The thoughts and experiences that linger in our minds are those that are deeply processed mentally—those which we analyze in some way and for which we find deeper meaning and implications. The psychology of mental processing and situation-level meaning offers lessons for more resonant communication and learning strategies.
After we have finished a compelling book or a film, the narrative of the story will linger in our minds. This lingering is involuntary: we do not choose or decide to think about the story. Emotional experiences and social interactions, research has shown, have the same lingering impact after their occurrence.
A study by a team of psychologists based in the U.S. and Canada links what psychologists call “depth of mental processing” to the lingering effect. A shallow level of mental processing involves, for example, taking note of the physical properties of what we see or experience the “input,” in psychological terms. A deeper level of mental processing extracts the meaning and implications of the input. Reading a stack of unrelated words involves low-level processing; the words are immediately forgotten. Reading the words arranged in a certain order to create a story elicits emotions, reflection, visualization, and other mental responses.
While unfamiliar, perhaps, with the underlying psychology described here, most leaders recognize the effectiveness of storytelling. This research demonstrates that the power of storytelling lies in the ability of listeners to deeply process the story, extracting the broader situation-level meaning of the words—that is, how the connected words describe a situation beyond the specific characteristics of each word.
The researchers confirmed the link between deep mental processing and thought lingering by manipulating in a series of experiments the level of mental processing with which study participants in their study read short stories.
In one experiment, for example, the researchers took the words of a story by famed short-story writer Raymond Carver and presented them to participants in one of three ways: intact, that is, the words were left in the narrative as Carver wrote it; sentence-scrambled, that is, the order of all the sentences in the story were randomly scrambled; and word-scrambled, that is, the order of all the words in the story were randomly scrambled.
Before and after reading the story, which was presented either intact, sentence-scrambled, or word-scrambled, participants were asked to freely type words for five minutes (an unconstrained, free association task). Participants were also asked to describe the themes of the story, and how much they were “transported” into the story (answering questions such as, “While I was reading the text, I could easily picture the events taking place in it” and “I found myself thinking of ways the text could have ended differently”). They also completed a comprehension test of the text, and, finally, reported how long the story had lingered in their minds.
The researchers found that for participants who had read the story intact, the themes and details of the story lingered in their minds for longer than for participants who had read the story scrambled. They also found that being transported into the story increased the time of this lingering effect. Further experiments that manipulated depth of mental processing among participants (for example, asking participants to arrange a list of words into a narrative vs. asking them whether the words were italicized, or judging the emotional content of sentences vs. noting the font used) confirmed the impact of deep mental processing on lingering.
By opening a window into how the mind works, this research can help guide leaders in becoming more compelling and effective communicators. Because of a leader’s position of authority, employees will listen to what their leaders have to tell them or read their communications. Whether the communications resonate, however, depends on the depth to which employees mentally process their content and extricate situation-level meanings.
This psychological explanation for the power of stories given in this research can be used in other ways. For example, a leader presenting a series of figures will want to ensure that listeners can see the overall narrative or “story” that the figures are telling.
Understanding the importance of deep-level processing and situational-level meaning can make a difference in professional development and learning strategies as well. For example, asking professional development learners to paraphrase the information presented to them or identify themes in the information will initiate deep-level processing on their part—increasing the chances that students are not only hearing what is being taught but also thinking about the lesson.
Buddhika Bellana’s profile at York University
Abhijit Mahabal’s profile at LinkedIn
Christopher J. Honey’s profile at Johns Hopkins University
Narrative thinking lingers in spontaneous thought. Buddhika Bellana, Abhijit Mahabal and Christopher J. Honey. Nature Communications (August 6, 2022). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-32113-6
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