Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Two Truths & a Story

So there’s this icebreaker that organisations tend to use all the time, especially on training days or when team members meet each other for the first time. I’m sure you’ve heard of it – it’s called, ‘two truths and a lie’.

The game basically requires each player to state 3 facts about themselves – 2 of these facts would be true, and one a lie. The aim is for the other players to guess which fact is the lie. To do this, players must ask the target player questions about each fact or simply ask them to expand on the fact, in order to gain more information about, perhaps, how, where and when the fact happened. From the perceived credibility of the target player’s answers, the lie should be easily deduced – right?

Wrong. The reason why this game is so difficult (and such a great icebreaker) is because telling people stories about yourself is easy-peasy, whether the story is true or false. A story can be described as any narrative providing a causal structure to facts and evidence (Pratkanis, 2007). The persuasive method of storytelling guides thought, determines the credibility of information and ultimately directs the evaluation and choice about the information (e.g. choosing whether it is true or false), simply through telling a plausible story. So what those smart players do is they offer in-depth, comprehensive, narrative, and most importantly, causal stories about their lies, and much more brief, non-narrative facts about their truths.

An example of a fact might be, “I was appointed Head Girl in my high school.” A truth-teller might expand on this fact by explaining that her friend thought she’d be good as a leader and that she’d always dreamed of being head of the school, since she was a little girl. A liar might say something along the lines of, “Since the beginning of high school, I needed a bit of extra academic help from my teachers. They guided me well and my grades finally got better, during my GCSE period. I think my headmistress noticed because she endorsed me to be Head Girl at the end of Year 12. I remember how scared I was when she called me into her office – I thought I was in major trouble! I’ve never been an ideal student but she thought I’d be a good leader. The training for Head Girl was so intense though; I didn’t realise…” and so on, and so forth. Check that out – a whole damn story! Whether true or not, it’s comprehensive, it’s narrative and it’s creating some pretty plausible causes and effects. And it works. Why? Because telling a plausible story not only creates links between facts and evidence, it also creates images in the listener’s mind. The easier the players can picture the story, the more likely they are to believe it.

Green and Brock (2000) strongly support this by introducing the concept of ‘transportation’, whereby a listener is absorbed into stories that entail imagery, affect and/or attentional focus. They show how this transportation can alter a listener’s beliefs, even when the story is fiction or a total lie. The researchers stress the importance of raising unanswered questions and presenting unresolved conflicts in the story, making the listeners want to know more and encouraging them to think hard about the reality of it. Participants were presented with the story ‘Murder at the Mall’, a ‘transportation’ measure and a story-specific beliefs questionnaire consisting of statements about beliefs relating to the story with an agree-disagree scale. The researchers measured how persuasive the story was by pre-testing the participants’ beliefs. Participants were also split into fiction and nonfiction story conditions.

Green and Brock found that participant beliefs in line with the story were unaffected by the fiction-nonfiction conditions (i.e. whether the story was a truth or lie made no difference to how strongly they believed the story and its outcomes). The reason behind this is supported by the above results [see Graph], which shows the power of narratives. Green and Brock found that transportation effects had a significant outcome on story beliefs, whereby highly transported participants believed the story and its outcomes more than low transported participants. Highly transported individuals were those feeling highly involved in the story and able to relate/understand the content, which was made possible by the realistic, rich and descriptive style of the experimental story.

Green and Brock have clearly illustrated the power of the visual mind, and shows how a plausible story can sway one’s beliefs. Whether it’s in an icebreaker game or in the real world, storytelling can be an incredibly commanding tool in everyday life. It encourages Theory of Mind and helps others understand, empathise with and picture what you want them to. Whether you’re telling a little white lie, a massive life-changing lie, or just trying to get others to see your side of things, storytelling is the way to go!

Riana Mahtani

Pratkanis, A.R. (2007). Social influence analysis: An index of tactics. In The science of social influence: Advances and future progress, 17-82.

Green, M.C., & Brock, T.C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701.

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