Monday 18 November 2013

Imagination and Influence

In Transportation, Persuasion, and the Construction of Disbelief, I wrote about the ways in which narrative fiction can sneak false beliefs into readers’ heads. My post focused on the role of narrative engagement, or transportation, in the unconscious absorption of durable beliefs through the peripheral route. In this post, I’ll focus on a different element of persuasion, as covered by Petia Petrova and Robert Cialdini: the imagination.

In Evoking the Imagination as a Strategy of Influence, Petrova and Cialdini begin by explaining what they mean by imagery. Imagery is defined as the process of holding non-verbal sensory information in working memory. It may help to think of this in terms of what Richard E. Mayer calls “representational holding.”

Imagery isn’t just a fancy gadget our brains use to visualize things that aren’t directly in front of us. It’s a dangerous tool! – it changes us each time we use it like Bilbo’s Ring. Petrova and Cialdini illustrate the role of the imagination in the changing of beliefs and memories.

Merely imagining future events can increase the perceived probability of those events coming to pass. For example, imagining a political candidate winning an election increases the perceived likelihood of that candidate winning in real life, and imagining yourself winning the lottery will increase your perceived chance of actually winning. Imagery can motivate you to perform a specific behaviour too. Imagining yourself taking a trip, starting a new job, or donating blood increases your drive to actually go and do any of these things. Clever advertisers can also use imagery to increase the probability that people buy their products. When people imagine themselves using a good or service, they give better product evaluations and are more likely to purchase the product.

While traditionally, research in persuasion has focused on processes such as affect, consideration of arguments, and recall, contemporary research has adopted some different strategies. The first of these strategies is transportation.

In transportation, readers become immersed in a text and pay less attention to the favorability of product information. The disappearance of the reflex to compare new information against prior experience is resisted during transportation, according to Petrova and Cialdini, for two reasons:
  1. People may not believe that the imagery is affecting them and
  2. Stopping to think critically about incoming information may harm the narrative experience

Imagery can help immerse readers into a text, reducing counter-arguing and increasing passive acceptance.

A second new approach to understanding imagination pertains to the availability heuristic. Attitudes and beliefs naturally form in accordance with the ease with which information supporting these attitudes and beliefs come to mind. Thus instead of examining the degree to which spectators are immersed in advertisements, those who focus on imagery-accessibility are instead interested in the fluency of imagery that the advertisement evokes. So when people see an advertisement for a house, they can easily conjure up an image of themselves living happily in that house. Instructing viewers to imagine living inside the house will increase the ease with which mental representations of such experiences will come to mind during the decision-making process, and thus increase the likelihood of buying. Asking hypothetical questions can sometimes generate these sorts of mental representations in people, ripening them for influence.

The final new approach to imagination focuses on the link between imagination and behaviour. Studies suggest that mental representations of an action increase the probability of performing that action. An activation of a mental image might lead to the corresponding behaviour. This might be because of similar mental processes controlling imagery and perception. In my post, The Psychology of Narrative Fiction, I covered Keith Oatley’s research on how reading literature evokes mental simulations that rely on neural structures analogous to those activated when performing the read acts. This automatic link between imagination and behaviour has yet to be examined within the context of more complex behaviours, however.

The effects of imagery are dependent on several factors:
  • Imagery is facilitated by vivid and concrete language
  • Imagery is stifled by cognitive load
  • Imagery is enhanced by imagining oneself, rather than by imagining another
  • Imagery focused on processes has different effects than imagery of outcomes
  • Imagery is strongest in people with a greater ability to generate mental images and in those that demonstrate private self-consciousness

In determining the power of media to change beliefs and generally change the world, we mustn’t leave out the imagination, that powerful and dangerous tool that can steer us toward wrong conclusions. The power of the imagination to nudge humans toward false beliefs will be covered more in-depth in my upcoming chapter-by-chapter summary of Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness.

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