Brain Mechanisms for the Cognitive Effects of Narrative Persuasion

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Nguyen, Tiffany Van Nhi
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The ability of a narrative to transport individuals, or converge focus of attentional, emotional, and sensory resources to events in the narrative world, has been shown to lead to attitude and behavior changes. Proposed cognitive mechanisms behind narrative’s effect on persuasion include recollective detail, retrieval fluency, and inhibition of counter-arguing that are encouraged during transportation. Though past research has begun to demonstrate that activation in brain regions responsible for both emotional arousal and executive control lead to subsequent attitude and behavioral changes there have been no neuroimaging studies on narrative persuasion. In our study two participant samples were exposed to 24 text-based messages, either all with or without a narrative context. The behavioral sample read and rated the messages on their persuasive strength, emotional appeal, and logical appeal; while the fMRI sample listened only rated persuasive strength. We observed strong (vs. weak) persuasive messages evoke significantly more activity in the precuneus and middle frontal gyrus bilaterally. Greater activity was exhibited in the precuneus, medial frontal gyrus, anterior cingulate cortex, and right supramarginal gyrus for high (vs. low) emotional appeal messages. The overlap of activation in the middle frontal regions may imply that past research has confounded emotional appeal and persuasive strength, especially considering emotional appeal was normalized between strong vs. weak persuasive messages, but weak messages were perceived as more persuasive when enfolded in a narrative context. Further research to distinguish narrative features will help contribute to the understanding of persuasion and the role of affective reactions in influencing attitudes.
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