Friday, March 27, 2015

Hugo Münsterberg On Psychology and The Cinema

At the turn of the century the "movies" were the latest rage in both Europe and America. For the French, in the tradition of the Brothers Lumière, cinema was a social experience. The very nature of their sewing machine inspired camera, and the gas lamp illuminated projector, made the cinema a public experience. Unlike the American Kinetoscope, which came out of Thomas Edison's New Jersey laboratory, the French cinematic experience was a social event from the start. In 1895, inside the basement Salon Indiene du Grand Café of Paris, audience members watched as a train appeared to burst through the wall, reportedly startling audience members who enjoyed the experience as a group. Edison's Kinetoscope was not a social experience. The Edison device was activated by dropping a coin into a slot and peeking into a tiny viewer at the top of the cabinet. Working class patrons would line up to see prize fights, one round each on a series of cabinets, at a corner arcade. The longest lines were found waiting for the final Kinetoscope, the one that featured the knock-out.

By the time the German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg had settled in to his position as professor of psychology at Harvard, the American "movies" had taken the communal direction of the French. Nickelodeons (literally five-cent theaters) were quickly being replaced with movie palaces as vaudeville odeons were being adapted for picture shows. The attitude of the time was largely class conscious, finding live theater and moving picture shows as a choice of status, rather than an preference of medium. Münsterberg was a proud German emigre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was living up to the image that his predecessor and founder of the department of psychology, William James, had created for him as the genius needed to run the psychology lab at America's "greatest university". Münsterberg accepted James's flattery and his invitation.

Münsterberg was a visionary in psychology who is often neglected in contemporary scholarship. He championed psychology as a useful lens through which to see the world, writing in popular magazines like The Cosmopolitan and Atlantic Monthly, on topics as broad as education, psychotherapy, industry, and personality. It was in 1914 that Münsterberg permitted himself to step into a movie palace to see Neptune's Daughter, a silent film directed by Herbert Brenon.

Despite Münsterberg's reputation for pretense and elitism, he found himself captivated by the film and the experience of seeing a movie in the movie palace. In 1915 he wrote an article about the psychology of the "photoplay" for Cosmopolitan Magazine, and only a year later published a full text on the psychology of movies. In Why We Go to the Movies, first published in the December 15, 1915 issue of The Cosmopolitan, Münsterberg is introduced by the editor as "a wizard at telling us why we do things. He is the first psychologist to take up the study of the strong appeal of the photoplay, and his important conclusions and discoveries here given are quite as interesting and fascinating as those which have proved so helpful in commerce, industry, education, law, and other spheres of practical life."

The article is an intelligent yet accessible introduction to thinking about film, the effects of film on the audience, as well as the experience of going to the movies. Münsterberg begins his article by addressing the class implications of the photoplay, and proposes that the reader abandon any prejudices of cinema as a lesser form of the live theater, and instead encounter it on its own terms. He explores the educational opportunities that film will provide, which he described as "show[ing] us the happenings of the world and  gave us glances at current events and exhibited a little of animal life!" His enthusiasm is that of an academic who is not only celebrating a newly developing technology, but also speculating on how this technology might be used in a practical way, when applied to education as well as entertainment.

The article is not only an entrée into the psychological investigation of cinema (it sets the stage for earliest example of film theory that we can find in academic scholarship, his 1916 text The Photoplay: A Psychological Study), but also serves as a significant declaration for the infant field of psychology--a declaration of psychology as an applied discipline.

Hugo Münsterberg
This effort to make psychology something useful and practical to the masses was not met with cheers from Münsterberg's colleagues. At the time there were about 10 university psychology labs in Germany and 40 in the United States. The attitude with most of those psychologists, including Edward Titchener at Cornell, was that psychology should not degrade itself into a technology, but rather, should strive to maintain its dignity as a "pure science". Münsterberg rebelled against the scholarly attitude of his colleagues and published numerous books an articles that spoke to the general public.

Münsterberg became wildly popular through his writings. He was engaged by corporations, educational institutions, health care facilities, as well as two American presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft) for his insights on psychological matters. Hugo Münsterberg opened the possibilities for non-academic uses of psychology, and worked to establish psychology as an applied field of study.

With the entrance of the United States into The Great War, Münsterberg found his popularity fading. His years of ardent celebration of German Kultur, as well as his condescending criticism of Americans and their attraction to superficial kitsch, caught with him as he suffered both personal and professional ridicule in the press. Once America's most famous psychologist, Münsterberg died a despised and dishonored German-American who was even caused of being a spy.

Although  Münsterberg is seldom mentioned outside of the history of psychology, his contributions to film theory are significant. His works have become foundational texts in film theory classes, and are often taught in media psychology courses. He authored the first academic text on film theory in 1916, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, as well as two essays, Why We Go to the Movies (1915), and Peril to Childhood in the Movies (1917). The cinema would be the final application of psychology that Hugo Münsterberg would explore. On December 16, 1916, just months after The Photoplay was published, Münsterberg collapsed and died of stroke while lecturing to students at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Direct questions, comments, & corrections to Matthew Giobbi.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cinderella: On The Forgotten Language

I suppose that a young person adores a story like Cinderella for the same reason that any of us enjoy a good story at any age. In childhood as in adulthood, we turn to stories not only for escape from the difficulties of our lives, but also to nourish our internal, psychic, emotional lives. We leave a good book or a good movie transformed by the experience. Aspects of ourselves that were hidden emerge, difficulties that have weighed upon us are lifted, and we often see our world and ourselves with new eyes. Isn't this the charm of a good book or of cinema; its ability to fill us with enchantment?Understanding exactly how a story achieves this effect on us offers a glimpse into our internal workings, an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

Erich Fromm took up this endeavor in a book called The Forgotten Language: An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales and Myths. Like all of Fromm's writings this book is for the curious, intelligent layperson. One does not need a degree in psychology or philosophy to read this book, it is written for the reader. The only requirement made by Fromm is that the reader be curious about the inner workings of her psyche --her emotional life.

Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, which was released last week, is the impetus for my thinking. Disney has built an empire on folk tales and legends, and Cinderella is at the heart of that empire. Said to be the most famous fairy tale, Cinderella, in one variation or another, has captivated children since ancient Egypt and China. A story with that kind of vitality, one that speaks to children despite the differences of culture and history, is fantastic. What exactly is it about this story that captivates children across the centuries?

The effect of a good story isn't dependent on the medium. It is true that the experience of going into the theatre, sinking into the plush, velvet, seat as the lights dim and the fire begins to burn, all add to the psychological receptivity of the story. After all, isn't this scene common to the bedtime story read by a parent, the gathering of the clan around the fire, the psychoanalyst's couch, or the most intimate entrance into our internal world; the nocturnal dream? Cinema is a magical place which invites us into our emotive world, a place where we gather to stare into the flickering fire to catch a glimpse into our internal lives, projected onto the screen.

We know through the familiar experience of discussing a story, that each of us sees a different film. We bring something to the film that is unique to ourselves, and that changes throughout our lives. We  are repeatedly drawn to a certain film at one point in our life, which is later forgotten. We seem to utilize certain stories to work thorough emotional questions that we face. When those emotional questions are worked through successfully we pass on to another questions, and the stories that resonate with those questions are then embraced.

I think one of the missteps that people make when thinking about dream interpretation is similar to a misstep that scholars take when talking about film interpretation. Dreams, like media, are often approached as if they hold a singular, objective meaning. The meaning of a dream is highly individual and contextual with the dreamer's life. Fromm points out that this is true for the meaning of a story as well. When we consider the meaning of a story we must also consider its meaning for the individual. This is why we find little substance in studies that seek to discover if a movie or video game causes a certain reaction in audiences. The question is too broad, which is evident in the broad results that such studies typically produce.

Stories, like dreams, are written in a symbolic language. These symbols, grounded in our common human evolution, are primarily visual and audial. The cinema acts on this tradition of resonating with deep psychical symbolism through the eyes and the ears. These symbols have meaning in isolation as well as in the context of how and when they appear with other symbols. These symbols, taken as a whole constitute the story that we receive. Like the dream, a story exists on two levels. There is the conscious storyline that we understand though the narrative. This manifest storyline operates on a certain logic, and unfolds in a series of causal chains. Cinderella is living amongst the ashes of the fireplace because her stepmother and stepsisters are cruel to her. She is transformed into beautiful clothing because her fairy godmother appears. She wins the prince because she "has courage and is kind (Disney forces this moral upon us to the point of suspicion; it almost feels like Disney is defending itself with this cliché propaganda).

The manifest content of the story functions at the surface level. It is the story that critics discuss in their reviews, and about which most post-viewing conversation takes place between adults. But listen to children talk about a film and you will hear something different. Children's conversation about a film are much closer to that of the psychoanalyst's. The conversation here is not confined to the surface level, manifest content, but is often about a deeper, latent content.

The logic of the manifest content is different from the logic of the symbolic, emotional, latent content. Although the manifest story line of our dreams might seem illogical, they follow, as does the experience of a psychotic individual, an extremely logical thought process. What makes most dreams seem bizarre of fantastic is the premise and not the logic of the story. For example, the paranoid neurotic who goes to extreme measure to protect themselves from alien mind control is highly logical; the tinfoil cap blocks mind control waves, etc., but the premise of the belief, that is the starting point for the logical chain, is highly unusual.

We can see this with the depiction of dreams in film. It is a rare achievement that a filmmaker captures the essence of a dream in a movie. I can think of Federico Fellini's dream sequences in 8 1/2 as a successful example. Typically the cliché depiction of dreams on film are merely reproductions of the surface level, manifest content of the dream world. This is why they miss the mark in conjuring up the dream experience. Fellini does not follow the logic of the manifest content in his dreams sequences, instead he is informed by the geometric or analogical reasoning of the deep, latent content of the dream. We are left, in 8 1/2, not with a logical experience, but rather, with a deep emotional shifting, not unlike the shifting that takes place when we awaken from a nocturnal dream.

Fromm tells us that "a dream unexamined is like a letter unopened." We hold the same to be true for stories, myths, and films. But just as we must be literate to the language of the letter, Fromm tells us we must be literate to the language of the dream. This dream language is also the language of the latent content of the myth, story, and folktale. In fact, it is because of this underlying, symbolic significance that children and adults are captivated by these stories. The power of the myth lies within the fact that it speaks to us at a deep, unconscious, special level; a level which all humans share.

Taking rhetoric and semiotics as his starting point, Fromm begins his lesson on learning the forgotten language by describing the nature of meaning in symbols. Whereas Sigmund Freud's dream analyses are often unconvincing and far-fetched (I often feel that Freud's interpretations serve his theory, rather than serving the dreamer), Fromm's method leaves us with a much more satisfying analysis. When we get the analysis right, that is, when we read the language of the dream and decode its meaning significantly, we are left with a sense of emotional release. I think this is evidence that we need to seek out when analyzing the meaning for us in a dream; does it produce a certain cathartic release in the dreamer? The same can be said for understanding the significance of a film or story.

Fromm tells us that visual and auditory symbols take on significance as conventional, accidental, or universal symbols. A conventional symbol, like the word table has learned meaning. The spoken or written word table is associated with the meaning through convention, that is learning. The word and meaning in conventional symbol is entirely arbitrary, it changes from language to language (be it table  or テーブル). 

Accidental symbols refers to the personal significance that something takes on to an individual. For example, Fromm talks about the meaning that the name of a certain city takes on for an individual that has had an experience with that city. It is obvious that at the accidental symbolic level, meaning shifts from person to person.

For Fromm, universal meaning "is one in which there is an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it represents." The universal symbols are familiar to us all, they are the significance that words and images like fire or water take on. Fromm tells us,
"That a phenomenon of the physical world can be the adequate expression of an inner experience, that the world of things can be a symbol of the world of the mind, is not surprising. We all know that our bodies express our minds. Blood rushes to our heads when we are furious, it rushes away from them when we are afraid; our hearts bear more quickly when we are angry, and the whole body has a different tonus if we are happy from the one it has when we are sad. We express our moods by our facial expressions and our attitudes and feelings by movements and gestures so precise that others recognize them more accurately from our gestures than from our words. Indeed, the body is a symbol--and not an allegory--of the mind. Deeply and genuinely felt emotion, and even any genuinely felt thought, is expressed in out whole organism. In the case of the universal symbol. we find the same connection between mental an physical experience. Certain physical phenomena suggest by their very nature certain emotional and mental experiences, and we express emotional experiences in the language of physical experiences, that is to say, symbolically."
The nature of the dream, or the fairytale, is analogical. That is, what is significant to us in the film is the meaningful analogy the we garner through both the symbolism of the story and our own, personal circumstances. When we examine the significance of a story or film, we do so in a way identical to our examining of a dream; meaning and significance is profoundly personal. However, there are some common universal themes and symbols that we can understand through what Fromm described in the universal symbols.

In The Forgotten Language Fromm does not address Cinderella. However, 24 years later Bruno Bettelheim would. I turn to Bettelheim's classic The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales to illustrate Fromm's universal meanings in Cinderella.

Bettelheim offers us a thorough, forty-something page analysis of the history and significance of the Cinderella tale. The Disney version of Cinderella is based upon an adaption written in 1697 by Charles Perrault. In Histoires ou contes du temps pasé (Stories of fairy tales from past times or Mother Goose Tales), we are given a sanitized version of Cinderella that was made polite for the ears of the court of Louis XIV of France. Absent is any of the morbid self-mutilation (step sisters cutting of their toes to make the slipper fit) or hints at incest (Cinderella struggling with the sexual expectations of her father) that we find in versions like that of the Brothers Grimm. After all, we are dealing here with a folk tale that was passed on orally, in many cultures, dating back to ancient Egypt and ancient China.

The universal themes that remain intact for audiences of the 2015, Disney version of Cinderella are described by Bettelheim include: Cinderella's mistreatment as a consequence of sibling rivalry, Cinderella's living among the ashes (thus her name Aschenputtel in the German tales), the loss of her loving "good" mother, the adjustment to a resentful and cruel "wicked" stepmother, the absence of her  father as protector from the wicked mother, the rejection by her father for the stepmother, and nurturing of internal goodness and hope and the reappearance of the eternal "goodness" of the mother as the fairy godmother. Finally, a struggle significant to children approaching adolescence is the transition that will take place with the replacement of the father with another male figure.

These themes are universal symbols that all humans can identify with. For Fromm, as well as Bettelheim, this is why fairy tales resonate with children throughout the ages. On the surface level, the child enjoys a story about a girl who has lost her mother, is treated poorly by her stepmother and step siblings, is granted magical intervention, and triumphs by finding happiness with a prince. However, there is something of more significance taking place at an unconscious level. The story resonates with the child and is most compelling for reasons that they are not yet aware of.

Here we can appreciate Bettelheim's discussion of Erik Erikson's insights into the psychic life of children. Taking into consideration the psychical age at which fairy tales most appeal to children (Bettelheim points to around 4 through the adolescence), we can understand the significance of Cinderella more fully.

Erikson tells us that the earliest stage of emotional development centers around a sense of basic trust. "Basic trust is instilled in the child by the good mothering he experiences during the earliest period of his life. If all goes well, then, the child will have confidence in himself and in the world. The helpful animal or the [fairy god mother] is an image, embodiment, external representation of this basic trust. It is the heritage which a good mother confers on her child which will stay with him, and preserve and sustain him in direst distress."

Here we see the significance of the loving mother's impact on the child. Even in her absence, the love and nurturing that Cinderella's mother provided before she died serves as a resource that survives within her young daughter. Cinderella is unaware, as is the child who attends to the tale, that this "good mother" (godmother) is the magic that exists within herself, a spirit that, when fostered and embraced, serves to provide us all with the courage and strength to persevere in the most difficult of circumstances. "Only being true to oneself, as Cinderella is, succeeds in the end."

The importance of fantasy and fairy tale in the life of children is at least as important for emotional well-being as the creative, fantasy life is for the adult. Like Cinderella herself, the fairy tale nurtures a warm fire of enchantment within each of us, the fire of which, when stoked, can serve to keep us hopeful through the most challenging of life's tragedies.

Direct questions, comments, & corrections to Matthew Giobbi.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Chronology of Media Psychology Research

This bog originally appeared on December 7, 2014.

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 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.

Direct questions, comments, & corrections to Matthew Giobbi.