Media Psychology in Action: Personal Reflections

Pamela Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge

Pamela Rutledge, PhD, MBA
Media Psychology Research Center & Fielding Graduate University

The world is waking up to what media psychologists have known all along: Media is about people.  Media is the manifestation of human behavior, the result of collective and individual actions as people consume, interact, design, create, and connect across the spectrum of mediated experiences.  Media psychology is special, though.  The depth of analysis it enables—examining the “what” to understand the “why”—differentiates it from other fields.  As media psychologists, we have the tools to solve the problems and identify the opportunities that media technologies bring. The need to understand the human side of technology is apparent as we grapple with the effects of social networks and information flows on conflict, political rhetoric, and the social and economic fallout from a global pandemic.  We live in a connected world, where media is no longer “the media” but, like the electricity that powers it, is integrated into the connective tissue of the society.

Media psychology is an applied science—an action sport.  Because of this, receiving the 2020 Division 46 Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Media Psychology & Technology was especially meaningful to me.  As the attention garnered by the recent Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma shows, the challenges and anxieties created by the ease with which “real life” moves across platforms, devices, and spaces both physical and virtual are immediate and significant.  The Social Dilemma warned us of the psychological manipulation inherent in technology while using many of the same techniques to make messages persuasive, highlighting an important point.  Targeting human psychology isn’t inherently evil; it is necessary if you want to create a connection.  Successful media technologies are designed to facilitate human connection through persuasive engagement.  Interpersonal communication and education are the same.  Connections—digital or personal—that are confusing, unpleasant, or hard to understand do not solve the problems or achieve the goals they were intended to address.  Where other fields fall short, media psychology excels.  Psychological theory allows us to identify trends, anticipate problems, and, most importantly, develop actionable insights for interventions and solutions because we understand the dynamics of human motivations and behavior in complex and emerging systems.  While not all media psychology applications address the most critical societal issues, the ability to deconstruct media systems, structures, affordances, and content to understand the emotions, goals, and needs that drive media use lets us anticipate future behaviors.  I like solutions, so this is very exciting.

My path to media psychology began circuitously, starting in media production.  Attempting to create effective recruiting materials for organizations, it became clear I didn’t know enough about how to create engagement and a sense of presence in media experiences.  Studying marketing in a business school was enlightening and disappointing.  Outcomes aren’t replicable if we don’t understand the meaning and drivers underpinning the measured actions.  This led me to psychology—first clinical and then media psychology.  Finding media psychology felt like coming home—it provided a rich theoretical framework for understanding human-technology interaction.

I currently straddle two worlds.  I have one foot in academia, teaching in the master’s and doctoral media psychology programs at Fielding Graduate University.  The other is in the business world as a consultant focused on consumer narratives, audience engagement, and brand storytelling.  I am excited to be able to link audience engagement research with practice because the rigors of teaching and consulting work, while different, inform each other.

The shift to audience engagement, rather than “selling,” is apparent across every industry and is a trend that plays to media psychology’s strengths. The widespread adoption of social media and digital technologies has increased the competition for the consumers’ attention in an increasingly noisy media landscape.  This places a premium on turning the customer’s initial interaction into a meaningful and sustainable relationship.  Customer-centric marketing is based on audience engagement, not just sales.

Conceptualizations of engagement, however, can vary due to different target goals or key performance indicators.  The sophistication of data mining techniques allows marketers to define engagement as measurable behaviors.  This includes trackable behaviors that indicate positive consumer attentional activation from consuming content, click-throughs, and making comments to actual purchase behaviors (van Doorn et al., 2010).  By contrast, psychological engagement is a richer interaction.  Media psychologists focus on emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses drawing from theories where engagement has a broader and more sustained emotional impact, such as optimal experience (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003) and narrative engagement (De Graaf et al., 2009).

From a practical perspective, the definitional variations suggest the importance of clearly defining customer engagement measures and goals at the start of any project.  However, no matter how you define it, data mining only tells you what, not why.  It benefits organizations to integrate measures that target psychological dynamics with context-relevant behaviors that hold the clues to a more sustainable relationship.  Psychological models integrate cognitive and emotional dimensions such as the symbolic value of products, identity validation, affiliation, mental models, expectations, lived experience, and the elicitation of hedonic and eudaimonic rewards as consumers engage with a brand.  Linking theory with practice reframes the understanding of engagement as a form of involvement, commitment, and loyalty (Gambetti & Graffigna, 2010), psychological constructs that depend on narrative meaning (Rutledge, 2019).

Understanding audience engagement is the foundation of all my work.  Inside the classroom, my courses focus on narrative meaning, the persuasive power of storytelling, and developing personas to create audience empathy.  Similarly, my consulting work has taken three primary main forms, all focused on creating a salient connection by understanding the audience: (a) reframing brand strategy by activating symbolic meaning through archetypes; (b) analyzing social media narratives in response to movie marketing campaigns to identify audience expectations, narrative frames, and associated emotional valence; and (c) persona development to create substantive psychological differentiators in an audience, ones that speak to core needs and motivations that are not apparent in traditional psychographics.

This interest has led to some serendipitous opportunities, such as consulting with the 20th Century Fox theatrical marketing team for about four years during the creation of their data science strategy.  Identifying competing audience narratives in response to Bohemian Rhapsody and recognizing the audience’s confusion identifying the hero in Predator was both fun and impacted marketing strategies.  I’m currently collaborating with the global insights team at Warner Bros Theatrical Marketing.  It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to participate as they puzzle through the challenges from COVID-19 that may permanently redefine the movie distribution industry.   However, with all media behaviors, I always look at the data for insights in the patterns, metaphors, and narratives that reflect the synthesis of motivation, instinct, and social and global influences, and that ultimately frame and drive behavior.

Bandura’s (2001) prescient description of media as part of a co-evolving system combined with my bias toward positive psychology has given me a solid foundation upon which to build.  Media technologies have great power and promise, but technology’s sophistication far outpaces human evolution and speed of adaptation.  This gap exposes vulnerabilities across society.  However, media technologies are not going away.  There are few things more important—or rewarding–than figuring out how to help people, organizations, and institutions use media technologies well, to support positive goals, to identify the strengths, and to be ready to meet the problems.


Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication. Media Psychology, 3, 265-299. Retrieved October 1, 2007, from

De Graaf, A., Hoeken, H., Sanders, J., & Beentjes, H. (2009). The role of dimensions of narrative engagement in narrative persuasion. Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research, 34(4), 385-405.

Gambetti, R., & Graffigna, G. (2010). The concept of engagement: A Systematic Analysis of the Ongoing Marketing Debate. International Journal of Market Research, 52(6), 801-826.

Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). The construction of meaning through vital engagement. In C.L.M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 83-104). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rutledge, P. (2019). You Can Learn a Lot by Listening: Use narrative analysis to understand the “why” in consumer behavior trends. The Actuary (April/May). Retrieved October 2, 2020, from

van Doorn, J., Lemon, K. N., Mittal, V., Nass, S., Pick, D., Pirner, P., & Verhoef, P. C. (2010, August 1, 2010). Customer Engagement Behavior: Theoretical Foundations and Research Directions. Journal of Service Research, 13(3), 253-266.

(Editors’ Note: Recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Professional Contributions to Media Psychology & Technology Award from the APA Society for Media Psychology & Technology.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.