Communication Colloquium: How Stories Affect Empathy

The Communication department hosted its Fall 2019 Colloquium on Sept. 16, “The Stories Behind the Numbers: The Role of Narrative in Evoking Empathy Toward Stigmatized Individuals and Groups.”

The colloquium was presented by Stefne Lenzmeier Broz, an associate professor of Communication, featuring the findings of a study she, with fellow Associate Professor of Communication Kelly Dillon, conducted last fall while on her sabbatical. Broz also, as a huge proponent of studying abroad, led the Witt in Costa Rica program during spring semester last year.

Broz partnered with Dillon in the research for this project because, as Broz said, “two brains are better than one.” Dillon’s background in social media and cyberbullying also proved valuable in their study on the impact of narratives on evoking empathy.

The last several years have seen the proliferation of narratives on social media. Broz referenced organizations like Humans of New York, who use the narratives of individuals to evoke empathy.

Broz and Dillon wanted to know “what makes people care about other people at all…especially people who are different from us in any way or are socially stigmatized in any way.”

Broz defined the two main components of the study: empathy and narrative. Empathy can be measured as both a general personality trait and as a response to a general situation.

There are several different layers to empathy, Broz explained, including identifying with another person’s perspective, understanding context and the presence of physical or emotional concern for the other person.

Broz identified narrative as “a representation of connected events and characters…identifiable structure…bound in space and time…contained messages about the topic.” In past studies, narratives have proven to be more effective in evoking empathy than a numeric account that only provides statistics and hard facts rather than appealing to a person’s emotions.

Broz and Dillon listed the three major questions they wanted to answer: Does narrative evoke empathy towards stigmatized individuals or groups? Does narrative affect attitudes towards stigmatized individuals or groups? Does narrative affect the attribution of blame towards stigmatized individuals or groups?

Broz and Dillon conducted an online experiment with 208 participants. Each of these participants, after answering some pre-questions, were presented with one of 4 accounts. There were two accounts with each having a narrative and numeric approach. One account was on an opioid addiction and the other discussed an undocumented citizen. The participants, after reading through one of these accounts, would then answer some questions to gauge their level of empathy and attitude, and the amount of blame they associated with the group they were reading about.

The most significant results from the study were that participants who the narrative for undocumented immigrants had highest empathy levels, the most positive attitudes, and the lowest attribution of blame after reading the account than they had before reading. The numeric account for undocumented immigration, by contrast, resulted in the lowest empathy levels, the most negative attitudes, and the highest attribution of blame.

Opioid addiction didn’t show much difference between the narrative and numerical results, though people who read the narrative gave a higher attribution of blame towards the subject, which Broz believes may have cancelled out any empathy felt for the subject.

Broz and Dillon were excited by the results of their study and looked forward to learning about what specific methods are used in narratives to evoke empathy, and what role images might play in evoking empathy alongside narratives. And so, the ever-constant hunt for knowledge continues.

About Elena Dumm 59 Articles
Elena Dumm is a Communication and Music major ('20) at Wittenberg. This is her second year serving as a senior writer and the Web Editor for the Torch. She hopes to pursue a career in public service communication after she graduates, and eventually obtain her masters in Intercultural Communication.

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