Relevant Stories Increase Odds for Future Prosocial Behavior

Why do some stories resonate with great swaths of people while others grow brittle and forgotten? Why does our personal list of favorite books differ from a friend’s? How can one person be intensely moved by a speaker’s words but their neighbor in the audience feel disengaged?

The answer to each of these questions is also a key aspect in maintaining a strong brand.

Every person is an amalgamation of different experiences and emotions. Our brains draw from these sources when interacting with stories. In Empathy: From Bench to Bedside, Jean Decety writes,

Even if we just read about another’s situation in a novel, our reaction still draws on well-established neural representations of similar situations that we have encountered, allowing us to have empathy for a fictional character based on our imagination.1

Subsequently, because no two people have lived the same life, each person will hear, read or respond to the same story differently.

Furthermore, the closer a story resembles aspects of a particular person’s story, the greater chance it has of arousing and accessing their empathic understanding.

Decety ascribes this tendency to the phenomenon of “group membership.” He reflects on several studies to investigate group membership’s moderation of empathy. In one such study participants (soccer fans in this case) were shown various targets receiving painful shocks who were either donning jerseys of the participant’s favorite team (the ‘in-group’ targets) or of a rival team (the ‘out-group’ targets). Results found that a greater level of empathic understanding was exhibited towards those wearing the jerseys of the participant’s preferred team. This was demonstrated by the fact that participants reported higher (perceived) pain ratings for in-group targets.

Decety concludes,

This investigation demonstrates that empathic understanding is more likely to lead to empathic concern and helping behavior for in-group members than out-group members…. Indeed, when it is salient, group membership can significantly impact the probability that one will empathize and respond with care to the suffering of another individual.

In general, empathic understanding—the perception of another’s emotional state—leads to empathic concern, which is the desire to care for another in response to the perception of their emotional state. Empathetic concern, as Decety stated above, increases the possibility of future prosocial behavior, such as charitable giving. Translated to the world of storytelling, stories which align with a reader’s beliefs are more likely to influence the reader’s future actions.

In the same way, a brand has a higher chance of inciting a donor’s empathy and, subsequently, future charitable giving the more it resonates with the donor’s personal beliefs, goals, and preferences.

The donor’s brain will categorize the brand as within a shared group (the in-group) thereby evoking empathic concern. For this reason it is critical to tell relevant, emotionally-charged stories and to match the right ones with the right people.

1 Empathy: From Bench to Bedside, edited by Jean Decety, MIT Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, (page 101).
2 Empathy: From Bench to Bedside, edited by Jean Decety, 61-62.

About the Author

Lindsay Isler

Lindsay is a graduate of the University of Virginia where she received a Bachelor’s in English Literature.