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Explaining Media Psychology

New times, new developments, and new opportunities in media psychology

Luskin's Learning Psychology Series—No. 24

Media Psychology 2017: A Specialty Whose Time Is Now.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote an article titled, “Media Psychology: A Field Whose Time Is Here.” Variations were featured in the National Psychologist and the California Psychologist. My purpose now is to update and advance that description and definition of media psychology as it is today.

Technology has evolved dramatically through the years, psychology has advanced, and media psychology has moved into prominence as an area for research and practice.

Media now saturate our lives. In the same way that “a fish only notices the water when it is gone,” if media communications were suddenly eliminated from our lives, we would experience a major social and emotional sense of loss.

Media psychology is both an art and a science.

It explores how media affect our sensory and cognitive processes, including how media evokes specific behaviors in individuals, larger groups, or global societies. The large and exciting realm of effects research (how various news and entertainment media influence audience perceptions and behaviors, audience demographics, and audience numbers) is central to media psychology. Examples of such influences are:

  • The formation, maintenance, or change of individual and group stereotypes on-camera and off-camera
  • Diverse perceptions in diversity and its effects on audiences in storytelling
  • Influencing media perspectives in advertising, in propaganda messages, in learning and education, including utilizing new information to build new skills

In 1998, Lilli Friedland and I co-chaired a special APA Division 46 (Media Psychology) Task Force Study focusing on media and technologies (B. J. Luskin, Friedland, L., 1998). Using the Delphi methodology to survey a wide variety of experts, we identified 11 major areas in which media psychology is fundamental:

  • Writing about media or performing as expert guests on various media
  • Consulting with media personnel
  • Researching ways to improve all forms of media
  • Making new technologies related to media more effective and user-friendly
  • Using new technology in media to enhance the practice of clinical psychology
  • Most areas of education or training, including delivery by traditional, blended, and online methods
  • Developing media standards
  • Working in commercial fields
  • Studying the sociological, behavioral, and psychological effects of media
  • Developing media materials for physically and developmentally challenged populations
  • Developing media materials for all underserved populations
  • Working with deviant or criminal populations

As a result of this study that served as a basis for broadening the APA Media Psychology Division into The Society for Media Psychology and Technology and provided a foundation for new programs, we were able to start the first Ph.D. program in Media Psychology and an Ed.D. program in Media Studies at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. The programs focused on applying theories in psychology to media and understanding their impact on human behavior.

The media psychology and media studies programs have been quite successful. There are now many other programs in media psychology internationally, and media psychology courses are increasingly taught in colleges and universities. In addition, there is now a significant and growing need in colleges and universities for courses, certificates, and degree programs in media psychology and media studies as specialty areas. Media psychology is a field whose time is here.

Theories in psychology are fundamental.

The specialty of media psychology flows from applying understood theories in psychology to the use of pictures, graphics, and sound in any form of communications technology (Luskin, 2002). Media psychology is the interface between the human experience and all forms of media.

Media psychology poses complex and sometimes unique legal and ethical challenges for psychologists. As Marshall McLuhan explained, "The medium is the massage." Diversity is the basis of a future that is human-centered and screen-deep, given the proliferation of devices from the iPhone to the stadium marquee to the Dick Tracy-evolved Smartwatch by Apple and its competitors.

One primary dimension of applied media psychology involves the appearance of psychologists in print, electronic, and computer-based media and their presentations of information about the entire discipline of psychology. This group includes psychologists who consult with the media on various topics, psychologists who produce products for the media (such as books, films, magazine and journal articles, on and off-line), psychologists appearing on radio or television in various guest and host capacities, and psychologists who offer online services, such as education, advice, counseling information, and therapy. Forensic media psychology has become a specialty due diligence area in litigation and various areas of research.

New and expanded dimensions of media psychology that have emerged since the 1998 study include:

  • Those who work with and within the government, business, and learning industries in the endless process of adapting hardware and software to meet the various goals of information and/or communication
  • Those who apply psychology in a variety of fields, including commerce, education, entertainment, government, health services, and telecommunications
  • Media presentations in institutional settings in pursuit of a variety of purposes, including commercial opportunities
  • Innovations in distance learning for purposes related to education and commerce and more

Media psychology in a nutshell:

  • Provides mechanisms for engaging morality at many levels
  • Affects standards of moral conduct in cultures worldwide
  • Influences behavior through affecting self-worth and pride
  • Demonstrates that good people can also do cruel things
  • Is a vehicle to global communication and freedom
  • Breeds new and sometimes convoluted language
  • Applies advantageous aphorisms
  • May be used to reinforce or defuse responsibility
  • Has the power to humanize or dehumanize situations, such as in the presentation of war or the current wave of Al-Qaeda and ISIS Radical Jihadist Islamic Terrorism

The field of media psychology is now formalized.

In 2012, the Media Psychology Division 46 of the American Psychological Association became The Society for Media Psychology and Technology. Surprisingly, however, media psychology, though more developed and growing as a specialty field, is still not well understood by the population at large.

Verticals and silos

Visualizing media communications in large segments of society may be easier if we think of different markets as “verticals,” e.g., global silos. Silos include commerce, education, health care, entertainment, telecommunications, public policy, and government. Each vertical has its own followers, organizations, and associations.

In addition, media psychology is now foundational in intellectual property law, new media entrepreneurship, and other new fields, such as space psychology and law. I have worked for law firms, assisting in mediations and dispute resolution cases involving the nexus between media, psychology, and human behavior. I have made presentations to the Astronomical Society about Space Law. This type of work is an example of “forensic media psychology,” mentioned earlier.

Media psychology is ubiquitous. In today’s world, media psychology is an increasing force in social media, telehealth and teletherapy, and distance and online education, including hybrid courses that are both in and out of the classroom and virtual classrooms. Media psychology is a growing specialty in entertainment consulting, conducting media interviews, in virtual and augmented reality applications and therapies, and in consumer products.

Media psychology is a growing factor in brand development, marketing, advertising, product placement, and game theory. Media psychology is central in cinema, including film analysis, media-assisted rehabilitation, telecommuting communications, effective public health, public service, and public policy, including political campaigns. It is also applied in medical education and practice and in all forms of media publishing.

Today’s news media is all about media psychology.

The 2016 elections are their own best example of how initiatives in behavior affect people. In addition, as noted earlier, the present radical jihadist movement is, to a significant extent, based and built on the ability to use media to perpetuate fear and influence society and the world through terrorism. These are only some of the myriad examples that could be included in an increasingly extensive and up-to-date description of media psychology.

The convergence of media, technology, communication, art, and science is increasingly transforming our world.

The “Socio-psychomedia effect” is a neologism combining sociology, psychology, and media (pictures, graphics, and sound). Media psychology and media studies require an understanding of both the physical and emotional aspects of the brain, including the latest theories on the psychology of emotions, control, expression, persuasion, sexuality, and gender. It encompasses the study of believability and the suspension of disbelief, situational cognition, assessment, learning, mapping, feedback, reinforcement, mastery, persistence, theories of mastery, success, and failure. (T. T. Luskin, Luskin, B.J., 1998).

Verbal and nonverbal communication through music, sound, and images evokes human responses that may be understood through media psychology. Luskin’s "Three S Model" addresses these distinctive and specialized areas of application (Luskin, 2002). The S’s are: (1) synesthetics, the study of stimulating and combining one sense with another; (2) semiotics, communication through the identification, manipulation, and use of symbols, including screen design, iconography, navigation, and user interface; and (3) semantics, understanding the use, effects, and implications of words.

The 3S Model

Understanding synesthetics, semiotics, and semantics is pivotal in understanding the relationship between media, human response, and the evolving language of this new field. New vocabulary, such as an emoticon, screenager, webhead, and cybrarian are examples of emerging terms and changing language.

The field of psychology itself is rapidly evolving and expanding. Most of the emphasis through the years has been centered on modifying various behaviors and correcting deficiencies through theoretical or applied clinical psychology.

Those who are interested in being involved in the evolution of media psychology and media studies are encouraged to join the Society of Media Psychology and Technology, Division 46 of the American Psychology Association, as regular, associate, or student members.

Cable, satellite, and terrestrial communications include what is now being called "Over the Top" technologies, such as Netflix, Amazon Video, Sling TV, HBO Now, Showtime, Wherever TV, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and all variations of streaming media applications. Rapid-communication, open-market, accessible streaming media applications are catalytic engines in the form of new products. To be successful, each requires an understanding of psychology in addition to much research and study to compete effectively in the world.

New career opportunities and positions are continually emerging.

Among new cohorts of professionals are writers, producers, programmers, engineers, designers, directors, artists, cinematographers, public relations and advertising specialists, and others. Media psychology is a sub-specialty in communications, psychology, and education, and media studies is the field of research with a focus on the study of media effects. Courses in media psychology should be included in the educational programs training professionals in all of these areas.

Today’s educational institutions are in need of faculty and staff who understand higher concepts in media arts and sciences.

Our new media communication tools are both sensory and intellectual. An understanding of psychology is at the core of their most effective use. Companies and individuals must understand the psychology of media to produce compelling products and perform competitively.

The emerging scholar-practitioner

The (1) scholar, (2) the practitioner, and (3) the scholar-practitioner comprise the range of professionals professionally active in the field of media psychology.

In summary, new and balanced programs in media psychology require approaches recognizing that:

"A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking being done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools.” —Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 431 BCE

Media psychology is a field whose time is here.

Special Thanks to:

Toni Luskin, Ph.D., for assistance in researching and writing and Rick Post, J.D., and Sherice Bellamy for editing this article and Janeene Nagaoka for the original graphics.


Luskin, B. J. (2002). Casting the Net Over Global Learning (1 ed. Vol. 1). Los Angeles: Griffin.

Luskin, B. J., Friedland, L. (1998). Division 46 Taskforce Study of New Career Opportunities in the Emerging Field of Media Psychology (46, Trans.) (1 ed., Vol. 1, pp. 101). Los Angeles: American Psychological Association.

Luskin, T. T., Luskin, B.J. (1998). Media, Psychology and the Socio-Psychomedia Effect (1st ed. Vol. 51). Chicago: International Engineering Consortium.

Luskin, B. Media Psychology: A Field Whose Time is Here, The National Psychologist, September 2002

Luskin, B., Media Psychology: A Field Whose Time is Here, (Reprinted in The California Psychologist, May/June 2003

Luskin, B. Defining and Describing Media Psychology, The Media Psychology Effect, Psychology Today, November 2012

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