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Media Psychology: What It Is Not (Part 3)

Media psychology means learning psychology AND technology, not watching TV

There are several misconceptions about what it means to be a media psychologist. Since it is probably easier to say what a media psychologist is not than to define what it is, let me start there.

Media psychology is NOT:

  • A clinical degree
  • Media studies
  • Appearing on TV, having a radio show, or being in a movie
  • Running the AV department for your organization
  • Watching TV for a living
  • Hanging out with movie stars

Some of those things would be fun, of course, and some media psychologists may, in fact, do those things too, but sadly, they are not the defining characteristics of a media psychologist.

The key to media psychology is this: you have to learn psychology AND technology. If you want to "practice" media psychology, you need to know how media technologies work--how they are developed, produced, and consumed. And you have to know psychology so you can actually apply it to issues of usability, effectiveness, and impact. It may not seem very encouraging to hear, especially from someone who is passionate about media psychology, but if you are searching for a profession with a clear career path, predictable income estimations, and logical next steps, this is not a field for you.

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As I discussed in earlier posts, (Media Psychology: Why You Should Care Part 1 and Part 2--and yes, Part 3 is the last one in case you were worried), I view media psychology as the intersection of human experience and media. In other words, media psychology is the applied study of what happens when people interact with media as producers, distributors, and consumers through the lens of psychology.

I realize that definition is like waving your arms around the room and is no help at all. It makes media psychology very, very broad. Not surprisingly, the applications are also broad and equally ill-defined. The good news is that makes the potential is limitless because media psychology adds values to any place that an understanding of human behavior can be applied to media technologies.

I get lots of questions from recent college graduates about how to pursue a career in media psychology. I am always appreciative of their enthusiasm, honored to represent the field, and pleased to share my views and words of encouragement.

Media psychology is very exciting and has tremendous potential. This is the beginning of the field so the early entrants have the excitement and burden of defining the path. This is part of what I love about media psychology. There are no easy answers. It is not an “ivory tower” field. It requires a good knowledge base and draws across multiple disciplines because media technologies are not isolated or compartmentalized. It also requires the ability to think critically and have a certain amount of cognitive flexibility since the technologies (and thus the field) change constantly.

Media psychology is also considerably more complex than focusing on media as a reflection of culture because it encompasses the integration of media technologies into life in a myriad of ways. People are now interacting with media in multiple ways across multiple platforms as producers, consumers, and distributors of information of all kinds: visual images, sound, video, text, and color both synchronously and asynchronously.

My advice to recent psych grads is to get some media technology experience so that they can apply psychology to that knowledge base. If you don't understand the technology, it doesn't matter how well you know the psychology. This could mean anything from virtual environments like gaming, business and marketing communications, or community development in social media, to translating educational materials for technology. This can be done by working in the field in an area of interest, or finding a program in a university that has courses in both psychology and media communications and production (and not just mass media.) Areas in psychology that I think are particularly important to media psychology are cognitive psychology (how we process information, make mental models, attention, perception), developmental psychology (different stages of emotional, cognitive, and physical development across the lifespan), cultural psychology (an appreciation of how different people and cultures have different standards and goals and how that is part of the cognitive process), and positive psychology (what makes people function better both behaviorally and emotionally).

As I mentioned above, being a media psychologist is not being a psychologist in the media or promoting psychology in the media.

Media psychology is not a clinical degree. A degree in media psychology will not qualify you for the psychological treatment of patients in a mental health capacity. Not only will you not have the preparations, but there are serious ethical and legal consequences if you offer mental health treatment without adequate training and licensing.

If someone is interested in working with people in a mental health treatment capacity, then the logical next step is a clinical psychology program--even if heor she wants to use media technologies within that practice. First become a clinician and then learn how to translate that to technology.  Nothing is worse than bad psychology in volume.  As most people know, working with clients as a mental health professional requires specific training, supervised practice, an internship, and has licensing requirements. In the US, these requirements vary depending on the type of work/title/training (e.g. a counselor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist). Each title has very specific requirements defined by the governing body where you want to practice and the type of practice it entails. (The rules differ from place to place; even state to state, in the US, so it’s important to check for the specifics in the place you want to work.)

Being a research psychologist is somewhat different in terms of official requirements. An important component of studying psychology is learning how to do research and understand research results. (Yes, the dreaded statistics and research methodology courses.) Licensing requirements do not apply to research, however most lead researchers have graduate degrees at the doctoral level. There are also are ethical requirements when you are dealing with human subjects and therefore research done at institutions are reviewed by an Internal Review Board to make sure subjects rights and well-being are not violated by the research design.

To me, media psychology is about understanding the interaction of people and media technologies in the context of the current culture. Media technologies function as a system, with a continual feedback loop between users and the producers, and thus mutually influential. As much as we’d like to blame “the media” for a bunch of stuff, it is not separable from society. Human experience does not happen independent of the current social, political, and technological environment.

Media technologies are ubiquitous, with potential roles in everything from education, healthcare, science, business, advocacy, and public policy to entertainment. I have been involved in interesting research assessing website design for pre-schoolers, games that promoted altruistic behavior, developing educational initiatives that use emerging technologies like virtual worlds and augmented reality to create immersive learning environments, how technology literacy influences identity development, and how our mental models influence our interpretation of information. I also get to see media psychology in action by teaching online.

Recognizing the interactive and dynamic relationship between humans and media is key to a more accurate and useful understanding of the human-media experience that is at the root of effective assessment, development, and production of media that can make a positive contribution to life and society. Psychology provides a robust set of tools that allow us to consider the implications of individual differences, group behaviors, identity formation, developmental pathways, cognitive styles, visual processing, persuasion, attention, social cognition, sense of place, self-efficacy, and a whole bunch of other really cool stuff.

The tools of media psychology can only help us, though, if we are also willing, as individuals, to take responsibility for our part in the system. It is the only way we can develop better technologies and use them well.

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Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and teaches media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and UCLA Extension. more...

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