This blog post, provided by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center and written by Dr. Terry Flynn and Tim Li, is based on a research paper by Kaitlin Fitzgerald, Elaine Paravati, Melanie C. Green, Ph.D., Melissa M. Moore,  and Jeffrey L. Qian. 

 Key Findings

Restorative narratives are stories about hardship and suffering through the perspective of hope and progress. This perspective has a smaller emotional burden, compared to stories that focus on the suffering.

  • Restorative narratives are more effective at getting people to care about others’ health issues than negative narratives.

Implications for Public Relations

Public relations professionals can use narratives to communicate messages and encourage behaviours more effectively. Narratives captivate attention and evoke emotions in ways that make messaging more easily processed and accepted. People can identify with narrative elements like characters and plot, which can also motivate behaviour by providing opportunities for behavioural modelling and perspective taking.

The literature is quite varied when it comes to which stories and emotions are most conducive for promoting health and charity campaigns. While some point to feelings of guilt, others suggest empathy as the targeted emotion for increasing donations or concern for an issue. The findings of this study suggest that public relations in these domains should consider using restorative narratives that frame struggle and difficulty in a positive way, focusing on strength, resilience, and progression.

These narratives evoke a variety of positive and negative emotions without the emotional toll of more negatively focused stories which can reduce identification and empathy. Although the narratives tested in this study did not appear to increase intentions to donate, the restorative narrative did spark the desire to contribute in some way and engage more in the future, which is critical for establishing and fostering a relationship between an organization and its stakeholders.

This study also suggests that the effects on messaging do not differ regardless of whether a story was labelled as being factual or fictional. Fictional narratives provide practitioners with several advantages when applying narrative persuasion. They are better suited when privacy is a concern and can be tailored to maximize impact.

Summary

Storytelling is a long-established human tradition. Recent research has begun to uncover how narratives influence our attitudes and behaviours. Narratives can persuade by occupying our attention with storytelling elements that distract us from counter-arguing the underlying message, providing characters that we can identify with and model their own behaviour after, or evoke emotions that motivate us to take action. Health promotion and charity are common domains where stories are often used to encourage awareness and support for different causes. Research by Fitzgerald and colleagues explored how different emotions and types of narratives influence the impact of health campaigns that use restorative narratives in particular.

Restorative narratives are stories that focus on hope and progression. While they communicate the experience of suffering, they frame it around strength, resilience, and progression. Restorative narratives are designed to evoke a variety of different positive and negative emotions, without as great of an emotional burden as stories that focus on the suffering, which can actually stunt empathy.

The researchers presented audiences with two versions of a story about a woman with a rare cancer, one as a restorative narrative and the other as a negative narrative. The stories differed in the focus of the woman’s outlook on her situation, but information about her cancer and the prognosis remained the same. In the restorative narrative, the story framed her treatment process around her strength, progress, and support of her family. The negative narrative focused on her feelings of hopelessness and the impact of the disease on her life.

After reading the stories, participant completed a survey on their emotional response to the story, willingness to help those affected by the cancer, likelihood of donating to organizations with that focus, and other attributes about their reaction to the story and attitudes towards helping those with rare diseases.

The results showed the participants who read the restorative narrative experienced greater positive emotions and a desire to do what they can to help. However, neither type of narrative appeared to influence willingness to donate or more concrete actions like volunteering or searching online for other ways to help. Those who saw the restorative narrative were more interested in engaging with similar stories in the future though.

Overall, these findings suggest that restorative narratives are a good choice for fostering support for health organizations or charities, especially considering they are able to increase future engagement and create opportunities to further educate and encourage more pro-social behaviour.  In addition to comparing the two types of narratives, this study also tested if indicating whether the story was factual or fictional had an impact on the effect on their attitudes or intentions, and found no effect. Using fictional stories, which have the benefit of protecting privacy and capturing a more prototypical experience, is an option that health communicators should consider.

Blog post compiled by Terry Flynn and Tim Li. 

Citation

Fitzgerald, K., Paravati, E., Green, M. C., Moore, M. M., & Qian, J. L. (2019). Restorative Narratives for Health Promotion. Health Communication, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2018.1563032

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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