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The True Power of Story-Part 3

In parts 1 and 2 of this series of posts, I talked about how and why stories can be so immersive and effective in shaping who we are. What I want to talk about now is the effect that a story can have on moral judgment. We've already talked about how we experience things in a story as if we were part of it rather than simply observing it. What kind of effect does that experience have on our behavior?

A group of professors conducted a study on a college campus in order to find out if they could measure the effects of narrative entertainment on an audience's moral judgment. The article, entitled, "Repeated Exposure to Narrative Content and the Salience of Moral Intuitions", illustrates how television, in particular, can alter the importance of certain moral concepts to an audience (Eden et al. 501-520) 8). The study involved two groups of volunteer college students -- a test group and a control group -- who participated for college credit. The study, they were told, was designed to examine the appeal of a certain soap opera (508). Soap opera was chosen as the preferred testing ground specifically because the characters in soaps often make morally questionable decisions (507). The students were all required to fill out the "Moral Foundations Questionnaire" (""), which measures how important five different factors are in an individual's moral decision-making process (Eden et al. 508-509):

  • Harm/Care - Will the decision cause harm to someone else? Will the decision show care for someone else?

  • Fairness/Reciprocity - Will the decision promote fairness?

  • In-group/Loyalty - Will the decision violate or preserve the trust others place in you?

  • Authority/Respect - Will the decision show that you recognize the authority that others hold? Will the decision show that you respect or disrespect others?

  • Purity/Sanctity - Will the decision uphold or violate yours or others' sense of purity or sanctity?

Each of these five factors are weighed subconsciously in our minds as we make decisions over what is right or wrong. Some of these factors hold more weight with us than others, while some may not hold weight at all. The purpose of the study these college students underwent was to discover if the story in a soap opera could cause a shift in the importance of one or more of these factors.

After all the students filled out the questionnaire, the test group of students was required to watch a specific soap opera together after class once a week for eight weeks, taking in the entire first run of the show (508). Eight episodes spread out over eight weeks doesn't seem like it should have all that much of an effect, especially when it's a show the students were required to watch, rather than watch by choice. Still, a week after the last episode of the soap opera, both groups of students took the questionnaire again. The results showed that the students who watched the soap opera had shifted their moral opinions to align more with the culture of the show. Collectively, the students who watched the soap showed an increase in the importance of three specific morals. Those morals were consistently violated by the show's antagonist, making them more important in the culture of the show than others (511). That may not seem like a big deal, but the fact that a soap opera can collectively change the minds of dozens of people after only 8 episodes is crazy to me!

I realize that questionnaire results are by no means definitive evidence, but other studies have been made testing the effect of courtroom drama, sitcoms, and news media on moral judgment with similar results (Eden et al. 515). Studies like these shed a little bit of light on how much we are actually influenced by the stories we choose to dive into.

Although altering an audience's moral judgment may not have been the aim of this particular soap opera, the fact that it did so in such a specific way across the board is amazing. The morals that shifted in the audience were morals that were repeatedly violated by the antagonist of the show, which is interesting. If the bad guy in a story violates a moral, that moral becomes even more important in the audience's mind than it already was. If the good guy upholds a moral, that moral also becomes more important in the audience's mind. It was the association of certain morals with certain characters and whether or not those characters are liked by the audience that determine how an audience's morals shift. The next post will get more into character, but it's important to note that how the audience feels about a character determines to a large degree whether or not the actions of that character are perceived as right or wrong.

This is part 3 of 4. Read part 1 here, ready part 4 here.

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