Research and discussion of the media has taken place long before the designation of media psychology as a field of study. The humanities and social sciences have discussed the implications of media since the written text overtook the oral tradition. Philosophers as early as Plato explored the implication of the switch from an oral to a written culture. The influence of mass media has been discussed since the entrance of the movable type printing press in the 15th century. Although thinking about media has taken place for 2,500 years, how we think about media has changed over time.
We will begin our investigation in Ancient Greece. Early philosophers discussed not only the use of persuasion and rhetoric in speaking and writing, they also considered the psychological effects of media including speaking, writing, visual arts, and music. The sophist explored how the way something is said affects how it is received. This research in rhetorical analysis continues in contemporary media studies. Plato (427-347 B.C.E.) discussed the influence of music and visual art on the individual and groups. He warned against the power of poetry and even advised on which music to avoid when sad, angry, or happy.
Perhaps one of the most extensive philosophical critiques in media comes from Plato in the dialogue The Phaedrus. Written around 379 B.C.E., this dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus explores the merits of speaking over writing. A fundamental text of media studies, The Phaedrus also explores rhetoric and the power of language. In The Phaedrus, Plato also has his character Socrates describe his theory of the soul, or personality. This dialogue is one of the essential texts for thinking about media and the individual and culture.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) is another Ancient Greek thinker on media. Ranging in topics from political rhetoric to how we come to make meaning, Aristotle is frequently cited by contemporary media philosophers. Some of his most referenced works for media psychologists are: De Anima, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetorica, Politica, and De Poetica.
Philosophical discourse on media continues to be a prominent area of study. From Ancient Greece, through the Roman Empire, Medieval Scholasticism, Enlightenment Modernism, Romanticism, and existentialism, through contemporary Postmodern theory, much of media research is informed by philosophy. A few names from philosophy that you will encounter include: G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Žižek.
Sociologists and political theorists have a long tradition of media critical media research. Take for example this passage from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1840 text, Democracy in America.
“In France the space allotted to commercial advertisements is very limited, and… the essential part of the journal is the politics of the day. In America three quarters of the enormous sheet are filled with advertisements and the remainder is frequently occupied by political intelligence or trivial anecdotes; it is only from time to time that one finds a corner devoted to the passionate discussions like those which the journalists of France every day give to their readers.”
By the mid nineteenth century, newspaper and magazine circulation established circulation as the criteria for the value of advertising space. The political and economical interests in these media led to an interest in understanding the audience reception of the media and the messages. Advertisers wanted to best understand how to influence readers to purchase their products, as did the newspapers and magazines who published those ads. The greater the readership (circulation) the more valuable the ad space. The interest in audience reception was not limited to the publishers and advertisers. Politicians were interested in the reception of their political messages by audiences. Politics and commerce were the two driving forces of early media analysis.
One of the first, contemporary, shapers of media research was Walter Lippman. Lippman was a strong critic of journalism and journalists. Lippman penned two books that laid the groundwork for media research. His 1920 text, Liberty and the News called for a more scientific and objective journalism. In 1922 he published Public Opinion in which he applied the principles of psychology to journalism. According to some scholars, Public Opinion is the first, contemporary, work of media scholarship.
The 1930s were the golden age of radio. The first broadcast medium, radio quickly found itself experimenting with programming and revenue models. Taking the newspaper and magazine industry as a model, adspace became adtime, and listener numbers dictated the value of that adtime. Researchers developed new techniques in establishing who was listening to show; and when, on the radio.
The ambitions of advertisers, publishers, politicians, and academics describes the four, original kinds of research done in the media: public opinion research, propaganda analysis, marketing research, and social science research. Beginning in the 1920s, each of these groups employed various methods of research to gather data and form theories of how audiences receive media and messages.
Media historians usually point to Walter Lippmann’s 1922 text Public Opinion, as the starting point for contemporary media research and analysis. The text, divided into 28 chapters, analyzes a large spectrum of mass media issues, including how reality is shaped and how newspapers are organized. Two years earlier, Lippman published Liberty and the News, which explained journalism as a fourth-estate at the objective and just service of democracy. Chapters included titles such as Journalism and the Higher Laws. By 1925 Lippman demonstrated the susceptibility of the American political system to mass media propaganda. The Phantom Public is essential study for social and media psychologists.
Propaganda, originally referred to a kind of evangelizing done by 17th century Catholic missionaries. In its contemporary sense, it is a sort of political evangelizing of an ideology. The word refers to the Latin propagare, referring to the propagation, or spreading, of an ideology. An ideology is a systematic organization of ideas into a worldview. An awareness of government propaganda in World War I resulted in an emergence of research into the methods and function of persuasive techniques. Propaganda Technique in the World War by Harold Lasswell is an important, early, treatise on media propaganda.
The father of public relations, Edward Bernays, was working as a government opinion shaper as early as 1913. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays would promote psychoanalysis to advertising and public relations for the next 60 years. Bernays published over 20 books on social influence, some of which are said to have been a part of the library of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Although his uncle and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud did not approve of Bernays’s use of his theory for commercial and political gain, Bernays publication of Frued’s writings in America made Greenwich Village the “psychoanalytic capital of the world”.
In the 1930s, social scientists emerged as the authoritative voice in media research. In an attempt to measure the audience’s attitudes, public opinion research came to dominate the research. Mainly through polls, audiences were asked about their media consumption and data was statistically analyzed. The assumption was that people could objectively report what and why they consumed their chosen media. This was contrary to the psychoanalytic research, which assumed an unconsciously motivated, irrationally driven audience.
Between 1929 and 1932 the most significant, early study of media took place. The Payne Fund Studies was funded by a private philanthropic group and consisted of 13 studies focusing on the effects of motion pictures on the youth. The Payne Fund Studies found a correlation between juvenile delinquency, antisocial behavior, and promiscuity and movie consumption. A famous study used galvanometers to measure skin response during cinema viewing. The results showed that you people were most affected by cinema violence.
Meanwhile, marketing research was gearing up in the 1920s and by the 1930s was major part of the media industry. Applying social scientific, sociological, and psychoanalytic methods to advertising, media professionals sought the most effective way to convince audiences to purchase goods and services. Marketing research continues to be a formidable sector in the media industry. Research methods like subject interview and focus group feature prominently in advertising research.
In the 1930s, industrialization spurred a mass movement from agricultural towns to urban cities. The mass became a nameless, faceless, object of analysis for academics. Psychology, sociology, and psychoanalysis became interested in the group, in the mass psychology of the crowd. By 1933, when Hitler’s Nazi party became democratically elected by the German people, the social sciences were approaching the mass research at full-throttle. Titles such as The Mass Psychology of Fascism, The Authoritarian Personality, and The Sane Society explored the individual’s influence on the group, and the group’s influence on the individual.
By 1937, Princeton University and The Rockefeller supported the Radio Research Project. An all-star academic team including: Gordon Allport, Paul Lazarsfeld, Theodor Adorno, Frank Stanton, and Hadley Cantril investigated the effects of mass media on audiences and individuals. This research group examined listener habits and the influence of radio broadcast. Two of the most famous studies were of on the effects of the October 1938 broadcast of The War of The Worlds and the Little Annie Project, which introduced the Stanton-Lazarsfeld Program Analyzer. This research tool allowed subjects to rate programming in real-time. The researchers disagreed on methodology, resulting in Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno leaving the group in 1941. This split illustrates the ideological and methodological differences between cultural media studies and media effects studies that exists in the field. In the 1940s, Columbia University absorbed the Radio Research Project and renamed it the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Headed by Paul Lazarsfeld, the research institute functioned until 1977.
At the BASR, Lazarsfeld and his colleagues came to four major conclusions: 1. Mass media increased status for issues and institutions, 2. mass media created a sense of “normal” by showcasing oddities, 3. mass media decreased action and increased viewing, and 4. mass media propagates issues by monopolization (dominate the message), canalization (dominate the platform), and supplementation (meet face-to-face). The period of Lazarsfeld’s work is often referred to as the functionalist school of media studies.
A series of major research projects followed. In 1940, The People’s Choice study examined the 1940 presidential election between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. Using radio broadcasts, Roosevelt secured a third-term as President of the United States. The study revealed that people seek out messages that are consistent with their attitudes (called selective exposure) and both interpret and remember messages differently, depending on their attitudes (selective perception and selective retention). The People’s Choice Study also established two other important concepts in media psychology: 1. media does not convert, it reinforces a person’s position, and 2. Media influences opinion leaders who go on to influence the masses (two-step flow model).
The effects of cinema, television, and comic books were prominent in the 1950s. Treated in much the same way as video games are today, many of our culture’s social-ills were attributed to these three media. Television in the LIves of Our Children was published by Wilbur Schramm at Stanford University. Regarding adolescent and child television viewing, Schramm concluded:
“For some children, under some conditions, some television is harmful. For other children under the same conditions, or for the same children under other conditions, it may be beneficial. For most children, under most conditions, most television is probably neither particularly harmful nor particularly beneficial. . . .”
Comic books came under close scrutiny in the 1950s. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published a text of exhaustive research on comic books and juvenile delinquency, provocatively entitled, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham claimed that comic books promoted violence and sexual aberrations, including homosexuality in the Batman and Robin series.
Although psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychology played an influential role in media research through the 1960s, the American psychologists were largely behaviorists. After a scandalous affair with a graduate student resulted in his dismissal from Johns Hopkins University, John B. Watson, the father of behaviorism, took a position at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City. Watson applied the concepts of behavioral learning to ad design. The shift in the social sciences away from qualitative research resulted in an almost rigid preference for “scientific,” quantitative, research data.
An example of early, “data driven” research is work done by Hilde Himmelweit at the London School of Economics. In one of her studies, Himmelweit examined 1,854 child television viewers in 4 British cities. through surveys and observations, they concluded that television had its greatest influence on areas in which the children had no previous influence. They also found that repeated, dramatic, contextual narrative increased the influence of the message on children.
In the 1960s a number of criticism were aimed at the media effects approach. These critics claimed that media effects used a hypodermic needle approach that understood the individual as a passive, and involuntarily controlled, object to the media message. The critics also claimed that psychology should: 1. be looking at violent individuals rather than violent media, 2. should consider children in their cognitive developmental stage, 3. be aware of their conservative biases, 4. more precisely define their area of study, 5. refine their methodology and interpretation of data, 6. become more aware of their biases regarding the masses, 7. ground itself in theory, rather than arbitrary pieces of information. There was also an interest in conducting longitudinal studies that looked a long-term, rather than immediate media effects.
George Gerbner, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, founded the Cultural Indicators Research Project in 1968. The cultural indicators that Gerbner identified include: 1. TV has long-term effects that are gradual and accumulate over time, and 2. The more television watched, the more dangerous people perceived the world to be. The findings have come to be called the cultivation effect of media. Gerbner had studied 450 children in a New Jersy, finding that heavy television viewing produced a, mean world syndrome.
In the 1970s, Elihu Katz, also researching and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, examined how people use media to fulfill personal and social needs. His theory, called the Uses and Gratification Theory, described active viewers who actively participated in their media consumption. This model reflected the increasing popularity of the cognitive paradigm in psychology that was taking over academic psychology. Katz found that people are driven to media by needs, that they have certain expectations of the media to fulfill those needs, and that a dependency on the media for need gratification could result in unintended consequences. Another Uses and Gratifications theorist, Denis McQuail, pointed out that media serves four types of needs: diversion, personal relationships, personal identity, and surveillance.
Meanwhile, in the cultural studies tradition, a group of exiled, European, theorists were building an influential body of theoretical work in the American universities. The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory was a unique blending of Marxist political analysis and Freudian psychoanalysis. These theorists included: Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Walter Benjamin, and Jürgen Habermas. On of the interests of the Critical Theorists was to illustrate the threat to democracy by “dumbing-down” of citizens by “popular” mass media. Today, we find this tradition in the critical media theories of feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis, Marxist critique, rhetorical, and erotic analysis of the media.
Today, we find media psychology research to be a interdisciplinary field, informed by neuroscience, film studies, sociology, Critical Theory, literary theory, economics, history, art, design, communications, and political science. Media psychology is perhaps the most avant-garde of the psychologies, one that is serving as a model for the future of all of psychology.