspense is another factor that helps increase transportation, and we all know this from experience that a story that starts with an attention-grabbing question or situation makes us more willing to read on to find out what happened or why.

The Appropriate Surroundings and Context:

The context of a story is likely to play an important role in transportation, because narratives are only as powerful to the extent that other elements out of the context are reduced. For instance, it’s harder to be immersed in a story when the TV is on or if people are having a loud conversation.

In addition, there are other contexts that highlight an interesting take on persuasion and its limits.  One such context is when recipients are aware that the purpose of the narrative is to influence their own attitudes.  Such a realization may limit the story’s effectiveness (Mazzocco & Green, 2011, 30).  Recipients may reject or accept a message depending on whether they believe the persuasive attempt is appropriate within the context. Recipients might resent emotional stories out of the mouths of politicians (particularly those from the opposing political party), who clearly harbor ulterior motives, while allowing persuasive stories in a courtroom scenario where persuasive attempts by litigators are more likely to be anticipated and accepted.

Mazzocco and Green briefly touched upon the idea that we might not accept a message if it’s from someone with different views than we do. This idea is explained in the Selective Exposure Theory, which says that we reinforce our pre-existing views by tuning in to the opinions and views that we agree with while avoiding contradictory information (Griffin, 2011).

How transportation affects us

Melanie Green identifies several ways in which transportation affects its recipients. One way is through a relationship with the characters, another way is through reduction of skepticism and counter-arguments, and the final way is through the increase of realism and emotionality (Green, 2006, S163-S183).

Connections with characters:

We love the story because we feel connected to the characters in it. An individual may identify with characters or come to view them as friends, and transportation increases when there is a pre-existing similarity between the character and the recipient. When an individual likes or identifies with a character, the events experienced by the character or any assertions made by the character may carry special weight in shifting a reader’s belief. When we identify with a character, we increase learning about the character’s behavior and being exposed to this information makes us likely to adopt the character’s beliefs, which will shift our “self-concept” to be more similar to the character.

It is important to realize that those engaged in a narrative are indeed adopting the author’s point of view, and what we think we feel through the characters is actually what the author wants us to feel. For example, an author who uses smokers as the protagonists in a narrative is persuading the recipients of the message to adopt favorable attitudes toward smokers. Furthermore, people who identified with smoking protagonists led to an increased intention to smoke. If we apply the Theory of Reasoned Action, we find that intention is the best determining factor of behavior, and that’s how transportation into a narrative can influence behavior. As with all things, there is always a good and bad side to this: it can be bad if someone like James Holmes emulates a villain, but it can be good if the person emulated a good role model.

In stories, characters illustrate the costs and benefits of different courses of action, so people may try to imitate the actions of characters to avoid the problems experienced in the narrative. In this way, recipients are following in the footsteps of fictional characters. Narrative modeling has been shown to exist through studies of entertainment education in a variety of health-related areas (Green, 2006, S166). This happens as individuals in narratives provide inspiration in post-diagnosis. Reading Lance Armstrong’s story of survival and triumph over testicular cancer can give hope of living a full life after cancer treatment, and hearing from survivors provides proof that diagnosis of a disease is not a death sentence.

Modeling has also shown an increase in perceived self-efficacy, or an individual’s belief that he or she can perform a specific behavior. Seeing or reading others perform a task provides the receiver confidence. Evidence shows that models that are similar to the recipient of the message are more effective at motivating the desired behavior (Green, 2006, S166). For example, African American characters are more influential to African Americans. Modeling also contributes to a belief that the action will lead to an intended effect. This is because when individuals identify with character, the characters serve as templates for “possible selves” (Green, 2006, S166). Behavior change is likely when a person has a strong intention, no environmental constraints preventing him or her, and the skills and abilities to performance.

An area I’d like to add to this section is the psychology behind “mirror neurons”, which contributes to our connection with characters all the way down to neurological pathways. Mirror neurons fire not only when animals or people are performing an action, but also when they passively observe the action performed by another agent. It is widely believed that mirror neurons are a genetic adaptation for action understanding (Cook, R., Bird, G., Catmur, C., Press, C., & Heyes, C., 2014). The phenomenon behind this can be explained by the following example: you are watching The Lion King, and the main character Simba in this movie has just witnessed the death of his father, which he feels responsible for, so Simba cries and frowns. This experience (seeing Simba’s reaction) activates areas in the viewer’s brain that would be activated if the viewer expressed these emotions himself or herself. The neurons in the individual’s brain “mirrors” the experience of being sad by observing it through Simba. Understanding the way neurons work can explain why we get so affected by others.

Reduction of skepticism and counter-arguing:

Another factor that results because of transportation is the reduction of skepticism and counter-arguing. This is believed to occur because a transported person is unwilling to disrupt their enjoyment by breaking out of the narrative world to critique points made in the story (Green & Clark, 2013, 480). Another reason people may not counter-argue is because they do not realize they are being persuaded.

Increasing Emotionality and Realism:

The final effect of transportation that was mentioned by Melanie Green is the heighted perceptions of emotionality and realism. Emotionality is a very powerful shaper of attitudes. It is what makes us so attached to novels, and it is why many theorists believe that the Narrative Transportation Theory is not based on logic. These theorists stress that this form of persuasion is coming from a purely emotional base. Emotionality is heightened because narratives cause us to grow more attached to the story and its ideals; however, I think that even though we don’t use logic, we still think rationally to a degree, because it has been shown that narratives in which characters don’t act like real people aren’t transportable narratives (Green & Brock, 2000).

This brings me to my next point: realism. If a story resembles a real event, impact of the story increases because narrative transportation uses plausibility rather than an accuracy criterion (Green, 2006, S174). But it is all up to our imagination to what extent we allow our minds to tie fictional events to events in real life.

Plausibility isn’t the only factor that heightens realism; vivid imagery is another factor that increases the perception of realism. Vivid imagery is psychologically akin to remembering a real event because the brain’s memories rely on sensory details, so when characters react to situations that resemble direct experience, the brain can confuse the distinction between the fiction and reality. In addition, since we may not be mentally aware of persuasion, the amount of information coming into the brain makes it hard to distinguish the recalled fictional material from factual information. Studies have shown that we are just as influenced by fact as we are by fiction, so a story can be equally transporting regardless of whether it is fact or fiction (Green & Clark, 2013, 478).

Another reason that can explain why we may be influenced as much by fact as we are by fiction is the failure of source monitoring (Green, 2006, S173). The Sleeper Effect expands on this idea by describing how a discounting cue – a disclaimer containing negative information about the source, message, or both – disassociates the source from the message over time. So over time, a person may forget what was fact and what was fiction.

Confusing fact and fiction

It is because of this blend between fact and fiction that I fear narratives may give some people a false sense of reality. Bachen and Illouz reported that 90 percent of young people look to movies and 94 percent look to television for information about love. Unfortunately, only 33 percent turn to their mother and 17 percent to their father (Holmes & Johnson, 2009, 117). The reason this is troubling is because viewers are turning towards outside sources that may or may not be true for advice about real life. When people look to television as a source of information, they believe what they see is reality, and little do these viewers realize that information on television could very well be staged, showing a life that people seek but that isn’t actually real.

Consequences and our willingness to blame narratives

Melanie Green primarily focuses the Narrative Transportation Theory on the positive effects that narratives bring. Specifically, Green focuses on the effects narratives can bring to people fighting an illness, which she published in an article called “Narratives and Cancer Communication”. Narratives can help cancer patients by distancing the recipient from the illness, allowing victims to better cope with the emotional experiences that accompany the disease, and providing meaning and deepening one’s self-knowledge (Green, 2006, S172). Cognitive behavioral interventions (including a narrative aspect) in the treatment for breast cancer patients have been proven to increase social support and immune function (Green, 2006, 176). These effects are attributed to many benefits like a greater sense of meaning, reorganized life priorities, or stronger relationships.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many areas in narrative persuasion that haven’t been fully developed, and the theory is at a more rudimentary stage. Green notes, “the extent to which individuals integrate products of imagination into their real-world belief structures is of critical importance, yet this topic has received little attention in the persuasion domain” (Green, 2014). I believe that this topic needs to be further investigated because transportation has many faces. For one thing, it can be a very great and beneficial shield: It can help cancer patients deal with the emotional trauma they are going through, but can’t transportation also serve as a door to another world of evil and danger? If the effects of transportation are true and people don’t distinguish fact from fiction, can’t society suffer as a result? Being in a state of transportation can give us a wrong concept of life, or worse: it can give us a new, demented, and twisted way to live life, like James Holmes, the man who died his hair like the Joker and shot all those people at the movie theatre. Many have turned against media, blaming behaviors of criminals and killers on violent fictional characters that those perpetrators resemble. There are so many opinions and so much debate. Some people become so afraid of leaving their homes because of mass shootings and other violent crimes.

Aggression is minor compared to desire to be with others

Arthur Koestler (1969) said “the trouble with our species is not an overdose of self-asserting aggression but… [an] overwhelming capacity and need for identification with a social group and/or system of beliefs” (Bloom & Nelson, 2005, 255). So the biggest enemy may not be aggression, but the need for belonging. The Hedonistic hypothesis states that we are driven to conform to receive social benefits, and we avoid social rejection (Gass & Seiter, 2006). The need to belong is the most powerful of motivations (Wade & Tavris, 2002), which is why sending a prisoner to solitary confinement is internationally considered as torture.

Psychological consequences have been found to be more devastating than physical abuse. Social pain of being rejected, humiliated, or excluded activates all parts of the brain that are highly diagnostic to physical pain. That is why the most powerful weapon groups have to ensure their members cooperate is rejection or permanent banishment. Social rejection can lead to mental disorders, eating disorders, and attempted suicide (Wade & Tavris, 2002).

We often underestimate the need for identification with others. Authors of The Mind, Brain, and Behavior acknowledge that although many animals “have similar needs for social affiliation, none possess them to the same degree as our species” (Bloom & Nelson, 2005, p.255). According to Zadro and others, campus shootings, like the Columbine shootings, are attributed to social ostracism because the perpetrators acted out in retaliation to being rejected or excluded by their peers (Bloom & Nelson, 2005, p.134).

According to the Christian Post, the Guardian, and several other newspapers, Holmes may have identified with the Joker character due to a history of being bullied and ostracized. But it is important to keep in mind that we select which media to consume, thereby revealing the power we have over choosing the media that influence us. If incorporated with the Narrative Transportation Theory, this could be a limit to the process of transportation. The Selective Exposure Theory states that people tend to gravitate towards media that agrees with their positions, opinions, and beliefs. Therefore, in this light, narratives aren’t as invasive as we may propose, because we wouldn’t choose to be involved in a narrative we don’t agree with or approve of in the first place. Thus, the effects we get from narratives are self-made, because we select which narratives to engage in based on predispositions.

Aside from selective exposure, social ostracism is an asset that can be added to Green’s list of causes for narrative persuasion, because studies have shown that social ostracism makes people more vulnerable to influence attempts (Gass & Seiter, 2006, 134). Although studies have only proven that social ostracism increases persuasion in face-to-face encounters, I believe that if people can be more persuaded face-to-face, they can also be persuaded through a medium that is more subtle, narratives. This ideology almost comes to a complete circle, because it offers an explanation as to why people who are ostracized have been committing acts that the news media attributes to being inspired by fictional characters. By being more easily persuaded, ostracized individuals are more easily transported, so they are more easily able to make connections with characters in a novel and disassociate with reality. In 2009, Greenwood and Long found that loneliness predicted an increased tendency to transport into media programs and identify with the characters (Dhanda, 2011, 9). Since ostracized individuals are more easily persuaded, their increased connection with character must be motivated by a desire to fit in somewhere, and this is based on the Uses and Gratifications Theory.

Can narratives take care of our social needs through PSI?

Since we are social creatures, can our thirst for self-acceptance and need for social affiliation be quenched through connection with characters in a narrative? Before answering this question, consider the quality of interaction in narratives: a one-way interaction. So there begs to be another question: For a relationship to be effective, does it have to be a two-way relationship, or can it be one-way, like in a narrative? From this point forward, this one-sided type of relationship will be referred to as Parasocial Interaction or PSI, a term used to describe a relationship where one party knows a lot about the other, but the other does not know anything about the first party. PSI works well with the Narrative Transportation Theory because it is the type of interaction between individuals and narratives, whether that medium is through a book, film, or verbal communication (like a speech, for example). Whether or not people satisfy needs depends on their motivations for engaging in media.

Through the Uses and Gratifications Theory, media users are considered goal oriented in their media use and usually seek out media sources that best fulfill their needs (Dhanda, 2011, 2). Television viewers can develop feelings toward media characters and experience a special sense of connection with them. These feelings can extend beyond the moment of actual viewing, and can continue from one viewing instance to the next, and even outside of the viewing context (Dhanda, 2011, 3). In 1979, Levy reported more television use in lonely as compared to non-lonely individuals. Both Perse and Rubin (1990) and Rubin and McHugh (1987) found that greater television exposure increases PSI (Wang, Fink, & Cai, 2008, 93). Therefore, a relationship between media and PSI has been established.

Why a person may engage in PSI could be for several personal reasons, however one main reason is that PSI has the ability to provide an easy, available, and safe alternative to real-world social interactions for individuals who are lonely. In this safe alternative, people don’t have to fear social rejection. People are motivated to avoid or eliminate loneliness, which contributes to diminished self-esteem, anxiety and depression, feelings of emptiness and boredom, and rejection by others (Dhanda, 2011, 6).

Loneliness, a matter of interpretation

Why, when, and to what extent loneliness occurs is a fascinating area because it is largely subjective. Wheeler, Reis, and Nezlek (1983) found that loneliness is strongly predicted by how meaningful one’s interactions are, rather than simply the amount of interactions one has. What meaning we attribute to our interactions is totally up to us. Research has indicated that loneliness is an internal psychological state that is unpleasant. Therefore, if a user believes his interaction is meaningful, he can overcome his perception of loneliness, for it is all a matter of interpretation, revealing the power of the mind and how its beliefs affect us psychologically.

Before discussing loneliness further, there needs to be a distinction between social loneliness and emotional loneliness. Although the emotional loneliness results from a lack of intimate relationships and cannot be mended using social interactions, social loneliness can be mended by increasing one’s social networks and social activities (Wang, Fink, & Cai, 2008, 89-90). So in regards to narratives gratifying need for affiliation, we can address social loneliness, the experience when a person’s “level of achieved social attachments are fewer than those desired” (Wang, Fink, & Cai, 2008, 90). The key word is “desired”, so again, whether or not people feel lonely and to what extent are up to them, because it depends on how high their standards and expectations are.

Loneliness and PSI

The initial findings between PSI and loneliness showed a positive relationship. In 1993, Turner found that people low in “communicative propensity” (the inclination to communicate with others) were more likely to develop PSI. Personality factors that have been predictive of PSI in past research include self-esteem and shyness (Rubin, 1985, 158). In addition, lower self-esteem and greater shyness are associated with increased social compensation motives for media consumption, specifically in viewing television (Dhanda, 2011, 5). Eyal and Cohen in 2006 observed that although increased PSI was not associated with increased loneliness, distress over a “parasocial breakup” (for example, the ending of the television series Friends) was correlated with viewer loneliness. Thus, when PSI ends, loneliness is a result (Dhanda, 2011, 8).

Although initial findings indicate a positive relationship between PSI and loneliness, Dhanda reports that more recent studies indicate a negative relationship instead. Dhanda says that “research on the connection between increased loneliness and PSI has been inconclusive” (Dhanda, 2011, 7). Why the sudden change in results, you may ask? Dhanda offers some explanations. One reason for the inconsistent findings may be due to different measures of loneliness that were used between a new study and the one conducted by Greenwood and Long. Another reason could be due to a very different sample of participants. This “new study” which Dhanda refers to is based on Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk (mTurk) sample of 480 participants, which is believed to be more representative of the U.S. population. In the past, tests done by Greenwood and Long relied on samples of college undergraduates. Dhanda believes that by using different samples we could get different results because college students may be more prone to becoming transported into the media. Since this newer Mechanical Turk study had a broader age range, the relationship between loneliness and transportation may be in the opposite direction.

Another explanation proposed by Dhanda for this surprising finding could be that those that are socially lonely are simply not skilled to develop connections. Since these individuals are less outgoing, less in-tune with others, and not a part of a group of friends, they may simply lack the skills it takes to become involved into social situations, and in this case, extending to the media. This falls in line with the finding that those who are socially lonely are also less empathetic, so transportation into media can indeed be based on an individuals’ tendency toward perspective taking and empathy. Thus, if socially lonely individuals are less empathetic, they may be less likely to transport into the media (Dhanda, 2011, 28-29).

Although some may find this contradiction between results from two different tests confusing, it supports the idea that whether or not we experience PSI depends on our perceptions and what we set out to gain. As I mentioned earlier, loneliness is strongly predicted by how meaningful one’s interactions are rather than simply the amount of interactions one has, and so results could be different based on how much meaning people associate to relationships, a factor that is incredibly hard to measure, as it varies not only from person to person but from time to time. If we want to experience PSI (or transportation) we can, and if we don’t want to, then we won’t.

Although there may be skeptics, psychology has proven how capable the brain is to form connections simply by believing you can. In fact, many psychological treatments have proven it in the past: the infamous “placebo effect” is one example. Because “our minds often work much faster than consciousness can keep up”, it is possible that we are shaping and defining perception of experiences without being aware of it (Bloom & Nelson, 2005, 317).

Can we become transported by a social media post?

In the last two to three years, the usage of social media has escalated, beckoning the question as to whether or not it can be as effective as a narrative. Although social media is not big on having a narrative’s structure – a beginning, middle and end – social media has many other useful qualities of transportation, like imagery, connection with characters, and emotionality.

No research has discussed a direct relation between social media and transportation, therefore I will first examine what has been proven: the relationship between PSI and social media, which is relevant to transportation because a positive relationship has been established between PSI and transportation (Dhanda, 2011, 22). Since it is more likely that someone who experience PSI can experience transportation, I will examine PSI’s relationship to social media – the only area that has been studied.

Studies support the idea that social media, including Twitter with its 140-character limit, can offer PSI (Stever & Lawson, 2013, 341). Furthermore, some theorists say social media can offer PSI to the extent that no medium has shown before (Phelps, 2011, 6). Social media has made it possible for people to share thoughts and ideas, photographs, web links, and other items of interest with others. This medium is rich with so many ways for people to find out about others. Although not all social media stays within the lines of PSI, it can still exist in some interactions. A great example of PSI in social media is the one-way interaction of fans and their celebrities.

To fans, social media can suggest a direct connection to a celebrity, because these fans now have access to everyday information. When viewers begin to learn not only about the performer professionally, but also about pieces of the celebrity’s private life, PSI grows stronger (Phelps, 2011, 8).

Social media are not only an informative medium but also a personal one, and by personal, I mean emotional. Emotionality comes into play as social media sites made it possible to share thoughts (“transporting” a viewer into the narrator’s mind) and images (providing easily accessible imagery). This personal connection contributes to uncertainty reduction and interpersonal constructs formation, both factors of PSI studied by Perse and Rubin in 1989 that make for a more intimate relationship (Wang, Fink, & Cai, 2008, 93). This data relates to transportation more directly because a main ingredient that must be present in transportation is emotion, a concept narrative transportation thinkers stress so much. Emotion is the door to transportation, for without it, there wouldn’t be an attraction to characters. Furthermore, many describe themselves to be “addicted” to social media, a state that explains an overbearing and unbreakable connection with characters.

In the moment users are absorbed into social media, they focus on this media so much that often when they take a step back, are shocked to realize how much time they’ve wasted on it. A mother of three living in Rowland Heights described the experience as being addicting almost, and noted how she lost track of the time when flipping through Instagram. The experience of being “lost” in social media is similar to the experience of being lost in a narrative and even “transported”.

Furthermore, social media can facilitate the brain’s access to vivid imagery, connection with characters, and emotionality, because social media provides easy and instant access to text, images, sounds, and videos. Therefore, social media has the potential and the ability to provide the experience of transportation.