Research in Progress: The effects of consuming science narratives via social media

August 12, 2019

Jessica Myrick, Pennsylvania State University

By Jessica Myrick, Pennsylvania State University

People like stories. More than we even realize, we organize our societies and daily lives around narratives. We feel more comfortable when we know the background plot before being presented with a new crucial bit of information. Stories tend to stick with us longer, too, whereas bullet point lists of facts can easily slip our mind.

Science communication scholars have caught on to the notion that stories are powerful ways to communicate and have been increasingly interested in studying the effects of narratives on audiences. Science communication practitioners have also been applying narrative techniques to craft more engaging messages for their audiences.

However, while narratives have been shown to be more persuasive than non-narrative science messages, we don’t know how these narratives operate in the “real world.”

That is, in our daily lives, we consume many types of media messages from different sources all the time. Meanwhile, carefully controlled academic studies often only show participants one narrative and then ask for their responses to it. This avoids any potential cross-contamination with other messages.

This methodology is rigorous and helpful in isolating message factors that can affect audiences. Unfortunately, it leaves us asking questions about how people respond to science narratives they may encounter in typical settings, like social media, instead of seeing a single science message they may see many of them across many days.

Outside of carefully crafted social science experiments, the public does not see single stories about scientific issues in isolation.

As such, the overarching purpose of my work is to two-fold in hopes of addressing the following questions:

1) How does repeated exposures to science-related narratives shape public support for scientific research?

2) Does the effectiveness of science-focused social media narratives differ for social media users who have been exposed to other messages about science?

Another goal of my research project is to better understand how social media stories about science shape our emotional attachments to this topic. It is possible that emotional associations strengthen overtime or that social media users become desensitized to seeing similar science stories over and over again.

Understanding emotional responses to science narratives (e.g., curiosity about the science, hope and excitement for its benefits, anxieties about its risks) is key as emotions are closely tied to science-related risk perceptions and behavioral intentions.

Over time, narrative messages about science could also help to shift audience’s schemas, or mental representations, about science from being boring, dorky, or the domain of “elites,” to being something of greater interest that is vital for society’s well-being.

The proposed research would combine emotional and cognitive perspectives on scientific message effects to gain insights into how emotions, schema about (or, perceptions of) science, and perceived knowledge of science may shift after repeated exposures to science-related narratives.

By helping scientists and science-focused organizations understand the long-term impacts of their social media messages, this research can help them more ethically inform the public about important advances in science that likely have benefits but may also have potential risks for society. A “bigger picture” mindset where scientists and related organizations consider the sustained effects of their social media presence over time can help advance responsible public communications in this area.

For further information on this study, please email Jessica Myrick at Results from the study will be available next year. This project is supported by a Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center