Toward an Understanding of Media Psychology


The psychology of multimedia is not well understood and what is understood is not widely known in the development community. At present, developers have limited sources from which to learn about media psychology.

The new media psychology includes the study of how the mind and emotions respond to a multiplicity of sensory stimuli. Understanding the perceptions, emotions, understandings and behaviors one wishes to achieve is fundamental to the purpose, architecture, design and construction of new software. This comprehension is in addition to, and synergistic with, understanding theories of intelligence, learning, communication and cognition.

Developers Must Make Choices

Technical breakthroughs now allow enormous amounts of data to be placed on a single 4.7-inch compact disc. A standard disc can hold over 600MB of data but this is quickly gobbled up by the rich imagery and sound of today's products. Assembling a product requires a variety of layout techniques and choices to "manage the bit geography" on the surface of a disc.

Although most CD title developers are knowledgeable about what the technical choices are, few understand the cognitive and emotional impacts resulting from their choices.

The size of the disc is not the only constraint. Much of what we experience in a CD-ROM application is bound by the delivery rate from the CD drive, just as the quality of a cable TV or radio program is limited by signal bandwidth. The difference is that on a CD-ROM, the designer decides how much of the available bandwidth will go to various components: sound, images and data.

For sound, the amount of disc space and the bandwidth attributable to audio will affect, respectively, the total length and quality of the sound on a product. At the highest fidelity audio used for music CDs (16-bit, 44 kHz) a designer can barely fit 72 minutes on a disc. By lowering sample rates and using various compression schemes a designer can get over 19 hours of sound on a disc. The impact that the audio-quality choice has on the cognition and experience of the user is what has to be decided for each sound byte.

For images, a designer may choose a color palette with as little as two color choices (1-bit), to as many as 16 million color choices (24-bit) &emdash; the typical application uses a palette of 256 colors (8-bit). Each variation in the number of colors uses greater or smaller amounts of space on the surface of a disc, so decisions about color images are controlled and managed by the amount of "real estate" available on the disc and the delivery rate (bandwidth) needed. Again, what impact the color image decision will have on the cognitive or emotional experience of the user is a question which needs to be answered.

Decisions about sound and image qualities are but several examples among the myriad choices a designer must make when laying out the architecture of a program. Most designers understand the technical nature of their choices but few are highly knowledgeable with respect to the emotional rationale underlying them.

Fortunately, as new technologies are emerging from the converging industries of computers, cable television, telephony, telecommunications and education, new lines of exploration and research are also emerging from the disciplines of cognitive science, neuroscience and social psychology.

The lines of inquiry into what I call "media psychology" deal with the aspects of humanistic and cognitive psychology that relate to the experiences and the results of those experiences that are the outcome of the human-machine interaction, whether it be with a TV screen or multimedia PC monitor.

Cognitive capacities provide the vehicle through which humans receive, organize and interpret information. Conscious states enabling experience include: attention and attention span; sensations; perceptions of time, space and movement; and perceptual and psycho visual illusions. Interactive experiences activate conditions of motivation and emotion and result in thinking, learning, perceiving, conceptualizing and imagining.

Theories of Multiple Intelligences

New theories of intelligence are emerging and the questioning of a unified view of intelligence is presently widespread. What is being presently recognized, through the work of Harvard Project Zero, Piaget and others, is the nature of varied and multiple human intelligences. In fact, we are largely different from each other because we all have different combinations of intelligences.

Gardner's view of intelligence boils down to the ability to solve problems or to fashion products. Project Zero has developed a matrix of seven intelligences: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Each form of intelligence may be subdivided or rearranged.

The real point of the question of intelligences here is simply to note that we need to understand the plurality of intellect and that individuals differ in various intelligence profiles. While the multiple intelligences theory is consistent with empirical evidence, it has not yet been fully subjected to strong experimental tests within psychology. Nevertheless, there are many reasons and much evidence for considering the theory and its implications for both learning and the new media.

Learning Psychology

The psychology of learning encompasses all forms of relatively permanent behavior changes and is concerned with improving the effectiveness of learning. It includes theories of intelligence, theories of learning, and media and learning. Understanding the elements of how and why people learn has revealed the effectiveness of media in learning. Growing appreciation of this reality, plus the advances in technology, give rise to expansion and momentum in distance learning and the use of media in teaching.

With respect to learning as a skill, strategies for learning and for understanding "how" to learn now give rise to distance learning and learning on demand. The realization that knowledge is portable, pliable, and can fly through the air is fundamental to the growing interest in distance learning opportunities worldwide. Increasing public interest in distance learning and the new technology developments mean that the window of opportunity is now open for education.

The Three-S Model

The concept of media psychology is a composite of the various conditions described in the context of three key areas: semantics, semiotics and synthetics.

Semantics, the study of meaning in language, is central to our ability to understand words, which are fundamental to the behaviors of interaction. A simple example, rampant in media, is the use the word "quit." Quit is a pejorative term of frustration, meaning "to give up" and is generally a software programming term that has found its way into consumer products. The subliminal response to the word quit is negative, where "end" or "stop" are much better terms with much more appropriate meanings and they avoid the failure implication of the word "quit."

Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols in human communication, plays an important role because visual symbol manipulation facilitates human-machine interface. It creates a relationship. It enables navigation and control over media pathways. Clear, creative and careful use of symbols is giving rise to iconography as a highly developed skill. The graphical interface, through which onscreen information is made accessible, is the principal point of contact between machine and man.

Synthetics is the study of how diverse stimuli received by one sense engage a response from another sense. It is perhaps the line of research most critical to the development of media psychology's emotional dimension. In the new media, our total environment is a multi-sensory response to various audio/visual elements.

Synthetics coupled with television or computer interaction creates sensory rivalry and may create positive or negative experiences or reactions. One stimulus may create a positive reaction &emdash; others may create conflicts of cues or sensory rivalry. The result, in any case, is synesthetic and is essentially the experience resulting from the union of senses and media.

Examples of such experiences include seeing a boat rocked by waves, which may activate the sense of balance in an observer to the extent that it causes seasickness. Or viewing a painting of an Arctic scene of frost and snow, which may evoke sensation of cold or produce goose bumps. Hearing an explosion or gunshots may give one the illusion of being struck; looking at a picture of appetizing food may evoke sensations of taste and smell. Each of these examples represents a potential behavioral or psychovisual result engendered by media interaction, coupled with various unions between and among the senses.

What is described throughout this article is the relationship between psychology and technology, which results in behavior. It is the experience or the understanding that matters.

This description only presents a beginning of what needs to be done as the burgeoning digital highway emerges. Media psychology is an area requiring broader understanding and a growing need for research. The recognition of media psychology as an emerging professional discipline points out the need for new and more advanced university programs. "Why" is the ingredient to be added to technology and creativity, and "why" is now central to the new field of media psychology.

Summary & Conclusions

As a society we have studied aspects of media psychology for a century &emdash; in art, literature, motion pictures, and now, interactive multimedia. We have historically examined the role of mass media communications and entertainment.

Much of the focus has, understandably, been devoted to the issue of violence in media, a concern heightened by both increasing violence in motion pictures and the disturbing, increasingly graphic "bloody" video games emerging such as Mortal Kombat and Doom. Although those who defend programs with high levels of violence deny that the programming has any significant effect on behavior, report after report, year after year, reaffirms the desensitizing effects of repeated exposures and the absolute effect such exposures have on behavior. Clearly, what is seen, heard and interactively &emdash; if vicariously &emdash; participated in, influences behavior. Good or bad, the reality is that we must increase our understanding of the effects of interactive media, learning, experiences and behavior. We must learn more about the "why" of media psychology.

Through media psychology, we can learn to use video, sound, print and their critical components interactively to involve individuals in learning, positive growth, per- sonal achievement and self-actualizing experiences.

The digital explosion, so far, has primarily been a technology drama. Consumer electronics companies, regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) and other telecommunications firms, computer makers, print publishers, media conglomerates and budding software developers continue to invest literally hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology &emdash; the "how." To the present, very little has been carefully invested in the "why" of interacted program creation. We must now seize the opportunity to explore the "why" and to create a new discipline within which to structure our converging research.

Clearly, there are new ways of perceiving and thinking, new images of man and society, new and changing concepts of ethics and values, and new dimensions in psychology. The new media can integrate understanding, passion, beauty and attraction for self-actualization. If we understand how to accomplish the result, we can facilitate personal growth.

Media psychology is an emerging discipline and a new profession. Developers, producers and designers must understand more than they now know.

In the interest of improving learning in the schools, federal agencies and Congress should highlight programs that advance our understanding of synesthetics, semiotics, semantics and the effects of combining these dimensions in the media mix.

Media psychology is the other side of the technology coin. There will be new people with highly developed components skills, new programs that play better, and new experiences we will share &emdash; all will happen because of greater understanding of media psychology. We are at a new frontier. As we build the digital highway, the new media psychology will give us the rationale for developing the rules of the road.

Bernard Luskin, the Chief Executive Office of Jones Interactive, Inc., is also Vice Chair of Jones Education Networks and Chancellor, International University College. He is also a long-time member of T.H.E. Journal's Editorial Board. He has previously served as President and CEO of Philips Interactive Media of America, President of Philips Education and Reference Publishing, President of Orange Coast College and Coastline Community College, Chairman, American Association of Community Colleges and is a founder of KOCE-TV in California. Dr. Luskin is author of seven books, a licensed psychotherapist and recipient of the annual UCLA Doctoral Alumni Association award for distinguished leadership in education.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.