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SCIENCE FICTION 1
Running Head: SCIENCE FICTION AND TECHNOLOGY
Meaning Through Fiction: Science Fiction and Innovative Technologies
Markus Appel1, Stefan Krause1, Uli Gleich1, & Martina Mara2
1 University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany
2 Ars Electronica Futurelab, Linz, Austria
Paper accepted for publication in the journal
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Markus Appel, Department
of Psychology, University of Koblenz-Landau, Fortstr. 7, Landau 78629, Germany. E-mail:
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Connecting philosophical and psychological theories on meaning to theories and findings
on the real-world influence of fictional stories, the authors argue that science fiction
provides meaning for otherwise disconcerting new technologies. An experiment with two
points of measurement was conducted. After watching a full-length movie with a humanoid
robot in a main role (vs. a control film condition) participants had a clearer understanding
of humanoids. This in turn was related to a stronger link between the concept of humanoid
robots and the self, which predicted a higher willingness to buy or use humanoid robot
technology. The results remained stable after a two-week post-exposure delay. Implications
regarding the meaning-generating function of fiction, science fiction, and humanoid robots
Key Words: meaning, science fiction, stories, narratives, humanoid robots, mediation
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Meaning through fiction: Science fiction and innovative technologies
Questions regarding the real-world implications of recipients’ immersion into fictional
story worlds have fuelled numerous empirical studies in recent years. Adding to this
thriving literature we argue that a major function of fiction is to provide meaning for
otherwise unsettling real-world phenomena. Our empirical focus here is on science fiction –
a genre that like no other challenges its recipients to envision the unkown and that was
hitherto largely neglected by empirical research.1
The influence of science fiction on peoples’ contemporary, earthly life is an
intriguing topic not only for social scientists but for the hard sciences and the humanities as
well. Prior to their adoption by people and societies, many technological innovations
already have a life in the world of fiction. Flying machines, space-rockets, and submarines,
for example, existed in the fictional worlds of Jules Verne many years before they were
invented in real life (e.g., From Earth to the Moon; Robur the Conquerer; Twenty
Thousand Leagues under the Sea). There are a number of other examples where science
fiction versions of technologies preceded real-world innovations (e.g., radar, TV, cf.
Gernsback, 1911 / 2000). Arguably, due to their interest (and professional background) in
1 Science-fiction is defined along five typical story components outlined by renowned science
fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (1947/1964): “1. The conditions must be, in some respect,
different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the
course of the story. 2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story. 3. The problem
itself—the "plot"—must be a human problem. 4. The human problem must be one which is created
by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions. 5. And lastly, no established fact shall be
violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory
be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain
established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk."
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technology and the sciences, science fiction writers might be capable of forecasting future
developments (although many prophecies were incorrect). However, science fiction might
as well have a causal influence on real-life technological innovation. Unfortunately, there is
much anecdotal, but little empirical evidence available in this regard.
We can think of at least two causal pathways as to how technologies introduced in
science fiction could potentially affect the technologies we have in real-life: First, works of
science fiction could affect inventors and scientists – either because science fiction
provided helpful information or, more likely, because science fiction motivated individuals
to delve into a particular problem or to pursue a scientific career in the first place. Crouch
(1982), for example, provides intriguing case studies about pioneers in aeronautics and the
inspiration they gained from fictional accounts of interstellar travel. More recently,
Bailenson, Yee, Kim, and Tecarro (2007) outlined how cyberpunk science fiction (e.g.,
Gibson, 1984; Stephenson, 1992) triggered research questions for virtual reality researchers
and how cyberpunk delineated standards in the development of virtual reality systems.
Second, science fiction could potentially affect those who are confronted with new
technologies and who often decide about the failure or success of an innovation: the
ordinary consumer, recipient, or citizen. This paper deals with the latter causal pathway.
Based on a general assumption on the meaning-generating effect of narratives, we
hypothesize that a science fiction film featuring a humanoid robot provides meaning to this
otherwise alien technology – humanlike service robots – which in turn increases the
acceptance of this robot.
Robots in our midst
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According to the International Federation of Robotics (2014), about 180,000 units
of industrial robots were sold in 2013, by far the highest number ever recorded. Most of
these robots went into automotive manufacturing, chemical and plastic industries, or food
production. Recently, however, big tech companies also started to announce their robot
visions for areas beyond industrial application: Amazon puts much effort in the
development of autonomous delivery drones (Wingfield, 2015), Google forecasts their
robot cars to chauffeur passengers by 2020 (Halleck, 2015), and iRobot, best known for its
vacuuming bots, plans to expand into the health care sector (Solomon, 2013). In addition,
robots for personal and domestic usage are expected to become more and more prevalent.
The consumer demand for different types of social and service robots seems to be there.
MIT’s Jibo, a companion robot that is able to read stories or shoot family portraits, raised
about 2.3 million US-Dollars from several thousand private investors in 2014 and became
one of the most successful online crowdfunding campaigns (Hurst, 2014). The Japanese
telecommunications brand Softbank introduced a social robot that can analyze its users’
emotions for a market price under 2,000 USD (Pfanner, 2015), and Intel presented a
customizable personal robot that shall be sold for under 1,000 USD (Collins, 2014). But
also more specialized domestic robots for elderly and handicap assistance are expected to
increase substantially within the next two decades (International Federation of Robotics,
2014). Regarding their design, some of the robots that we are going to meet in our day-to-
day lives will have an abstract machine-like look, but others will correspond more strongly
with the typical robot image of humanlike shape. When it comes to the latter, a distinction
can be drawn between the android and the humanoid: Whereas android robots are intended
to mimic human appearances as realistically as possible, humanoid robots only basically
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resemble the human body shape but are easily recognizable as machines, e.g. due to their
clearly artificial surfaces (cf. Ishiguro, 2005).
Today, however, still only rare opportunities allow for real-life encounters with
humanlike service robots. Science fiction, in contrast, is full of humanoid and android
figures. Examples reach from early fictional characters such as Rossum’s Universal Robots
(Čapek, 1920/2001) — a Czech stage play from which the term robot originated — to more
contemporary and highly popular figures such as Star Trek’s Lieutenant Commander Data
(Roddenberry, 1966), Star Wars’ C-3PO (Lucas, 1977) or the misanthropic Bender from
the animated TV series Futurama (D. X. Cohen & Groening, 1999). Thus, science fiction
might be a frequent source of information about humanlike robots for the public today.
The processing and the effects of fiction and empirical evidence regarding science
In recent years, a substantial number of studies have examined the influence of
fictional stories on recipient variables, including recipients’ knowledge about real-world
issues (e.g., Dahlstrom, 2012; 2014; Marsh, Meade, & Roediger, 2003), attitudes and
beliefs (e.g., Appel & Richter, 2007, 2010; Green & Brock, 2000), behavioral intentions
(Appel & Mara, 2013), the self-concept (e.g., Djikic, Oatley, Zoeterman, & Peterson, 2009;
Richter, Appel, & Calio, 2014), and the theory of mind (e.g., Fong, Mullin, & Mar, 2013;
Kidd & Castano, 2013). The influence of stories is often attributed to the particular
experiential state while reading, listening to, or watching a story. This phenomenological
characteristic of reading a story or watching a movie is the absorption and lack of distance,
the involvement that recipients often experience. Different terms have been used to
describe and explain experiential states during media use. This family of concepts on
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situational involvement can be distinguished into narrative involvement/transportation on
the one hand and character involvement/identification on the other (Moyer-Guse, 2008;
Murphy et al., 2011; Nabi & Green, 2015). Narrative involvement includes the concept of
transportation (Gerrig, 1993; Green & Brock, 2000) as well as related concepts such as
narrative engagement (Busselle & Bilandzic, 2009), and flow. Character involvement
includes identification (J. Cohen, 2001), perceived similarity/homophily, empathy,
sympathy, and para-social interaction. Although narrative involvement and character
involvement share similarities, they are generally considered to be conceptually distinct
(e.g., Tal-Or & J. Cohen, 2010).
Research on narrative experiences and effects is typically focused on stories set in
the here-and now (e.g. Murder at the Mall: Green & Brock, 2000; Appel & Maleckar, 2012;
The Kidnapping: Prentice, Gerrig & Bailis, 1997). Do the effects and processes differ when
it comes to science fiction? There is initial evidence that science fiction stories might
indeed yield different processes and effects. In a recent correlational study (Fong et al.,
2013) the science fiction/fantasy genre somewhat stood out as the only one in which the
relationship between fiction reading and interpersonal sensitivity was unrelated (controlling
or not controlling for third variables). Several studies found that readers of fictional stories
use correct and incorrect information embedded in the story in a quiz about real-world
issues following closely after reading (e.g., Marsh et al., 2003). With respect to these
findings Rapp and colleagues observed that many studies in this paradigm used fictional,
but rather familiar situations as the narrative contexts (Rapp, Hinze, Slaten & Horton,
2014). They wondered whether the reliance of information presented in a fictional context
changed if the context was less familiar, like in a fantasy or science fiction story (Rapp et
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al., 2014; see also Zwarum & Hall, 2012). Thus, Rapp and colleagues manipulated the story
worlds surrounding the target information. They demonstrated that information encountered
in a fantastic story context was used to answer real-world questions – but to a lesser extent
than information encountered in a more mundane story context. Possibly, a science fiction
or fantasy setting enables recipients to more effectively compartmentalize fictional
information from real-world knowledge (Gerrig, 1993).
The only experimental study that explicitly dealt with science fiction and robots
(Mara & Appel, 2015) focused on the uncanny valley hypothesis (Mori, 1970), which
assumes a non-linear relationship between the human-likeness of a robot and people’s
evaluation of that robot: At low levels of human-likeness, the more robots resemble
humans, the more positive they are perceived. At some point of high similarity but not
perfect resemblance, however, the perception will sharply drop and the robot will be
perceived as eerie and uncanny. When the robot is almost perfectly human, the evaluation
turns positive again (Mori, MacDorman, & Kageki, 2012). Participants who read a brief
story about a robot reported less eeriness than participants who read a non-narrative leaflet
about the robot, an effect that was mediated through the perceived human-likeness of the
robot (Mara & Appel, 2015).
The work presented here contributes to the literature on the influence of fictional
stories by emphasizing the meaning-generating function of fiction (see more below). We
assume that a fiction film featuring a humanoid robot clarifies the concept of humanoid
robots for the recipients. It connects the concept with one’s self and in turn increases the
acceptance of humanlike robots. Before we explain our stance on the meaning generating
function of science fiction, a brief section on meaning seems justified.
SCIENCE FICTION 9
Since the seminal works by Oliver and colleagues (e.g., Bartsch, Kalch, & Oliver,
2014; Oliver & Bartsch, 2010; Oliver, Hartmann, & Woolley, 2012) research on
meaningful media has become a flourishing topic in empirical research (e.g., Koopman,
2014; 2015; Rieger et al., 2015). Our own approach to the concept of meaning is informed
by philosophical treatments on men’s search for meaning (Camus, 1942/1955; Frankl,
1946/1959; Heidegger, 1927/1996) as well as the meaning maintenance model, a
psychological theory aimed at integrating previous theory and empirical findings (Heine,
Proulx, & Vohs, 2006). So what is meaning? Meaning is relation – “meaning is what links
people, places, objects, and ideas to one another in expected and predictable ways“ (Heine
et al., 2006, p. 89). These expected relationships of things can be found (or not found) in
three domains: The outside world, the self, and the self in the outside world.
The outside world includes all non-self entities, like objects, people or places.
People develop representations of the outside world with relatively stable and coherent
features (e.g., schemata, concepts, scripts, mental models). For technological innovations –
like airplanes in the early 20th century, or tomorrow’s autonomous cars or humanlike robots
– a working representation is often inexistent. The self is the second domain in which the
sense of meaning is based on expected relationships between elements. People wish to
perceive themselves as incorporating a non-contradictory set of attributes, and people wish
to act in a consistent and predictable manner (Abelson, 1968; Festinger, 1957). The third
domain is the self in the world. A person can perceive the world as well as oneself to entail
a set of expected relationships between elements, but he or she may lack the sense of a
coherent relationship between oneself and the world. This lack of meaning is likely a cause
SCIENCE FICTION 10
of feelings of non-belonging and alienation. Technological innovations can be a source for
alienation as these might fit perceptions of the world outside (as a technology driven or
market-oriented space) but the connection between one’s sense of self and the outside
world is perceived to be missing. Being confronted with a lack of relationships in any of the
three domains (outside world, self, self and the outside world) is aversive.
Stories generate meaning
Fictional stories often deal with topics that pose a challenge to our meaning
systems. Many stories, for example, portray characters in major life transitions and many
stories deal with questions of suffering and death (cf. Koopman, 2015). Although science
fiction may include similar dramatic content, its specific appeal to our meaning systems
rests on the new scientific developments and the unfamiliar technologies that are portrayed.
Within the genre, a common distinction is drawn between hard and soft science fiction. The
former adheres to the laws of nature and usually portrays a technology that is based on real
scientific theories or already existing technological trends (cf. Prucher, 2007; Samuelson,
2009). The latter is a term that is either used when future developments are portrayed more
from a social science perspective (e.g., from a political or sociological perspective) or when
scientific elements play only a minor role (soft science fiction is also sometimes used as a
pejorative term indicating that the science behind the story is implausible). In addition,
science fiction stories can be differentiated according to the timeframe in which they are
set. Near-future science fiction is meant to depict a story world that still appears connected
to the here-and-now of its recipients. In contrast, far-future sci-fi may be set in an era
beyond the 10th millennium and take up issues such as humankind’s final days on Earth.
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We assume that literary representations of the near future, particularly if they
involve innovations based on today’s scientific understanding and technology are especially
relevant in order to establish meaning for a world in which we will live one day, or for a
technology that we might be confronted with in our lifetime. Theorists from several fields
have considered stories to be a main source to establishing meaning (e.g., Bruner, 1990;
McAdams, 1996; Polkingthorne, 1988; Sarbin, 1986). Humans tell themselves stories
whenever meaning is threatened, like at times of failure and grief (cf. Gilbert, 2002).
Stories are a natural way to explain things as they fit our cognitive architecture (Gottschall,
2012; Schank & Abelson, 1995). Per definition (e.g., Abbott, 2002), stories consist of
related events. Almost all stories on TV and in the movies further adhere to conventions in
the formation of a plotline (e.g., Howard & Marbley, 1993). Stories entail schematic
elements (cf. e.g., setting, event, attempt, reaction, and consequence, Rumelhart, 1975) that
are connected to the characters’ goals. Stories on TV and in the movies tend to have a
resolution in which the threads laid out during the story are re-connected. Guides to
scriptwriting for TV and film further emphasize that the events need to be based on the
characteristics of the protagonists. Thus, these events are expectable or even inevitable – at
least in hindsight (Howard & Marbley, 1993). The expectable events in fiction diverge
from the often random events occurring in real life (Appel, 2008). The meaning-generating
function of stories is reinforced by the recipients’ tendency to be immersed into the story,
as expressed by concepts in the fields of narrative and character involvement. The lack of a
distance between the recipient and the story-world can contribute to a connection between
one’s self and the things and events belonging to the fictional world.
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Taken together, the narrative structure and the plot conventions facilitate
perceptions of coherence and relatedness in the world around us. Moreover, recipients are
often deeply immersed and engaged with the story world, leading to a strong relationship
between the self and the fictional entities. Entering the world of science fiction can allow
recipients the development of meaning frameworks for future technologies that otherwise
would make no sense or lead to feelings of alienation. Science fiction imposes a clearer
understanding about what to expect from a future technology and it connects the recipient’s
self to the new technology.
Study overview and predictions
The aim of this study was to examine the meaning-generating function of science
fiction regarding humanlike robots. We presented a full-length science fiction movie that
featured a humanoid as a main character (or a control movie). We expected that this movie
would change the meaning framework of humanoids in two ways. The movie should
establish a clearer concept of the humanlike robot among the recipients. Moreover,
recipients were expected to develop a closer link between the concept of humanoids and
themselves. Changes in these meaning frameworks were in turn expected to contribute to
positive behavioral intentions towards humanlike robots (i.e., to consider using humanoid
service robots in the future). We further expected that the effect of the science fiction film
would not be short-lived, but would remain after a delay of two weeks (cf., Appel &
Richter, 2007; Jensen et al., 2011). Thus, the study needed to contain a two-weeks post-
exposure assessment in addition to an immediate post-exposure assessment.
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Sample size considerations and participants
We determined the number of participants a priori to reach at least 25 participants
per cell which is in line with the recommended minimum number per cell of 20 to prevent
false positive outcomes (Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn, 2012). Based on a one-factorial
design with two experimental conditions our a priori number of participants was fifty.
Although this sample size is well within the number of participants found in much of the
experimental psychological research, it is arguably rather low. Our procedure included a
main experimental session of about two hours and a delayed survey. The envisaged sample
size reflects the practical challenge of recruiting motivated participants, given the two
session design and the length of session one. Our experimental design included two
mediating variables (see below). Recent research on mediation suggests that the power to
detect indirect effects is typically larger than the power to detect direct effects or total
effects, a somewhat counterintuitive phenomenon introduced as a power anomaly (Kenny
& Judd, 2014). Thus, from a power perspective, the mediation part of our design did not
require a higher number of participants than a more simple main effects experimental
To account for individuals who might not participate in both sessions, we planned
to invite at least 60 individuals to participate. Sixty-five adults were recruited in
introductory social science classes at the (blinded for review). Three participants did not
complete the delayed survey part, six participants had watched or had heard about one of
the stimulus films before. After excluding these data our sample consisted of 56
SCIENCE FICTION 14
participants (41 women; age range 18-33, M = 21.30 years; SD = 2.27). The participants
received course credit or participated in a lottery to win one out of five 10€ gift certificates.
The participants were randomly assigned to watch one out of two movies. One
movie, Robot and Frank (Schreier, 2012) included a humanlike robot as a main protagonist.
The movie takes place in the near future of industrialized civilizations and is about the
friendship between the slightly demented Frank, an aging jewel thief, and his service robot
(n = 29). The movie portrays a robotic technology resembling contemporary concepts for
service robots, thus, Robot and Frank exhibits important characteristics of hard science
fiction. Moreover, the movie focuses on the emotional bonding between man and machine,
which is in line with the definition of science fiction introduced earlier (Heinlein, 1947 /
1964). In the control condition (n = 27) the movie Safety Not Guaranteed (Trevorrow,
2012) was presented. This movie is about three journalists, who are assigned to interview a
time machine inventor. Both movies shared several characteristics: Both movies were
released in summer 2012, they have a similar duration (Robot and Frank: 89 minutes;
Safety Not Guaranteed: 86 minutes), both movies belong to the science fiction genre and
are set in the near future, and both movies had an equivalent rating on IMDb in summer
2014 (both movies scored 7.1). Moreover, both movies were relatively unknown.
Importantly, both movies differed with regard to the presentation of humanlike robots:
Whereas Robot and Frank showed how a future service robot might assist an elderly
person, the topic of robotics was irrelevant for the control movie.
SCIENCE FICTION 15
Transportation. Participants answered the Transportation Scale – Short Form
(TS-SF, Appel, Gnambs, Richter, & Green, 2015). In our sample, the reliability of this six-
item scale was satisfactory (α = .78). The items went with a seven-point scale (example
items: “I could picture myself in the scene of the events described in the narrative”; “The
narrative affected me emotionally”, 1 = not at all; 7 = very much).
Concept clarity. Seven items assessed the extent to which the participants felt that
they had a clear concept of humanoid robots that assist the elderly. The items were
introduced as follows “Service robots are human-like machines that will be widely used in
(blinded for review) in a few years. A relevant field of use is the care for the elderly.”
Example items are “I could name several chores in which service robots could support
elderly people” and “It is unclear to me how service robots can be used to support elderly
people“ (reverse coded). A five-point scale was provided (1 = strongly disagree to 5 =
strongly agree). The reliability of the concept clarity scale was very good (α = .93).
Self-concept link. Seven items examined to what extent the participants felt that a
service humanoid fitted their self-concept. Example items are “The use of service robots as
support for elderly people is in line with my principles” and “I am reluctant to imagine
service robots which support elderly people” (reverse coded). The items went with a five-
point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree, α = .95).
Behavioral intentions. Our main dependent variable was a measure of behavioral
intentions towards humanoid robots. Behavioral intentions were assessed with the help of
seven items (e.g. “When I will be older and in need of care, I could imagine to use a service
robot”; “If service robots were available for free, I would use this offer for my care-
dependent relatives”). The items went with a 5-point rating scale (1= strongly disagree to
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5= strongly agree, α = .91, see Table 1 for the relationships between the dependent
< Table 1 around here>
Procedure and design
Each participant was randomly assigned to either watch Robot and Frank or Safety
Not Guaranteed. After randomization, participants were accompanied to the room in which
the full movie was screened. Each participant watched the movie together with other
participants (group sizes varied from 5 to 18). After watching the movie, participants in
both conditions worked on identical paper-and-pencil booklets that included our measures
(transportation, concept clarity, self-concept-link, behavioral intentions). The final page
entailed demographics and questions whether or not they had heard about or had seen the
Two weeks after the experimental session, participants received an e-mail with the
link to an online survey. This survey included the concept-clarity scale, the self-concept-
link items, and the behavioral intentions scale. The participants answered the online survey
with an average delay of 16.17 days (SD = 3.03). After completing the online survey, the
participants were thanked and fully debriefed.
Since two movies were used as treatment manipulation, the experiment followed a
one-factorial between subjects design (treatment: movie condition). The supposed
mediators (concept-clarity, self-concept link) as well as the dependent variable (behavioral
intentions) were assessed immediately and with a two-week delay.
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In these and the following analyses, the experimental treatment was dummy-coded
(control movie = 0; humanoid robot movie Robot and Frank = 1). We expected that the
control movie yielded about the same narrative involvement as the experimental movie
Robot and Frank. Participants’ transportation ratings of the control movie (M = 5.21; SD =
0.82) and the Robot and Frank movie (M = 5.18; SD = 0.88) were almost identical, t(54) =
.11, p = .91. Both movies were equally transportive. The results presented below remain
virtually unchanged if transportation is included as a covariate and transportation did not
moderate the paths of our model.
To examine the influence of watching a science fiction movie about a humanoid
robot on recipients’ meaning frameworks and behavioral intentions, two multi-mediator-
analyses were conducted (Hayes, 2009; 2013; model 6). We first present an analysis for the
data obtained immediately after watching one of the two movies (Figure 1a), and we repeat
the analysis for the data obtained after the two-week delay (Figure 1b).
< Figure 1 around here >
The analysis for the immediate measures yielded a non-significant total effect of
the movie on the DV behavioral intentions, b = .16, SE = .25, t(53) = .62, p = .54. Likewise,
no direct effect of the movie treatment on the behavioral intention measure was found, b =
.03, SE = .18, t(51) = .18, p = .86. However, the analysis yielded a significant effect of the
movie condition on the concept clarity, b = 1.00, SE = .23, t(53) = 4.37, p < .001, reflecting
higher clarity after watching the humanoid robot film. Concept clarity was in turn
significantly associated with the self-concept-link, b = .38, SE = .15, t(52) = 2.56, p < .05,
and those who could relate to the humanoid had more positive behavioral intentions
SCIENCE FICTION 18
towards the robot, b = .79, SE = .08, t(51) = 9.37, p < .001. Importantly, the paths outlined
above composed an indirect mediation effect. A bias-corrected bootstrap confidence
interval (CI) for the indirect effect of movie treatment on behavioral intentions via concept
clarity and self-concept-link based on 10000 bootstrap samples was significant estimate =
.30 (95% CI: .07, .70).
A very similar pattern of results was found for the measures obtained after a two-
week delay: The total effect of the movie on the DV behavioral intentions was non-
significant, b = .12, SE = .26, t(54) = .46, p = .652 as was the direct effect of the movie
treatment on the behavioral intention measure, b = .02, SE = .16, t(52) = .10, p = .92. We
again found a significant effect of the movie condition on the concept clarity, b = .97, SE =
.23, t(54) = 4.22, p < .001. Higher concept clarity was in turn related to a stronger self-
concept link, b = .39, SE = .14, t(53) = 2.71, p < .01. Higher self-concept link scores were
in turn related to more positive behavioral intentions towards the robot, b = .85, SE = .08,
t(52) = 10.98, p < .001. The analysis also shows a significant indirect mediation effect,
estimate = .32 (95% CI: .08, .76).
Taken together, our results reveal an indirect path between exposure to a science
fiction movie featuring a humanoid robot and behavioral intentions to buy or use this future
technology. We identified a mediating process consisting of a clearer understanding of the
humanoid and a greater connection to the concept to the self. This pattern of results was
basically unchanged after a two-week post-exposure delay, supporting the notion that
fictional stories can have stable effects on recipients’ meaning frameworks.
2 Degrees of freedom for t-values for t2 are different from t1, because one participant did not answer
the behavioral intentions scale for t1.
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The influence of fictional stories goes beyond entertainment. Stories affect how we
feel, think, and act. With this work, we argue that one of the main functions of fictional
stories is to provide meaning. We introduced meaning as the presence of expectable
relationships of entities within the self, the outside world and between the self and the
outside world (Heine et al., 2006). We identified humanoid service robots as a
technological innovation that is expected to be part of our everyday life in a few years
(International Federation of Robotics, 2014). Humanoid robots, however, likely elicit
negative responses by consumers as meaning frameworks of established relationships are
yet to be established (cf., Mori et al., 2012). Stories are a potent source of meaning due to
the relationships between its elements, inherent to the format as well as the content patterns
of conflict and resolution (e.g., Gottschall, 2012).
In our experiment, recipients of a full-length science fiction movie featuring a
humanoid service robot had a clearer concept of humanoid service robots and they felt a
closer connection of these robots to the self, which led to an indirect effect of movie
exposure to behavioral intentions to use or purchase a humanoid service robot in the future.
This result was observed immediately after watching the movie and after a two-week post-
exposure delay, adding to the growing evidence on the rather stable influence of fictional
stories (e.g., Appel & Richter, 2007; Jensen et al., 2011). At both points of measurement,
there was a main effect of the humanoid robot movie on the clarity of the concept
‘humanoid robot’, but no total, overall effect of the treatment on recipients’ behavioral
intentions. Interpreting this finding, we assume that understanding the concept of a new
technology can not only provide the basis for a closer connection to the self – which
SCIENCE FICTION 20
translates to higher willingness to purchase and engage in the technology. Rather,
understanding the concept of a new technology can possibly trigger aversive responses that
are due to a greater clarity about this technology. Future research needs to address this
complex interplay in more detail. The indirect path was of key interest in this study. We
cannot rule out that, given our sample size, the power to identify the indirect path was
sufficient, whereas the power to identify the total effect might have been too small (cf.,
Kenny & Judd, 2014).
The present work contributes to current research in several regards. This work
adds to our understanding of meaning in relation to stories (e.g., Bartsch, Kalch, & Oliver,
2014; Oliver et al., 2012; Oliver & Bartsch, 2009). We provided a clear definition of
meaning, introducing meaning as the presence of expectable relationships between the
things in the world, the self, and the self in the world (Heine et al., 2006). We assume that
the characteristics of fictional stories facilitate the development of concepts and patterns
about the outside world and how the self connects to it. Possibly, this fundamental function
of stories underlies the widespread use of stories to explain and cope with meaning-
threatening incidents humans are faced with, such as the death of loved ones and one’s own
mortality (e.g., Koopman, 2014; 2015; Rieger et al., 2015). Our focus was on the meaning
generating function of science fiction in the field of technological innovations. Our findings
indicate that other potential meaning threats could be alleviated by works of fiction.
Our results further suggest that the power of fiction is not limited to realistic, real-
life content and incidents (cf., Rapp et al., 2014). Using an existing full-length feature
movie we showed that even stories that remarkably diverge from today’s reality can have
real-world effects. This study contributes to our knowledge on the effects of science fiction,
SCIENCE FICTION 21
which has attracted little empirical research so far. This is surprising, given a steady interest
in this topic in various disciplines, including the natural sciences and the humanities (cf.
Bailenson et al., 2007). Early science fiction pioneers, like Hugo Gernsback, had hoped that
science fiction might be a tool to introduce novel technologies to wide audiences (Crouch,
1982). The current research indicates that science fiction might indeed provide meaning for
individuals who are faced with new science and technology.
Our study further adds to the field of human-robot interaction, which will become
increasingly relevant, given that robots will be part of the daily environment of
industrialized societies in only a few years (e.g., Newenham, 2014; Wakefield, 2014). From
a social science perspective, users’ experiences and interactions are not only shaped by a
robots’ visual appearance and functionalities, but cognitive representations of robots
obtained prior to the first interaction are of key importance as well. Indeed, our first
encounter with new technologies typically takes place in mediated worlds – many of those
worlds are worlds of science fiction.
Limitations and outlook
The following limitations need to be noted: First, our aim was to use a
straightforward operationalization of the defining components of meaning based on the
meaning maintenance model (Heine et al., 2006). We relied on a self-report measurement,
assuming that the presence or absence of meaningful relationships underlying a concept
(concept clarity) and the relationship between the self and this concept can be reported by
our informants. Possibly, all or parts of these processes can also be tracked more indirectly,
for example with implicit association measures (e.g., Gawronski & De Houwer, 2012;
Greenwald et al., 2002). Studies on the influence of stories (Dal Cin, Gibson, Zanna,
SCIENCE FICTION 22
Shumate, & Fong, 2007; Gabriel & Young, 2011) as well as research on attitudes towards
robots (MacDorman, Vasudevan, & Ho, 2008; Mitchell, Ho, Patel, & MacDorman, 2011)
speak to the feasibility of this approach. Future studies are encouraged to follow this
Second, our sample consisted of undergraduate students. For individuals in their
early twenties, elderly care is likely a topic of low to moderate personal relevance and
undergraduates are arguably less knowledgeable in the field of elderly care than older
participants. For individuals with higher personal relevance and knowledge about a
technological innovation the influence of science fiction on concept clarity might be
reduced, as meaning frameworks could already be established. However, if a functional
meaning framework in a given domain of high relevance is lacking, stimuli that help
establishing meaning could have an even greater impact on concept clarity, the self-concept
link and behavior intentions (cf., Heine et al., 2006). Examining the moderating effects of
personal relevance and knowledge is an important avenue for future studies.
Third, we used a full-length feature film, Robot and Frank (Schreier, 2012), as our
stimulus (vs. control film) to heighten the study’s external validity. We cannot rule out the
interpretation that the findings might have been different for a different movie. Particularly
fictional stories in which new technologies are introduced as a dangerous result of human
hubris might yield more negative results. According to our theoretical framework, however,
any neutral or positive depiction of future technologies should increase the meaning
associated with the new (robotic) technology and therefore yield higher acceptance. We
chose to compare the science fiction movie with a control film that was similar in several
respects but did not address robotic technologies at all. Another feasible strategy (cf., Mara
SCIENCE FICTION 23
& Appel, 2015) would be to construct a non-narrative movie (e.g., a documentary) with
similar information on the topic. Despite the substantial challenges associated with this
approach (e.g., reducing the internal and external validity by developing artificial stimuli)
future research in this direction is encouraged in order to examine the role of narrativity
Fourth, we tested our assumptions with respect to humanoid robots, but the
meaning-generating function of science fiction likely applies to other fields of innovation as
well. The TV series Star Trek (Roddenberry, 1966), for example, might have already
provided meaning frameworks for teleportation and replication3 – a technology that might
have facilitated the acceptance of current 3D-printing applications. Likewise, science
fiction – or fiction more generally – can and will affect how non-experts think and feel
about new, innovative (and scary) technologies, for example in the energy or life sciences
sectors. From a science communication perspective (cf. Dahlstrom, 2014), science fiction
could be a potentially very powerful means of communication and influence.
How can extravagant fiction today become cold fact tomorrow? (cf., Amazing Stories,
1926). Our experimental evidence indicates that science fiction provides a clearer
understanding of future technologies, which in turn facilitates the perceived connection
between the technology and one’s own life, resulting in a greater acceptance of this
3 The “food synthesizer” in the original Star Trek series and the “replicator” in Star Trek: The Next
Generation were machines capable of creating objects on demand.
SCIENCE FICTION 24
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SCIENCE FICTION AND MEANING
Zero order correlations between the observed variables at Time 1 (above the diagonal), and at Time 2 (below the diagonal).
Notes. Ns ranged from 55 to 56 due to occasional missing data. * p < .05, ** p < .01
SCIENCE FICTION AND MEANING
Figure 1a. Two-step mediation model for the variables assessed immediately after exposure
(Hayes, 2009; 2013, model 6) * p < .05, ** p < .01, ** p < .001
SCIENCE FICTION AND MEANING
Figure 1b. Two-step mediation model for the variables assessed with a two-week delay (Hayes,
2009; 2013, model 6) * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001