University of Southern California
Narrative Group USC Institute for Creative Technologies

Project: Neurobiology of Narrative Framing

A collaboration between the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and the USC Brain and Creativity Institute

Jonas Kaplan summarizes the aims of the project.
(Video by Mira Zimet, USC Dornsife Magazine)

Background: Narrative framing using sacred values

A listener's psychological reaction to narrated events is influenced by how the narrator frames the events, appealing to different values, knowledge, and experiences of the listener. Narrative framing that targets the sacred values of the listener, including core personal, nationalistic, and/or religious values, is particularly effective at influencing the listener's interpretation of narrated events. These values are closely tied with the psychology of identity, emotion, moral decision making, and social cognition. When sacred framing is applied to mundane issues, those issues can gain properties of sacred values and result in a strong aversion to using conventional reasoning to interpret them. In our research, we seek to understand the linguistic and neuropsychological mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of narrative framing using sacred values in influencing a listener's interpretation of events.

Question 1: Do different cultures tell value-laden stories in different ways?

We are conducting a large-scale analysis of narratives posted to personal weblogs in order to quantitatively describe how narratives are framed using sacred values in the English, Farsi, and Chinese language. We are automatically extracting large corpora of English, Farsi, and Chinese narratives from millions of weblog posts. We are developing automated methods for describing the functional roles of discourse elements in these narratives, so that they can be compared quantitatively across each of the three languages.

Question 2: What factors determine how narrative framing influences behavior?

We are conducting a series of behavioral experiments to explore how narratives that appeal to different values and that are framed in different ways influence readers from different cultures. In our experiments, we use narratives taken from weblog posts as experimental stimuli, where each story makes an appeal to a sacred value to explain or justify a morally-questionable behavior of the author. In our first set of experiments, we investigated how these narratives can serve to prime readers' moral concerns, and what personal characteristics most account for variance in narrative impact.

Question 3: What neurobiological mechanisms account for different reactions to sacred framing?

We are conducting a neurobiological fMRI experiment to investigate the reaction of American, Iranian, and Chinese subjects to narratives framed using sacred values. While undergoing fMRI scanning, 90 participants read stories framed using sacred values and answer questions about the motivations and values of the main characters. We examine brain responses to narratives based on whether they resonated with a reader's own sacred values.


The principal investigators of this project are Morteza Dehghani, Antonio Damasio, Hanna Damasio, Andrew S. Gordon (PI), Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Jonas Kaplan, and Kenji Sagae. Additional scientists on this project include Sarah Gimbel. Previous contributors to this project include Christine Tipper, Mike Metke, Jackie Kim, Xiaxun Ding, Shahrzad Borna, and Wen Chen.

Publications and presentations


This research is made possible with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under the Narrative Networks program (Dr. Bill Casebeer, program manager), grant number D12AP00069, "Culture-specific neurobiological models of the influence of narrative framing using sacred values." Phase 1: 06/18/2012 to 12/17/2013. Phase 2: 12/18/2013 to 2/28/2015.


Andrew S. Gordon
Institute for Creative Technologies
University of Southern California
12015 Waterfront Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90094-2536
Phone: (310) 574-5700
Fax: (310) 574-5725