PsyOps: Studying Narrative Comprehension and Persuasion

PsyOps: Studying Narrative Comprehension and Persuasion Activism, Blog, Identity Transduction, North America, Propaganda, The Struggle, USA
August 13, 2013

ITS calls your attention to the following DARPA-funded research project at the Consortium for Strategic Communication (or CSC), a think-tank at Arizona State University. They are studying the effectiveness of different narratives in efforts of mass persuasion.

Using MRI and EEG they will map areas of the brain involved in narrative comprehension and even attempt to enhance or disrupt narrative understanding using this information (as well as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation).


“Toward Narrative Disruptors and Inductors: Mapping the Narrative Comprehension Network and its Persuasive Effects”, DARPA

Source: CSC Projects
Complete project documentation (PDF)


In 2012, the CSC was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) a $6.1 million dollar research grant to study the neurobiology of narrative comprehension, validate narrative theories and explore the connection between narrative and persuasion. This groundbreaking research study will employ multi-modal neuroimaging, combining the temporal resolution of EEG with the spatial resolution of fMRI. The project seeks to validate narrative theories that to date have rested on interpretive approaches, rather than empirical, neurophysiological study. In so doing, the project aims to discover the neural network(s) involved in narrative comprehension and persuasion, and to come to a further understanding of how elements of existing narrative theories can induce or disrupt narrative understanding by the presence or absence of those structural components of narrative.

The goals of this project are outlined in the complete documentation:


  • Integrate narrative theory, neuroimaging, and persuasive outcomes.
  • Resolve conceptual problems in narrative and psychology of religion.
  • Produce significant innovations in the study of the neuropsychology of narrative.
  • Generate practical innovations.

They further elaborate on these goals. Here are a couple of highlights:

This project tests key narrative theories from communication, literary studies, and psychology in a design that will explain relative effects. It also uses stimuli based on religious master narratives—so often appropriated by extremist groups—to understand the psychological effects of particular message features and to attend to the relationship between narrative and political violence in contested populations, a small subset of which may engage in extremist behavior or financially, ideologically, or politically support extremists.

Strategic communicators face numerous questions with regard to narrative. Does grounding a message in a master narrative make a practical difference in persuading members of an audience? If it does, can the effect be enhanced by ensuring that listeners are transported into a story? If the narrative is circulating in a population, can it be degraded by circulating elements that reduce its coherence? Answers to these questions, which this project will provide, are key to identifying disruptors and inductors that can make narrative-based strategic communication more effective.


Later on, they discuss the expected results of the research. Here are a few highlights:

This project will provide empirical evidence integrating brain regions and cognitive processes into a neural network of narrative comprehension. By virtue of the experimental design, these relationships will also directly inform the primary aspects of narrative and strategic communication under examination: narrative validity, narrative transportation, and vertical integration. The empirical correlation of narrative theory to neurocognitive activity is an important advance in the understanding of narrative and how the brain governs narrative comprehension.


This project will create a fundamental basis for understanding how to disrupt or
enhance aspects of narrative structure, and/or brain functioning, to minimize or maximize
persuasive effects on subject proclivity to engage in political violence.

Mapping the Narrative Comprehension Network will provide empirical leverage for developing models of narrative comprehension that are biologically plausible. Moreover, the current research will establish how narrative elicits persuasion in the brain.


Thus, results of this study will allow strong predictions of whether a particular narrative message will influence audiences in a desired direction, and what the attitudinal/behavioral outcomes of those influence attempts are likely to be. …
For instance, it will be possible to understand how introducing new stories into the narrative system could disrupt its coherence, clouding the analogy between the master narrative and local narrative.


To help frame the research, they provide some background into Narrative Theory:

Narrative Theory

We are story-telling beings — what Walter Fisher (1989) calls homo narrans. As such we see the world through a narrative logic rather than a rational logic. Whereas rational logic aspires to be objective, repeatable, consistent and impersonal, narrative logic works on completely different principles. It is rooted in the simultaneously cognitive and emotional processing of information that marks human behavior, and finds its validity in principles of coherence and fidelity. These qualities help explain the seemingly irrational persuasive power of narrative, and, importantly, provide guidance for how to manipulate narrative stimuli in order to accurately map the Narrative Comprehension Network in the brain.

Vertical Integration

Culture provides schema, or templates, for ordering narrative data (top-down); individuals process incoming story data and organize it with a selected schema. The process continues until comprehension is achieved, or lack of comprehension mandates implementation of a new schema. A master narrative can be seen as an exemplar narrative schema. Because master narratives embody specific cultural values, they can be strategically deployed as an explanatory frame for current events in order to encourage a particular interpretation and for persuasive purposes. Master narratives execute ideological functions, positioning these cultural values as naturalized and universal.


As psychologist Donald Polkinghorne notes, “People conceive of themselves in terms of stories. One’s future is projected as a continuation of the story, as yet unfinished” (Polkinghorne, 1988, p.107). Vertical integration is achieved when personal, local and master narratives all line up consistently. This congruence formulates a powerful model for identity formation and persuasion.

Cognitive processes that are indicated by vertical integration to be part of the Narrative Comprehension Network include: self-recognition, identity, and theory of mind (to see oneself in a story), pattern recognition (to see parallels between master narratives and contemporary situations), and memory (to remember the master narrative elements).


Further Reading



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    1. […] the Swann interview you will hear such things as Narrative Theory and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. The later term first got my attention from Soleilmavis […]

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