Her assumption—that a story will be better (more interesting, more engaging, more emotionally rich) if it’s based on something true rather than a complete work of fiction—turns out to be false. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates that people incorrectly believe that they will have a stronger emotional reaction to stories that are based on fact—and they make consumer choices based on that assumption (which is why film studios are quick to market movies as “based on a true story”).
Researchers Jane Ebert of Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis of New York University proved their point this way: Two groups of study participants read a story about a girl who died of meningitis. Members of the first group were told that it was either real or fictional. After reading it, they revealed how absorbed they were in the story and how sad it made them feel.
After reading the piece, those in the second group were asked to predict how their emotional reaction would have been affected if they’d known that the story was either real or fictional. This group predicted that if they’d known it was fiction, their response would have been less intense. But, in fact, when they read the book—whether they believed the story was fictional or real—their responses were equally strong.The only time participants were not fully involved emotionally was in an experiment when a fifteen-minute film was interrupted every minute due to “technical problems.” For the researchers, this result demonstrates that unbroken concentration is necessary for readers or viewers to identify emotionally with fictional characters.
I wasn’t free to go to the movie with my friend, but afterwards I asked her how she’d liked it.
“It was terrific,” she said. “You know, it was based on a true story.”
So, how about you? Do you think you’re more engaged—or less engaged—if you think the story is based on fact?