Pamela Rutledge, PhD, MBA
Fielding Graduate University
The exciting inclusion of a chapter on Media Psychologists in the newly released third edition of APA’s Career Paths in Psychology: Where Your Degree Can Take You, edited by Robert J. Sternberg is a testimony to the emergence of media psychology as vital field. The expansion of career options noted in this edition reflects the importance of media psychology in understanding changes across society in the less than a decade since the 2007 publication of the second edition.
Media psychology remains somewhat misunderstood as a field, so I was honored to contribute a chapter to the third edition because it allowed me to note the extraordinary breadth of applications within the field and thereby, hopefully, ignite someone’s interest in pursuing one of the most exciting and important applications of psychology.
Defining media psychology is always a challenging starting point. A media psychologist is someone who specializes in applying psychological science to understand and predict how people interact with and are impacted by media and technology. Media psychology looks at ‘why’ and ‘how’ individuals and society develop, distribute, and use media; it uses psychology to study and understand mediated experiences, that is interactions where technology can facilitate, filter or impede human experience.
It’s hard to explain what media psychologists do because their career paths can be so varied. At the most basic level, media psychologists study the underlying psychological dynamics of how people interact with media and technology in order to solve problems and gain insights that can lead to new processes and products. There is no easy answer, but if you are a student intrigued or inspired by how human experience intersects with media technologies, then media psychology may be for you.
Psychological theory provides the lens for an array of activities enabled by media technologies; thus media psychology always starts with the study of psychology. Depending upon where students wish to focus, they have several options of how to specialize and where to extend their foundation in psychology with media and technology.
New media and technology emerge daily. It’s easy to be distracted by current technology or the social technophobia born of resistance to change. Focusing on the fundamentals of psychology is critical to maintaining the balance and judgment to navigate the ever-shifting media landscape. Knowledge of psychological theory, research skills, critical thinking, and asking hard questions are how media psychologists prepare for the ‘next new thing’ and help create solutions for the 21st century problems.
The following examples demonstrate some applications of media psychology in different domains.
Teaching and Researching in Media Psychology
Many media psychology graduates stay in academia, teaching and conducting research in media psychology and related fields. Since only a few dedicated media psychology programs exist at colleges and universities, opportunities are available to introduce innovative programming and courses within other related departments and disciplines. Media psychologists are active researchers in many areas that overlap into professional fields and often provide consultations to government and industry. My colleagues and students are currently conducting research on multi-platform communications, terrorist narratives, immersive media and sports experiences, virtual reality and altruistic behaviors, the positive impact of fan experience, the persuasive use of narratives, social media as journaling for grief transformation, profiling information platforms, and cognitive bias in information gathering practices.
Creating Online Tools in Education—In the Classroom and Online
While media psychology can be taught as a subject, it is also valuable to those who want to create media-based content to support teachers in other disciplines. Media psychology can inform a range of skills that enhance online learning in any field, such as creating dynamic, interactive online learning spaces that can support synchronous and asynchronous teaching.
Media Literacy and Digital Citizenship
As technology becomes more intertwined with daily life, learning how to use it well becomes a critical issue. The digital divide is no longer about access; it is about the skills to navigate the digital world. The need for improving media literacy is creating various opportunities for media psychologists to pursue careers as consultants, trainers, and educators in various areas, including social services.
Commercial Communications, Public Relations, Marketing, Advertising and Branding
Psychology has always played an important role in marketing, consumer behavior, brand management, public relations and commercial communications. With consumers becoming more empowered, companies are realizing they need new ways of interacting so as to develop relationships with them. This shift has created a new set of career opportunities around community and social media management and consumer engagement.
Media and technology draw on the same psychological theories and skill sets that are employed in marketing, branding, and persuasive applications. However, additional effort is needed to integrate positive psychology tenets to guide media for social change campaigns, social entrepreneurship, and corporate social responsibility programs.
Healthcare and Behavior Change
Influencing behavior through media is an exploding field. Media psychologists work in many ways to support positive health and lifestyle behaviors and to establish new social norms for improved subjective wellbeing, from robotics and the design of behavior change tools as mobile apps and wearables to the creation of healthy workplace practices and spaces.
Media creation covers a vast area, from music, film and games, to commercial and political messaging. It also includes the structures that facilitate the creation, use, and sharing of information, such as medical records, business documents, training protocols, game design, and software programs. The input of media psychologists versed in developmental and learning theories, interactive technologies, and storytelling is especially critical when it comes to the creation of children’s media.
The entertainment industry often appeals to new media psychology students. As entertainment media becomes more fluid and moves across multiple platforms, there are many more opportunities to be a part of or support the creation, production, and promotion efforts of films, music, game and interactive media design.
Psychologists Using Media
For ethical reasons, it is important to distinguish between clinical psychologists who appear in the media and media psychologists. While some clinicians are media psychologists—trained as clinicians and knowledgeable about media and technology—being a media psychologist does not qualify someone to do clinical work. Media psychologists, however, work with or in the media by addressing moral issues around human welfare; this includes the ethical presentation of psychology and psychological advice, translating psychological research for the general public, educating journalists, and providing guidelines for the distribution of difficult or traumatic information to the general public.
Telepsychology is an increasing topic of attention in clinical psychology. The ethical and therapeutic issues in mental healthcare are challenged by the many ways people communicate regularly. In telepsychology, the lines between clinical and media psychologist cross. Any application that includes the delivery of mental health services or interventions must be ethically considered in terms of clinical training and licensure requirements.
The Future of Media Psychology
The rapid spread of technology over the last 50 years has left few places untouched by technology with dramatic social and economic consequences. The implications of social technologies, mobile connectivity, mixed realities, robotics, artificial intelligence and data gathering will continue to redefine everything from healthcare, education and business to entertainment.
This increasing integration of new technologies into our daily lives argues that media psychology will become more valuable as opportunities grow. Few would have predicted the technology-enabled behaviors that have quickly become social norms, such as online photo sharing, selfies or live-streaming events. This article gives a glimpse into how media technologies can impact our world.
Rutledge, P. (2016). Media Psychologists. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Career Paths in Psychology: Where Your Degree Can Take You (pp. 291-308). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.