Q&A with Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, Pamela Rutledge PhD, MBA
Q: What is your current position?
I am a cofounder of something called Think Lab. And I'm also adjunct faculty at Fielding Graduate University in the doctoral and master's Psychology of Media programs. I also teach at UC Irvine Extension and UCLA Extension. I teach media psychology, social media, social media and audience profiling and transmedia storytelling.
Q: What is media psychology?
A lot of people would disagree about what media psychology is. For my purposes, I define it very broadly. For me, media psychology is using psychology as a lens to look at the intersection of people and media technologies. We have this go-to idea that media is mass media, but, in fact, people have been using technology to communicate - mediated communications - ever since they learned how to paint on caves. Media is really a vehicle that we use for communication, whether it's a pen and paper or a text message on a Blackberry.
Q: Can you explain transmedia storytelling?
Transmedia storytelling is really just saying, from a high-level view, that the world has changed - there aren't borders anymore between different technologies or between producers and consumers. Transmedia storytelling is taking this environment and using it to tell the story. A story can be a legitimate story like Avatar or the Matrix, or it can be the story of a company or a brand. You use different types of media to build this very rich tableau, but each piece of media is a separate part of the story. You have this opportunity to weave a very rich, experiential story. And, because of current technology, it becomes very interactive.
Q: Why is media psychology important today?
I think people are suddenly aware that there's this different technology. Before people had this illusion that media was over "there" and they were over "here." People are now aware that technology is everywhere. It's how we communicate, do our chores, and maintain our social lives. People are wondering what all this technology means. Because it's come on so rapidly, there are an awful lot of people worrying about it. The technology is not going anywhere; people worrying about information overload, social media addiction, and all these things seem to be largely reacting to the rapid amount of change. In that sense, media psychology is emerging because of this increasing awareness.
Q: How did you become involved in this field?
I actually started my career in communications, doing graphic design and media development, primarily for financial and educational institutions. That got me interested in perception, but the fact that I was also doing design and trying to run my own business got me interested in learning a little bit of business. I went to graduate school in business, thinking that I was going to do marketing and ended up being just fascinated by the way business decisions influence behavior. At that point I thought, "Well I'd better go and learn some more psychology because that's really driving all this stuff that I'm thinking about." I started in clinical psychology and did some clinical work for a while, but ended up coming back around to media psychology when Fielding Graduate University created the first PhD program in psychology with an emphasis in media.
Q: What kind of research is done at the Media Psychology Research Center?
Some of the things that we look at are in private development. We will do research and assessment throughout the development phase of a website, for example. If you're making a website for four to six year-olds, how do they understand it? How do they use it? Do they need their parents to use it with them? If they do, how do the parents feel about technology? How do you bridge those kinds of gaps? We look at usability from a very psychological point of view. I like to come at things from a positive psychology point of view, looking at things like efficacy, engagement and agency - the things that build positive strengths.
Q: What classes should someone pursuing media psychology take?
You have to start with the psychology. You have to understand cognitive psychology, how people think and perceive. A little flavor of neuro-psychology is good as well. You really do need to understand how the brain works. You should also take social psychology because you have to know both how people define themselves individually and as part of a group. And, if you're really going to work with people, you have to have some developmental psychology. If you get that kind of foundation, then you can go and learn about media.
Q: What should someone be reading or following in media psychology?
What I would suggest is that if people have interest, set up a Google alert for media psychology, and then just read what people are talking about. Or, set up a Google alert for transmedia storytelling - anything that you think is of interest to you.
Q: What are some of the challenges in this field?
One of the challenges is that it's very broad. There's no defined career path. It's not like clinical psychology in which you have a determined area of specialization like teens or depressive disorders. You have to sort of decide for yourself.
Q: What do you see for the future of media psychology?
I think psychology is going to be recognized as being fundamental in this whole arena. I guarantee you that communications, media, anthropology, and sociology programs are all going to start bringing in some ideas from psychology. I think there's going to be a real premium for people who understand the combination of psychology and technology.
Q: How can students start getting involved in media psychology?
Use social media to listen to conversations. Follow Twitter hashtags; there are a lot of hashtags on psychology, transmedia, and variations of those. See if there's a conversation that intrigues you. Find out who's writing about what you're really interested in, and send them an email. I get emails from students all the time, and I think that's really cool.
Q: Any other recommendations for aspiring media psychologists?
Because media psychology is a new field, there are really a lot of opportunities to carve your own place in it. In that sense, it's exciting. Keep in mind that psychology is really behind everything that you do. Taking psychology (and maybe accounting), even if it's not your major, is really useful.