What is Media Psychology?

By Feb.27, 2012

For me, Media Psychology is about understanding the complex interactions between media content, the mediums themselves and the consumers of that media. Admittedly this is a lot to cover. My own interests are in measuring engagement with the mediums themselves, which I have arrived at from a career in cognitive experimental psychology. Hopefully this blog post will make the links clear.

Marshall MacLuhan’s famous declaration ‘The Medium is the Message’ encouraged media scholars to look at the effects of the mediums themselves. With an increasing array of new mediums this statement may be more pertinent than ever. Indeed, Nicholas Carr writes persuasively about how the internet is having a limiting effect on our memory and attention spans. The vast linkable network of information, he suggests, encourages a shallow skim across many sources in contrast to the immersive experience offered by a book. Ingenious psychological experiments are emerging demonstrating these effects. But this line of thought is rather doom-laden. A more positive approach is to view mediums as tools that enhance and extend our cognitive abilities. Much as a calculator extends our numerical capacities, the internet extends our knowledge base.  This perspective instead emphasises the opportunity to design tools that tap this potential for use in education and learning.

To be able to design effectively for users it’s important to understand their interaction with media. Media Psychology therefore incorporates usability and user-experience testing.  Effective user-testing requires a solid grounding in research skills. It also incorporates the use of techniques heavily utilised in Psychology, for example eye-tracking, observation and physiological measures. We used several usability methods, including eye-tracking, in our recent work with BBC Children’s. A particular challenge is to measure media engagement naturalistically without disrupting it. If we’re in a transported state, unaware of anything but the media we’re engaged with, how can we measure what this experience is like?

We find an increasing trend for media multi-tasking, simultaneously using a smart-phone and TV for example, which presents challenges for communication through a single medium. There are also concerns that heavy media multi-tasking might have effects on our attention, particularly during development. Christopher Lowe, one of our doctoral students, has taken on the challenge of better understanding media multitasking in children. Again, however, where there are threats there are also opportunities. Trans-media storytelling is the practice of utilising the variety of media platforms to tell different aspects of a story, empowering the audience to choose which aspects to engage with or contribute to.

Understanding media engagement should be a key concern of anyone in the media and communications industries as level of engagement influences entertainment, learning, persuasion and attitude change. Engagement is determined not just by the content, but also with interactions with the mediums themselves, and for me this is a key aspect in the field of Media Psychology.

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