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Based on a True Story: Making People Believe the Unbelievable

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Document pages: 22 pages

Abstract: Storytelling is important to how people construct reality and interact with others. This research contributes to our understanding of why some stories are evaluated more positively than others, specifically how truth-based labeling (TBL), stating the narrative is “based on true events,” influences evaluations. Past research has failed to find an unequivocal effect of knowing a story is true on a range of responses including enjoyment, transportation, and emotional reactions. We contend this was due to past work not considering how TBL might interact with the nature of the story itself. One aspect of the story is its typicality (i.e., whether the story falls within the parameters of our past and present experiences). We propose, and show, across experimental and correlational data, that only when a narrative is low in typicality to begin with (i.e., includes elements inconsistent with people’s past and present experiences) that TBL increases the perceived plausibility of a story and enhances the audience’s response. Conversely, when events in a story are already high in typicality, TBL has little effect on the perceived plausibility of the story, and in turn how the audience responds. We further provide mediational evidence for perceived plausibility as the underlying mechanism.

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