What is media psychology? It’s a field with no consensus definition, no clearly-defined career paths, and no easy answers. In spite of that, it can add value anywhere human behavior intersects media technologies. Here’s why:

  1. Media technologies are everywhere
  2. People of all ages use media technologies a lot
  3. Young people use them most
  4. Older people worry about younger people
  5. Technology is not going away
  6. We all worry if this is good or bad or somewhere in-between
  7. Psychology is the study of people of all ages

Media psychology is using #7 to answer #6 because of #1 through #5

Psychology is key to understanding the implications of technology.   Consequently, it seems like it should be pretty straightforward to define media psychology. For some reason, though, it’s not. I have had discussions with colleagues for hours (or at least it seems like it) about what constitutes media, mediated communication, and technology and what we mean by psychology in the context of media—and we’re not even philosophers. In this and the following two posts, I will discuss my definition of media psychology and why I think media psychology is so important. 

Both media and psychology have made major contributions to western culture throughout the 20th century. Can you imagine The New Yorker without Freudian references or Jason Bourne without operant conditioning? The term “media,” however, used to be confinable to a bucket labeled “mass media.” Our awareness of media, however, has reached the collective consciousness, as if we all woke up yesterday, awakened by our programmable alarm with the iPod attachment, and over our coffee made automatically by our coffeemaker, checked our blackberry for emails and headline news and then looked up shocked to see that our kids are doing much the same. This awareness is leaving people clamoring for a new level of understanding. There is an infiltration of media applications and information technologies into nearly every aspect of our lives. What does it all MEAN? Just like Mighty Mouse (or maybe Underdog), media psychology emerged in a time of need.

The goal of media psychologists is to try to answer those questions by combining an understanding of human behavior, cognition, and emotions with an equal understanding of media technologies. Unlike some types of media studies, media psychology is not just concerned with content. Media psychology looks at the whole system. There is no beginning and no end. It is a continual loop including the technology developer, content producer, content perceptions, and user response. Just as Bandera describes social cognitive theory as the reciprocal action between environment, behavior, and cognition, so does media psychology evaluate the interactive process of the system. There is no chicken, no egg to this system. They all coexist and coevolve with each other.

There is no consensus among academicians and practitioners as to the definition or scope of media psychology. This is because the field must be representative of not only the work currently being done, but also the work that needs to be done. This is a field that changes every time iTunes releases a new mobile app.

The interests of the person doing the defining often drive definitions of a field. However the fact that both ‘media’ and ‘psychology’ are themselves broad and prone to misconception contributes to the definitional confusion. In spite of our awareness of media everywhere, when someone mentions media the metaphor we fall back on is often mass media. It’s a field where you must continually define your terms. Does ‘media’ mean television or does ‘media’ include computer interfaces that facilitate information management and distribution?

The same heuristics impact the popular perception of the field of psychology. There is a wide world of psychology beyond the narrow view of clinical applications that evoke images of Freud and talk therapy. So it isn’t surprising when media psychology is perceived as a psychologist appearing in the media, such as the radio shrink for many years Dr. Toni Grant or the infamous Dr. Phil. This view of media psychology also has links to the origins of first division (46) for Media Psychology of the American Psychological Association (APA). Due to the prevalence of mass media relative to other media technologies, it was home for several psychologists with media venues. The initial emphasis in Division 46 on training psychologists to effectively appear in the media, how to deliver psychological information over the media, the ethical limitations of doing therapy using media, and as a watchdog for the accurate portrayal of psychologists in the media far outweighed the emphasis on research looking at media use and development.

Part of the confusion also comes from the cross-disciplinary aspects of media psychology. Not all people doing what I would call ‘media psychology’ are psychologists. In fact, much of the early work came from marketing and advertising and the bulk of the research in media psychology has been published in academic and applied disciplines beyond psychology, such as sociology, communications and media studies, education, computer and information sciences, as well as business management and marketing. What has often been challenging is the lack of intellectual cross-pollination. Media psychology seeks to address that by bringing together all these approaches and vocabularies with the recognition that communication, cognition, and emotions are pretty fundamental to human experience and therefore have, by definition, foundations in psychological thought.

In the next post (Part 2), I will discuss how psychology matters to the study of media.


Twitter: mediapsychology

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