Media Psychology 2020: A Lens and a Blade

The Coronavirus Pandemic is Changing the Way We Live!

Posted Feb 20, 2020

Wright Graduate University, with permission
Guttenburg and his press
Source: Wright Graduate University, with permission

The 20th century exploded mass media into a rich landscape for inquiry—from online newspapers and magazines to journals, advertisements, radio, films, television, the internet, and into space. Fundamental questions have persisted through the years asking, “How and how much do media influence the thinking and behaviors of society and individuals?”

David Shenk, author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, interviewed an anonymous media executive in 1997 who said, “large numbers of people don’t realize how increasingly disruptive the technological revolution ahead of us is going to be.” Some think the future will look pretty much the way it does now, just faster. In fact, the future is going to morph us into a very different world (Shenk, 1997).

In 1997, Mark Zuckerberg was 13 years old. Zuckerberg’s Facebook platform launched seven years later and is now a leader among the wide array of high-impact services competing in our social media revolution. Shenk’s book was still in its first edition in 1998, when I developed and taught the first course in media psychology for Fielding Graduate University. Four years later, in 2002, at Fielding, I launched the first master’s degree, Ed.D., and Ph.D. programs in media psychology and media studies in any university.

Media saturates our lives. 

Media psychology is now an established specialty in psychology. In the American Psychological Association, it is Media Psychology Division 46. Media psychology practitioners now explore how media affect and influence our sensory and cognitive processes. This includes how and why media evokes specific behaviors in individuals, groups, and global societies.

The large and exciting realm of effects research—such as how various scientific, social, news and entertainment media influence audience perceptions and behaviors—is at the core of media psychology as an art and science. Understanding the nature and implications of motivated reasoning is one important area of research.

Snapchat, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, blogs, social networks, business networks, YouTube, Ted Talks, TikTok, and Twitter are only some examples of current social media applications thriving in the United States. Hundreds more services with different names are anchored in countries worldwide. The internet has become a galactic network of words, thoughts, and ideas immediately and accessible to virtually everyone.

LuskinInternational, with permission
Source: LuskinInternational, with permission

What is past is prologue.

In 1998, Dr. Lilli Friedland and I co-chaired a special APA Media Psychology Division 46 Task Force study focusing on media psychology and technology (B. J. Luskin, Friedland, L., 1998). We identified 11 major areas in which media psychology was fundamental in 1998. They are:

  • 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.

In 2012, the study served as a basis for expanding the APA Media Psychology Division 46 into The APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology. The study enabled us to start the first Ph.D. program in media psychology and an Ed.D. program in media studies. During the past twenty years the professional world of media psychology has matured. Artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, machine learning, magnetic resonance imaging, brain intelligence, robotics, smart manufacturing, blockchains, over-the-top technologies, and big data analytics have entered the media psychology lexicon.          

Theories in psychology are foundational.

The specialty of media psychology flows from applying accepted theories in psychology to the use of pictures, graphics, and sound in any form of communications technology (Luskin, 2002). Marshall McLuhan insightfully explained media psychology when he wrote The Medium is the Massage (McLuhan, 1967). Television was then rising as the dominant mass medium.

McLuhan, whom I knew, was central among the parade of theorists who researched media effects. Walter Lippmann published Public Opinion (1922) more than 40 years earlier, a work that explored how self-serving social perceptions shape behavior and influence opinion. Lippmann is often credited with coining the modern use of the word “stereotype” when he observed that people “live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.” 

Interestingly, Dr. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, coined the term “public relations” as a positive-sounding alternative to “propaganda” to describe methods for influencing societal behaviors or “engineering consent” (Bernays, 1928). During World War I, Bernays was an integral part of the U.S. Committee on Public Information (CPI), a powerful propaganda apparatus mobilized to package, advertise, and sell the war to the American people as one that would “Make the world safe for democracy.” Today, the field continues to evolve as new communication channels emerge, from the iPhone and the Dick Tracy-like Apple Watch to stadium super-screens, and all the competitors in between.

Verticals and silos.

Visualizing media communications in large segments of society is pervasive in separate markets called “verticals,” or global silos. Silos include commerce, education, health care, entertainment, telecommunications, public policy, government, and space. Each silo has its own constituents, followers, organizations, and associations that advance it’s specific, self-serving purposes.

In addition, media psychology is now foundational in intellectual property law, new-media entrepreneurship, and many other new fields, including space psychology, health and law. I have worked for law firms, assisting in dispute resolution of cases involving the nexus between media, psychology, and human behavior.

The 3S Model: Synesthesia, Semiotics, Semantics.

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 the distinctive and specialized areas of application (Luskin, 2002). The Ss are: (1) synesthesia, 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 (Luskin, 2019). In recent years, films such as Avatar, virtual and augmented personifications at the Shoah Holocaust Museum on the campus of the University of Southern California, airline and military flight simulators, and telemedicine advances both in diagnostics and patient care, are replete with examples.

Over-the-Top Technologies.

Cable, satellite, and terrestrial communications include what is now being called "over the top" streaming technologies, enabling Netflix, Amazon Video, Sling TV, HBO Now, Showtime, Fox Nation, Wherever TV, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and all variations of streaming media applications. New business models are emerging, and competition is intense.

New-collar career opportunities and positions are emerging. 

Today’s educational institutions need faculty and staff who (1) understand higher concepts in media arts and sciences and are grounded in fundamentals of psychology, (2) understand its applications to technology, and (3) are committed to research and practice. Among new cohorts of media-savvy professionals are writers, producers, programmers, engineers, designers, directors, artists, cinematographers, public relations and advertising specialists, and more.

Fundamental theories in media psychology.

Foundational theories include range of emotions and involve behaviors, empathy and accurate empathy, subliminal communication, the psychologies of control, persuasion, cognitive dissonance, learning, motivation, mastery, retention, trying, learned helplessness, affection, semiotic iconography, semantics and synesthesia. Media psychology adds research findings to expand understanding of such psychological dimensions as catastrophic thinking and truth-default theory.

The need for the scholar-practitioner.

The (1) scholar, (2) the practitioner, and (3) the scholar-practitioner comprise the professionals now active and increasingly needed in the field of media psychology. Included are those in the new journalism, entertainment media, product development, marketing and sales, blended and distance learning, telemedicine, production of all types, product development and distribution, and more.

Summary and Conclusions.

Universities in Germany, the Netherlands, England, Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Russia and elsewhere now offer degree programs in media psychology. There are more courses and programs in media psychology offered in other countries than in the United States. 

Thucydides, an Athenian historian in his book History of the Peloponnesian War, in 431 BCE accurately expressed our 21st century new-collar needs when he said: 

"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.”

The future requires new programs that educate researchers, executives and scholar practitioners who can develop and manage new services in education, public policy, commerce, health care, and entertainment.  Ignited by the dramatic implications of the Coronavirus pandemic, we are now experiencing a shift to increased work at home, an expansion of online learning, the birth of new types of services and more. New advanced certificate and degree programs in media psychology and technology are needed. The Coronavirus pandemic portends new, adapted and alternative futures in many fields. New collar jobs and career opportunities are here and demand is increasing. New certificate and degree programs in media psychology and technology are needed, now! 

Please send comments or suggestions to

Luskin Learning Psychology Series, No. 48

Special Thanks: Dr. Toni Luskin, Media Psychologist and Dr. Matt Nehmer, President, Colleges of Law, for contributing to this article.


Bernays, E. (1928). Propaganda (1st ed.).

Lippman, W. (1922). Public Opinion (Vol. 1). New York, Harcourt Brace.

Luskin, B.J. (2016). Explaining Media Psychology: A specialty that's time has come. [Media Psychology]. Psychology Today, 24(Luskin Learning Psychology).

Luskin, B.J. (2019). Synesthesia, Semiotics, Semantics and How We Learn. [Media Psychology]. Psychology Today, 46(Luskin Learning Psychology).

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

McLuhan, M. (1967). The Medium Is the Massage. Toronto: Random House 1967 Reissued by Ginko Press Inc, 1981.

Shenk, D.W. (1997). Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (1st ed.). New York: Little, Brown Book Group.

Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley, Trans.). In Richard Crawley (Ed.), The History of the Peloponnesian War (1st ed., pp. 410). New York: (Reprinted from: 2017).