Media Psychology Can Make the World Better

Media psychology has the potential, like positive psychology, to create a new trajectory for how we think about, use and design media and technology–if we’ll exhale long enough to let it.

As media technologies have become intertwined in daily life, they have elicited structural and psychological changes across society. The ability to communicate peer-to-peer, as so eloquently described by scholars like Clay Shirky, has shifted power away from what was once a narrow information flow controlled by a few sources to one of infinite information and connectivity. The result was the ‘prosumer,’ the transformation of media consumers into a hybrid creature that also passes judgment, produces and distributes. This new identity has radically expanded both the range of influence and the EXPECTED range of influence.

Technology-enabled global connection, without traditional gatekeepers and hierarchies, combined with this new attitude of influence, creates an incredibly powerful social force. The impact is far-reaching, local and global: from individual growth and behavior change, organizational effectiveness, brand image and consumer relationships to electoral outcomes and profound social change.

The field of media psychology is a recent arrival to the academic world, but topics we address in media psychology have not gone unnoticed. Different fields, such as media studies, communications, and sociology have looked at the impact of different types of communication and the emergence of technology in different ways. Media psychology, and the value of psychology in general, is that it shifts the focus of inquiry from media-centric or process-centric to human-centric. Marketing and public relations have also had their fingers in the ‘media psychology’ pot, but consumer research and media psychology have often had inherently different goals. While psychology’s heritage comes from a medical “what’s wrong” model, the goal of what’s wrong was ultimately alleviation of ills and betterment, however well hidden in the rhetoric, not ways to influence for commercial benefit. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

For me, however, positive psychology is foundational to media psychology, as the most useful theoretical metric and ethical ‘north star’ for media and technology use, development and analysis.

How individuals and society use these capabilities will be in large part determined by whether we become preoccupied with the challenges or seek out the opportunities. Seeing the potential in something rather than the turd under the rose bush demands a forward-looking science that can move beyond traditional models to embrace the complex social system of technology and human behavior. This is the role of media psychology–using the study of this intersection of human behavior and technology to liberate positive capabilities, to empower users, producers and distributors of technology in ways that satisfy the basic drivers of human behavior and improve society at large across all domains. Or perhaps, more simply said, make the world a better place.