Media Psy Ops: Developing Psychological Profiles of Media Audiences

Media researchers have been pursuing psychological descriptions of media audiences and their behaviors for more than a half century. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of taking a media history course, I will give you a brief overview.

In the 1940’s, pioneers in the area of media research began to explore motives behind media choices. This area of research became known as “Uses and Gratifications” because it focused on exploring why people choose to use certain forms of media content. Researchers working in this area identified two primary motives driving media use — surveillance and escapism. This research continues today with researchers studying motives for using new media technologies and content. Unfortunately, little original insight into media audiences has resulted –that is until now!

HCD Research and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri assisted me in conducting a national survey that provides some of the first original insight in decades, into how motivational responses affect preferences for different forms of media technology and content.  And unlike previous research, we actually measured motivation, the raw biological system in charge of helping us survive and thrive by seeking out rewards and avoiding threats. 

The survey included a test capable of detecting individual differences in the sensitivity of our motivational system in charge of seeking out rewards and avoiding threats. Psychologists studying human motivation have proposed that individuals differ in terms of whether their biological motivational system is more tuned into seeking out rewards in the environment or avoiding threats.

The study also included questions about preferences for different features of online news websites. Thus, the survey allowed me to separate respondents into two groups, those that are highly focused on seeking out rewards (reward seekers) and those that are highly focused on avoiding threats (threat avoiders).

While I don’t have the space to go into the detailed findings, one nugget that is particularly exciting is that individual variation’s in motivational differences are capable of predicting preferences for mobile media as well as the likelihood of individuals to comment on, recommend and share news stories.  My friend and colleague Robert Potter at Indiana University has also conducted research that indicates these biologically based motivational differences predict preferences for different forms of entertainment media content.

The bottom line is that this measure that was developed by Annie Lang at Indiana University has the potential to produce the first original insight in decades into motivations that drive media use.  This has enormous potential for understanding media audiences in a way that goes well beyond the demographics and psychographics that are currently available! This insight can be used to develop media content and brand messages capable of connecting with specific audiences at a deeper motivational level. 

Kept in context with a holistic understanding of how individuals select, use and are effected by media, this measurement tool will undoubtedly help media psychology researchers like myself provide extremely valuable theoretical and practical insight to society as well as the media industry.  That is the value of Media Psy Ops!