Thursday, January 11, 2018

An Introduction to Media Psychology

What is media psychology? What do media psychologists do and how do they do it? What is the intention of the media psychologist as an individual, and media psychology as a discipline? These are the five questions that I would like to explore with you in this essay.

A good place to begin is by defining the words media and psychology. You have learned, no doubt, that the definition of psychology is “the scientific study of behavior and mental processes”. This definition of psychology is not the first, not the last, and not the only definition. In fact, this definition reflects the system of knowledge (called a paradigm) of one of the seven, contemporary systems of knowledge, or schools of thought of psychology; the cognitive paradigm. The cognitive revolution in psychology took place in the early 1960s against the prevailing behaviorist paradigm. From the early 1930s through the 1960s, introduction to psychology textbooks defined psychology as “the scientific study of behavior”. When computer scientists, linguists, and artificial intelligence researchers began treating the brain as a piece of computer hardware and the mind and thinking as software, the definition changed to include mental processes, which means cognition or thinking. It was said at this time that psychology had “regained consciousness,” after a forty-year period of classical and operant conditioning theories of behaviorism.

Cognitive psychology, born at Harvard University in 1960, usurped behaviorism as the dominant, or most popular, way of defining and doing psychology. As you are aware, most psychologists today refer to themselves as cognitive psychologists, and there remains a few behaviorists as well. There are five other schools of thought in psychology, each with their own history, definition, system of knowledge, and research methods. Deciding which of the schools of thought is the correct, best or true psychology is a matter of opinion. At some point in one’s education, one finds themselves drawn to one of these models and begins working within it. Or, one rejects all, and sets-out on their own path.

Psychodynamic psychology is referred to as depth psychology. The focus of the dynamic psychologist is on the unconscious motivations that influence conscious thought. We might define psychodynamic psychology as the study of the unconscious. Existential-phenomenological psychology (also referred to as humanism) focuses on four main questions of the human condition: freedom, meaning, isolation, and mortality. Evolutionary psychology is interested in the reproductive and survival strategies of adaptation. The socio-cultural psychologist are interested in how society and culture determine how an individual thinks, feels, and acts. And, biological psychologists are interested in the three messenger systems of the body: the endocrine, nervous, and genetic systems.

We can gather from these three, brief, paragraphs that when we speak of psychology, we really are speaking of psychologies. Some are built on an empiricist, mathematical, logical  model that relies on quantifiable research methods (behaviorism, cognitive, biological, and evolutionary). Others are largely qualitative and interested in description rather than causation (existential-phenomenological humanists). And psychoanalysis, whose founder (Sigmund Freud) set-out to establish a “new science,” one that could account for the unobservable and immeasurable aspects unique to human beings.

If we consider the major paradigm’s definition of psychology, it goes something like this: William James in 1890 called psychology the science of mental life. Behaviorist John B. Watson called psychology the scientific study of behavior. The cognitive psychologists have called it the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. Today, neuroscience has eclipsed the field of psychology, and is defined as the scientific study of the nervous system. There is no one correct definition, system, or school of thought in psychology, only one which, through various means, garners the most support at a given time in history (Kuhn).
It’s useful to take a look at the etymology of the word psychology. We find two Greek words, psykhe and logos. The former means soul or spirit and the latter means word or symbol (think of the meaning-pregnant logos in our culture). The term psyche was used as we today use mind since the Enlightenment. If you replace the word soul with mind in the writings of Plato, you will find that you are, in fact, reading about psychology, the study of the soul.

The term media originates from the Latin medium, and refers to something in the middle. In the visual arts, the medium can be paints, pens, pencils, and clay. Media refers to anything that comes between two or more people. In its most technical form, media exists between a sender and a receiver of a message. Whereas media is plural, medium is singular. Paper is a medium. Paper, film, and radio are media. The term media also has a secondary  usage, perhaps more popular outside of academic media studies. This second use of the word media is usually in reference to broadcast news. When used in this way, the term is typically objectified as the media.

We can venture a general definition of media psychology that can be accepted by all seven schools of psychology. The study of psychological processes of media might be generic enough. Each of the schools of thought discuss media, messages, senders, and receivers in different ways and with different intentions. That is what we will be studying over the next fifteen weeks.

In the United States, the first professional media psychologists organized the American Psychological Association Division 46, The Society for Media Psychology and Technology, in the 1980s. The division lists its primary goals as being to:

  • Support research that enhances the understanding of the impact of media and technology and their effectiveness to transmit information, create social connection and influence behavior

  • Develop a community for the discussion and development of theoretical frameworks for the study and practice of media psychology

  • Support the development and use of positive and prosocial media and technologies

  • Encourage the ethical use of technology across all domains, from education and healthcare to marketing practices

  • Support efforts to encourage the public and educators to integrate technological literacy and digital citizenship

  • Facilitate the interaction between psychology and media representatives to encourage a fair and accurate representation of the science and practice of psychology and encourage the effective and ethical uses of media to inform the public about the science and profession of psychology and the impact of media and technology on individuals and society

  • Enrich and encourage the teaching, training, and practice of media psychology

  • Encourage adherence to APA ethical standards and guidelines in the use of media. The Division has liaisons with the APA Education, Practice, Science, and Public Interest Directorates.

Division 46 members actively work to stake their claim on the definition, history, and scope of media psychology. Bernard Luskin, Stuart Fischoff, and Pamela Rutledge each contribute their view of the field in essays posted on the division’s homepage.

According to the APA, there are currently fifteen graduate programs that discuss media psychology in some way, and two that offer graduate degrees. The first undergraduate course in media psychology was offered as a special topics elective, at Rutgers University, Newark in 2012. In 2013, the course was adopted by Rutgers University, Newark as a part of its standard, undergraduate, course offerings.

We approach media psychology as an interdisciplinary field of study. Including the seven schools of thought in psychology, we also include media philosophy, literary and cinema studies, cultural studies, computer science, and communications studies in our definition of the field. We understand media psychologies as a collection of systems theories, rather than a unified psychology. In this way, what we study is shaped by how we study it. Each psychological school of thought contributes a unique perspective on media, as does the other disciplines involved. It is truly an area of psychology that is interdisciplinary, and open to what American psychologist William James called radical empiricism.

In 1959, author C.P. Snow delivered a Rede lecture that has become a benchmark in intellectual history; The Two Cultures. In his address, Snow described the hostile atmosphere that exists in academia. Snow proposed that the sciences and the humanities each represented two different cultures that did not play nicely with each other. Calling for a third culture, one that synthesized the humanities and sciences, Snow foreshadowed or incubated what we today call interdisciplinary studies. In fact, some of the most influential psychologists of today are members of media mogul John Brockman’s, modelled as the third culture. seeks to eliminate understand phenomenon in a fuller way, a way that can only be achieved by going between systems of knowledge, rather than defending any one system. Each year Brockman asks a question of the Edge community and publishes their collective answers in a book. In 2011 Brockman published, Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?

Interdisciplinary Media Psychology follows the example of We do not seek to fight for or against any one school of thought, but rather, seek to view phenomenon through different disciplinary lenses. This means that the exploring the history, systems, research methods, and findings of media psychologies is a very broad endeavor.

Another similarity exists between media psychology and Snow’s 1959 lecture. In media psychology, as in psychology as a whole, there are two cultures. The scientific culture of psychology is rooted in empiricism, reductionism, mechanism, logic, quantitative research, and mathematics. This includes the behaviorists, cognitivists, biologists, and evolutionists. The humanities culture of psychology is based on rationalism, motivation, potential, philosophy, ethics, emotion, indeterminism, holism, irrationality, and purpose. This is the culture of the humanist-existential-phenomenologists, and the psychodynamic psychologists.

The two cultural histories of media psychology are: the media effects tradition and the cultural media studies tradition. In this course we will be looking into both of these traditions, and understand how one’s intellectual position (culture) can determine the conclusions one draws from their research. We will give an overview of both areas of study, leaving the history of the two cultures for later.

Broadly speaking, media effects studies are interested in finding cause and effect relationships between a message and an receiver (audience member). Media effects are typically discussed regarding the effect, such as the effect of violence, pornography, prosocial behavior, education, etc. and media effects are also discussed regarding the system affected: physiological, cognitive, belief, attitudinal, affective, and behavioral. Further designation is made regarding the effect on individuals, the public, institutions, and society Media effects studies has a rich history with an immense literature. It has also undergone considerable manifestations in methodology and considerable criticism for its usefulness. We can define media effects research as the “attempt to understand, explain, and predict the effects of mass media on individuals and society.”

The second approach in studying the media is cultural studies. “This research approach focuses on how people make meaning, apprehend reality, articulate values, and order experience through their use of cultural symbols. Cultural studies scholars also examine the way status quo groups in society, particularly corporate and political elites, use media to circulate their messages and sustain their interests. this research has attempted to make daily cultural experience the focus of media studies, keying on the subtle intersections among mass communication, history, politics, and economics.” Also referred to as critical media studies, the research (called cultural criticism) focuses on Marxist theory, pragmatism, rhetorical analysis, feminism and queer critiques, as well as erotic and psychoanalytic theory. These critical analyses can also be referred to as theory.

We can know through sensation (this is called empiricism) or through symbolic perception (rationalism). Cultural theorists are interested in contextual, personal, and social construction of meaning. The symbolic messages travel from senders to receivers through a medium. Media can also be referred to as a channel. Architecture, public spaces, magazine advertisements, cinema, and the body are all media that carry messages. Person to person communications is called interpersonal media. Messages that transcend space and time (are available in many places at many times) is called mass media, and is usually categorized into: print,  motion picture, sound recording, broadcast, and new media. Communications that take place within ourselves is called intrapersonal communication, also known as thinking and feeling. [Fig. 1]

Fig. 1

This symbolic meaning-making has foundations in philosophy and in psychology. As we will see, media studies and communications studies shares a lineage with American pragmatism and the psychology of William James, the founder of psychology in America. Cultural media studies heightens our awareness of our relationships with objects and how they become significant (meaning-full) to individuals and society. Meaning also manifests from how we contextualize messages and media. Consider how in academe we privilege printed text over other video, audio, and new media. If you listen to an audio version of a book, do you feel awkward claiming to have read it? Listening to a book might seem less legitimate than reading it. Why is this the case? If we consider that we are thinking about and processing the same information, and that we have evolved oral rather than literate brains, are our prejudices reasonable?

The same examination can take place when considering new media. What is the interest of political and economic institutions that maintain that a printed textbook or journal is more acceptable in academic writing than a online source. Clearly there are institutional and cultural belief systems at play in meaning making here. Why might we find the same book or song of better quality when published by a larger corporation rather than independently? Cultural media theorists offer frameworks and tools to heighten our awareness of the role and meaning of objects in our lives.

In media psychology we do not privilege one media over another. A media scholar might research oral, written, video, and audio, as well as print texts. We refer to all media as texts that can be read for meaning. We also do not privilege the written text in our presentation of our research and thinking. Ideas are presented through text, audio, video, and images, as well as through traditional (analogue) and new (digital) media.