Emotion, Intellect, the Future & Transmedia Storytelling

Transmedia storytelling provides an opportunity to integrate both intellect and emotion into a single powerful package. This ability to touch audiences in both ways can make transmedia storytelling particularly effective when looking at issues dealing with social change and the future.

Transmedia storytelling techniques have been used in a number of projects designed to change perceptions on key issues or encourage social activism. Collapsus: The Energy Risk Conspiracy (www.collapsus.com/), a transmedia project released in 2011, integrates fictional newscasts, interactive maps, video blogging, and other forms of media to draw participants into a world in which they need to access and analyze information about the future of global energy. The narrative provides a human touch by showing the audience individual characters as they are caught up in the turbulent events portrayed in the story.

A screen capture of the opening page of the Future States website.

A screen capture of the opening page of the Future States website.

Digital storytelling has been identified as a way for young people to construct their identities and re-imagine their futures (Murakami, 2008). Future States (www.futurestates.tv) is a series of short films set in the future that deal with immigration, human relationships, economic segregation, and other complex social issues. Transmedia narrative techniques are also used in Animism: The Gods’ Lake (www.animism.com). The project, developed by Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, looks at environmentalism, capitalism, and spirituality through the eyes of characters drawn from Canada’s aboriginal peoples. The project uses animation, a fictional blog and companion websites. Conspiracy for Good (www.conspiracyforgood.com) integrated a philanthropic mission into the narrative itself by using an interactive story that empowered its audience to take real-life action and create positive change in the world. It was accessible through online, mobile phone and flyers on sidewalks, live theater and a new level of audience participation. The Harry Potter Alliance (www.thehpalliance.org/), built on the storyworld created in J.K. Rowling’s bestselling Harry Potter novels, used live streaming to play a new genre of music called “Wizard Rock”, posted action alerts on MySpace, and developed fan sites and other media to create and move a community to action. Through partnership with non-governmental organizations, the Alliance prompts social action on issues like global climate change, poverty, genocide, and human rights.

Understanding the role of intellect and emotion in decision-making processes is important when determining how to present information in a scenario, forecasting, or other futures-oriented projects. These types of projects by their very nature are intended to challenge existing perceptions, mental models, and organizational structures. As a result they often provoke a range of emotional responses – uncertainty, confusion, insecurity, fear, and others – that lead to resistance to change. One of the most significant applications of storytelling from the perspective of foresight professionals is their use helping manage these emotions.

Affective (emotional) and cognitive (intellectual) processes are crucial to survival. Emotional responses provide important information about what is beneficial and what is harmful (Fenske & Raymond, 2006). Processes involving emotion and selective attention work together to prioritize thoughts and actions (Fenske & Raymond, 2006). Highly emotional stimuli, provided they are relevant to the viewer, are processed faster and hold attention longer than less emotional stimuli (Eastwood, Smilek, & Merikle, 2001). Keeping stimuli simple and focused is important. Affective responses are lower and reaction times longer when distractions are present (Fenske & Raymond, 2006; Dickert & Slovic, 2009). If the objective of the stimuli is to provoke an empathic response towards others, the focus should be on an individual rather than a group of people, as presenting a group in need of help reduces the level of sympathy and willingness to help (Dickert & Slovic, 2009).

Cognitive and affective systems influence four other systems in humans (Potter, 2012):

  • Physiology – the automatic bodily responses to stimuli
  • Belief – faith in the truth or reality of something the individual has not directly experienced
  • Attitude – an individual’s judgment about a person, place, thing, event, or issue
  • Behavior – overt action taken by an individual

Cognitive, affective, belief, attitudinal, and behavioral structures also typically exist at the institutional and societal levels (Potter, 2012).

All media, including transmedia stories, can exert an influence on these systems in one of four ways (Potter, 2012):

  • Acquiring: influences a person to obtain something that is not present prior to exposure to the message
  • Triggering: influences a person by activating something that already exists within that individual
  • Altering: influences a person to change something that already exists with them
  • Reinforcing: influences a person to make it more difficult to change something that already exists within them

These four media influences are applicable to the cognitive, affective, physiological, belief, attitudinal, and behavioral systems. For example, information in a forecast might be presented so readers are given new knowledge (acquiring), to prompt their memory of previous actions (triggering), have them change their opinion about the organization’s strategy (altering), or confirm that the current strategy is working (reinforcing). These influences are similar at the personal, institutional and societal level.


Dickert, S., & Slovic, P. (2009). Attential Mechanisms in the Generation of Sympathy. Judgment and Decision Making, 4(4), 297-306.

Eastwood, John D., Smilek, D., & Merikle, P. (2001). Differential Attentional Guidance by Unattended Faces Expressing Positive and Negative Emotion. Perception & Psychophysics, 63(6), 1004-1013.

Fenske, Mark J., & Raymond, Jane E. (2006). Affective Influences of Selective Attention. Current Directions In Psychological Science,15(6), 312-316.

Murakami, Kyoko. (2008). Re-Imaging the Future: Young People ‘s Construction of Identities Through Digital Storytelling. Retrieved January 4, 2013, from Beyond Current Horizons: http://www.beyondcurrenthorizons.org.uk/re-imagining-the-future-young-peoples-construction-of-identities-through-digital-storytelling/

Potter, W. James. (2012). Media Effects. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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