Man holding a smart phone.

Photo: Jonas Leupe/ Unsplash.

How do we respond to hostile narratives?

Using experimental studies, researchers at the Swedish Defense University are looking at how people in different countries react to information influence.
"We want to better understand the psychological reactions to strategic narratives and learn more about what triggers different types of emotions", says Aiden Hoyle.

In Aiden Hoyle's temporary office at the Swedish Defense University, the bookshelves are empty, but the research study he is working on is in full swing. He is currently a Ph.D. student in psychology at Amsterdam University, and is spending a month as a visiting Ph.D. student at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm. Together with Charlotte Wagnsson, Professor of Political Science, he is conducting experimental studies that combine psychological research with political science to find out more about how people in different countries react to information influence.

"The psychological dimension of Russian state-sponsored information influence has not really been studied in depth. We are interested in better understanding the psychological reactions to strategic narratives and want to know more about what triggers different types of emotions", says Aiden Hoyle.

The study is structured as a questionnaire and is sent to statistically selected groups in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Estonia. In each country, around 1 500 people are asked to read texts about their country based on different narratives and then answer questions about how they feel after reading the texts.

"We have control groups in each country who read neutral texts, and then groups that read texts based on hostile narratives, which are similar to the narratives often disseminated in Russian news channels", says Aiden Hoyle.

The groups receive the same information, the differences are in regard to how it is presented.

Aiden Hoyle speaking at a conference.

Aiden Hoyle is a visiting Ph.D. student at the Department of Political Science and Law at the Swedish Defence University. Photo: Monique Shaw

Follow-up to previous study on hostile narratives

The current experiment is a follow-up to previous studies that looked at how people in Sweden and the Netherlands, among other countries, react to different types of texts. Those results indicated that narratives evoke negative emotions, but that they had no clear effects on threat perceptions. These studies also showed that some narratives generated more anger compared to neutral narratives.

"These studies are the first steps toward a better understanding of psychological reactions, but more research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of the emotions caused by hostile narratives, including how readers may be affected if they are exposed to them over a long period of time", says Charlotte Wagnsson.

Increasing knowledge of the effects of narrative

Knowing how people react to different types of narratives is important for raising awareness of the problematic nature of consuming certain types of media. Increased knowledge of the effects of narratives can also be useful in designing campaigns that might mitigate the negative effects.

"We have very limited knowledge about the effects of information influence today, so any knowledge we can gain from the experiments helps to put the puzzle together", says Aiden Hoyle.

He also points to the difficulties in measuring the effects of information influence.

"For example, it is difficult to know what we can actually measure and how to interpret the results. There can be many different reasons why people react in a certain way. Therefore, we need more data to be able to draw correct conclusions", he says.

The results from the current study will be analysed and ready to present in the autumn, and they will be the final part of Aiden Hoyle's thesis.

"After the dissertation, I hope to continue my research on narrative and information influence. We have several projects planned and there is a lot to do in the field".

Josefin Svensson

Related Reading

Read more about Aiden Hoyle's previous research based on experimental studies published in the Journal of Media Psychology: Cognitive and Emotional Responses to Russian State-Sponsored Media Narratives in International Audiences.

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