I get lots of questions about media psychology, such as ‘What is media psychology?’ and ‘What does a media psychologist do?’ A big stumbling block is the common understanding of a media psychologist as a psychologist who appears in the media. That’s the wrong answer.
Here is a recent question:
Dear Dr. Rutledge,
I am conducting research in media psychology and stumbled upon this dissertation and I am more confused than anything. A recent dissertation defines a “media psychologist” as a psychologist that conducts a session with a patient on air. She compares what a psychologist does in private with a patient with what Dr. Phil does on air in front of a live TV audience. I conducted a phone survey where I contacted clinical psychologists in NYC randomly and asked how they felt about Dr. Phil and everyone said that they had a low opinion of Dr. Phil. However according to dissertation’s thesis, psychologists rating were supportive of the “media psychologist”… Can you comment?
As media technologies become more ubiquitous and intertwined with everything we do, the more we need to understand their impact and potential. Without people there is no technology. It is psychology that gives us insight into people, as individuals, groups, cultures and society. Therefore, psychology is also instrumental to understanding media technologies because people are not separable from the media communication eco-system.
The use of the term ‘media psychologist’ is evolving over time. It is confusing because, in fact, its origins did come from clinicians who appeared in the media. This is a bit misleading since a more accurate and informative way to describe a media psychologist who appears in the media is as a media personality or a clinical psychologist who appears in the media. We don’t call Dr. Oz a media cardiologist because his ‘patients’ or the focus of his expertise is the person, not the media technologies. When I use the term media psychologist or refer to the field of media psychology, I am referring to psychologists who apply psychological theory to understanding the development, experience, use and impact of different types of media technologies and how media impacts content perception and messaging. There are psychologists who appear in the media who also know a lot about media technologies and whom I would consider media psychologists. There are also psychologists who appear in the media because that is an effective way to disseminate information, both therapeutic and otherwise. That does not make them a media psychologist as I define it. To do so devalues the expertise of the many psychologists who dedicate their efforts to understanding the interaction of human experience with the use and development of media technologies and the individual, social, and global ramifications.
An additional point of confusion is the fact that there are many kinds of psychologists. Psychologists who do clinical work (clinical psychologists) are only one professional avenue within the broader field. Clinical psychology requires a specific type and focus of training and, in order to practice with patients, licensure in the state where the practice is offered. Not all psychologists are clinicians, in fact, there are as many, if not more, psychologists teaching in academic institutions, performing research or contributing to everything from organizational management and leadership to technology development and user experience. A clinician is no more equipped to do those things without training than an organizational psychologist is to do therapy without training. (It is also illegal and unethical for the any psychologist without licensure to do therapy, even if they have clinical training.)
The field of psychology is rich with theories that are applied in many ways outside of a therapeutic context. Areas in psychology include developmental, positive, cognitive, behavioral, political, social, educational, cultural, neurological, and narrative, to name a few. A field within psychology is a descriptor of the theory and focus of the psychologist’s training and work. A cognitive psychologist will be trained in areas of cognition, meaning, perception, etc., for example. A media psychologist will be trained in applying areas of psychology to media technologies. For a specific example, see the curriculum for the new master’s degree program at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology which shows how different areas in psychology are applied to media technologies, ranging from educational technology and media literacy to persuasive communications and social marketing.
To make matters more confusing, psychology also has ‘theoretical orientations’ that inform the way a psychologist approaches their work no matter what the venue. A cognitive psychologist, who is also trained as a clinician, may use a predominantly cognitive-based therapeutic approach. This is not just true for clinicians, however. A media psychologist may also be trained as a cognitive psychologist and focus their work with media technologies on the cognitive and perceptual aspects of technology use and development. I consider myself a media psychologist because my background combines academic training in psychology and in the human impact and technological affordances of media and emerging technologies. I draw from cognitive, positive, and narrative psychologies in my consulting, research and analysis. I, however, focus on individual, social and commercial implications and trends and, although I have clinical training, I am not licensed and do not have a clinical practice.
The dissertation you cite tests whether or not a population of 115 randomly selected respondents (psychologists and non-psychologists) had a bias for or against a clinical psychologist who appeared in the media based on the respondents’ reactions to transcript of a fictitious session given by each ‘category’ of psychologist. I am assuming that respondents who were psychologists were, in fact, clinical psychologists, but I have not read the full dissertation. There is a big difference, however, in making a judgment about the quality of a therapy session from a transcript and from what a person might observe of Dr. Phil’s approach. The fact that the dissertation defines ‘media psychologists’ for the purpose of her research as a clinician who appears in the media doesn’t make it a universal definition. It makes it the operational definition of that variable in her research, which is a necessary and important component of her project. Every research project must specifically define terms and variables under analysis as part of the methodology. Understanding research methodology and analytical tools and practices is an important component in any psychology curriculum at multiple levels: designing research, interpreting results, and disseminating the information accurately. Those same skills are used ‘in reverse’ to evaluate the research of others. This is a particularly important skill in media psychology as journalist’s reports of psychological research do not always accurately reflect the findings, especially when the topic lends itself to a provocative headline.
The American Psychological Association (APA) Division 46 (Media Psychology) has been working through this definitional transition as well. As media technologies become more ubiquitous and intertwined with everything we do, the more we need to understand its impact and potential. That is my definition of media psychology and the goals of a media psychologist.