4 minute read

Media Psychology

What does psychology have to do with media?, Processing information

Area of psychology that researches the complex ways in which media influence attitudes, behavior, and feelings.

According to reports the average American household has the television on for about seven hours a day. It is also reported that young people are increasingly turning to the Internet as a form of escape and information-gathering. The movie industry spends billions of dollars on new films every year. Advertising currently has more outlets, like television, billborads, magazines, radio, the Internet, and even movies, than it has ever had in history. And while reading is taking a backseat to newer technological forms of media, newspapers are still a primary source for news about the world. On a planet filled with information and entertainment, in a time when our social evolution seems bound to media, it is more important than ever to study its effects.

What does psychology have to do with media?

In academic discussions of mass media, psychology has long provided concepts, techniques, and theories of its function. All media can be described in simple terms, like someone saying a movie was funny or sad, or saying an article was very polished, or describing the Internet as chaotic. But when the theories of a discipline are added to an analysis of something, those theories give the subject matter a framework, or a theoretical perspective. Psychology, for example, brings cognitive theories to media studies. Such theories look at the interactions between receivers and the media.

What psychologists have discovered about media and people is varied, and the research has really just begun. Some psychologists explore the messages we see and hear and the effects those messages have on people. For instance, psychology has been studying the way women are portrayed on television. Women on television are generally very, very thin. Some psychologists have done research that suggests that the thin women on television make a stereotype that dictates that women should be thin, and if real-life women have different body sizes they do not feel good about themselves. Sometimes it is what we do not see and hear in the media that makes or enforces a stereotype. For instance, have you ever seen a sitcom that centers around an Asian-American family? Not seeing Asian-Americans on television keeps such people invisible in the mainstream of society. Since the media has become a source of shared cultural experience that people use to understand the world around them, it is important to explore what we are getting from the media.

Processing information

There are different theories on how we understand what we see and hear. The culturalist approach suggests that the meaning or interpretation of media is subjective or individualized. Since perception involves all the senses and also giving meaning to all information a person takes in, different people can get different meanings from the same media. The memory has patterns of organization, also called scripts or schemata, which contain strings of associations that are activated by new experiences. New fragments of information are added to the existing scripts whenever we experience something new. For instance, when you go to see a movie about slavery, your memory brings up the script you have about that topic. All relevant information is added to what you are seeing in the movie. You may even think you see things in the movie that are not there, but exist in your perception because your script is running while you experience the film.

Perception is also affected by our belief systems, attitudes, and needs. For instance, if you are someone who is a passivist, that is, a person who does not condone violence at any time, you may watch a movie about war and take away the message that the movie was showing what a tragedy violence can be. If someone who is patriotic or fascinated by weaponry watches the same movie, they may think the movie was glorifying war and showing off some of the best guns ever made. In this way, it is said that there exists selective perception, or, "the principle of least effort." It is easier to perceive messages that go along with what you expect or believe. Every receiver of information has their own frame of reference, or place they are coming from when they receive new media.

Psychologists also study how media acts as a social tool. People joining book clubs, or a bunch of kids going to the movies together and then talking about what they saw, friends asking each other if they'd seen the latest episode of the hottest new show on T.V., or families watching television together are instances of meanings being created socially. Groups of people discussing media might be called "interpretive communities," of "reference groups." You may use different scripts, or frames of reference, depending on the social group you are with because our interpretive communites also influence our perception.

See also Television and aggression

Lara Lynn Lane

Further Reading

Perspectives on Psychology and the Media Washington, D.C.: APA, 1997.

Psychology and the Media: A Second Look Washington, D.C.: APA, 1999.

A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication Harris, Richard Jackson, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1994.

Becker, Samuel L. "Constructing the World in Your Head: How Mass Media Influences the Way People Process Information," ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 44, no. 4, (Winter 1987): 373-382.

Buck, Ross. "Nonverbal Communication: Spontaneous and Symbolic Aspects," American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 31, no. 3, (Jan/Feb 1988).

Comstock, George and Stuart Fischoff. "The Field and the Discipline." American Behavioral Scientist, vol.35, no.2, (Nov/Dec 1991).

McIlwrath, Robert, et. al. "Television Addiction: Theories and Data Behind the Ubiquitous Metaphor." American Behavioral Scientist, vol.35, no.2, (Nov/Dec 1991): 104-121.

Reeces, Byron and Daniel R. Anderson. "Media Studies and Psychology." Communication Research, vol.16, no.5, (October 1991): 597-600.

Shapiro, Michael A. and Annie Lang. "Making Television Reality: Unconscious Processes in the Construction of Social Reality." Communication Research, vol.18, no.5, (October 1991): 685-705.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaBranches of Psychology