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Young people like to read about their peers

29 April 2019

If young people perceive themselves as being similar to the main character in a story, this can have a positive impact on that story’s persuasive power. This is the outcome of a recent study by UG communications researchers Joëlle Ooms, John Hoeks and Carel Jansen. Their study can help to design better information campaigns .

Health communication campaigns increasingly make use of stories, for good reason. Various studies have shown that stories can positively influence people’s health-related behaviour. From earlier research it is well known that transportation plays a key part in this: the story should grab readers in such a way that they forget the world around them, as it were. It has also become clear how important identification is for the persuasive power of a narrative. Readers should be able to empathise with the story’s main character to such an extent that they share that character’s emotions.

Boosting narrative persuasion

Communications researchers are now looking at ways to increase transportation and identification, and hence the persuasive power of a narrative. One option is to present main characters in such a way that they resemble the readers who make up the story’s target group. However, empirical research into the effects of such similarity on transportation, identification and narrative persuasion has produced mixed results, for reasons that so far have been unclear. UG communications researchers Joëlle Ooms, John Hoeks and Carel Jansen therefore conducted an experiment to shed more light on the effects of different types of similarity between a story’s main character and its readers on transportation, identification and various measures of narrative persuasion. The results have been published in PLOS ONE .    

Four story versions

All the participants in the experiment read a personal story about an individual with either breast cancer or testicular cancer. The researchers presented four versions of the story, with four different protagonists: a 22-year-old female student, a 22-year-old male student, a 50-year-old working mother and a 50-year-old working father. The stories were read by 528 participants: both men and women. Part of the participants were students (aged 18-30), another part were older adults (over 40). After reading the story, the participants answered questions about transportation and identification, and about their intentions to conduct a monthly self-examination and to donate money to a cancer charity.

Age matters to young people

The students who took part in the study reported feeling more transported by a story in which the main character was a peer than by a story with an older protagonist. They also identified more with the peer than with the older person. Furthermore, their intention to donate money was stronger if the main character was from the same age group as themselves. No effect was found for the gender of the main character. Female and male students were equally affected by the fate of male and female protagonists. For the older adults, neither the gender nor the age of the main character was shown to affect transportation or identification; nor did these aspects affect narrative persuasion.

The researchers conclude that target group characteristics should be taken into account in the design of health campaigns involving narratives. Young people in particular should be presented with a main character who is in the same age group as themselves; the gender of the main character matters less.

More information

  • The article in PLOS ONE
  • Joëlle Ooms, j.a.ooms[at]
Last modified:01 May 2019 09.13 a.m.
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