Three professionals with a background in media psychology described their "day job" rather uncharacteristically. They used adjectives like creative, exciting, passionate, and fascinating - words not often used to describe careers, but ones to take notice of when someone does.
Media Psychology Research Center
Pamela Rutledge, who holds a doctorate in media psychology from Fielding Graduate University, said that in today's world, people interact and engage with media as opposed to merely being passive recipients of mass media messages. That, she said, makes her work exciting because media can now be viewed as tools, rather than devices or applications to be feared. These tools, she emphasized, can bring about social change and provide benefits for people, organizations and governments.
"So my path is the passion for making people aware of these tools and trying to drive positive interest in them," she said.
Rutledge said her interest in media psychology has come full circle. Starting out with an undergraduate art degree, Rutledge began her career in communications design and publications. This led to an interest in the business aspects of how messages are sent, and a master's degree in business administration. She trained as a clinical psychologist but remained intrigued with the psychology of messages and how people actually make meaning out of information, so when Fielding began its program in media psychology, she saw it as a perfect fit.
"We've reached the tipping point where media technologies are everywhere, and we can't separate human experience or how we live and think and breathe and go about business - as either individuals, groups or countries - independent of media," Rutledge said.
Growth in the field of Media Psychology has paralleled the exponential growth of digital technologies over the past two decades. The early media research studied potentially negative influences of mass media, but new research focuses on positive applications of media interactions, called pro-social media.
As director of the Media Psychology Research Center (MPRC), a nonprofit organization that applies media psychology research to projects within the fields of education, health care and governments, Rutledge said that there are no limits to the number of careers or jobs that benefit from pro-social media. Education is one area that especially gains from social media.
The MPRC tests how children interact with educational interfaces and websites. By examining how children move around the sites, and observing if the interface makes sense cognitively and emotionally, the MPRC can suggest improvements to support learning and reinforce a child's sense of accomplishment. The Center also tests children's games, such as digital games used to enhance skill building and pro-social behaviors such as altruism.
But the Center's overall goal is positive media, Rutledge said. "We won't test a toy to find out what will make it sell better, but we'll look at ways to make media that is more effective in supporting positive goals and meaningful experiences."
While Rutledge works to understand and apply psychological principles to how people interact with and benefit from media technologies, another specialty of media psychology focuses on the content of media messages distributed today. Some media psychology professionals combine creativity and psychology working as consultants for entertainment production companies.
Emeritus Professor of Media
Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles
Stuart Fischoff, emeritus professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, and senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, which he founded in 1996, has consulted on numerous movie scripts, documentaries and television shows. He said to succeed as a media psychology consultant, individuals must understand human behavior and know how the entertainment field works. But most importantly, a desire to help people and impact society in positive ways should be the overriding goal for entering this field.
Fischoff said media psychology professionals help production companies develop stories that include more minorities, reduce stereotypes and sexism, and create more truthful, realistic characters. Media psychology consultants also provide writers and directors with the visual information on how to depict aggression, addiction, alcoholism, post traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other conditions.
"What does a dysfunctional family look like, or how does someone behave if on heroin or crystal meth? Basically you're telling them [writers and directors] what these conditions look like on the screen," Fischoff said.
Fischoff, who instituted the nation's first university course in media psychology in 1990, said that the ways consultants get involved with a particular movie or show depends on the director's needs. At times he has worked directly with the script while at other times he sat down for one or two sessions with a writer to explain psychological theory and principles.
One example from Fischoff's long list of consults to the entertainment industry is his work with film and television director Ted Kotcheff on the 1982 movie Split Image, a story on brainwashing and cults. For the movies Titanic and Fatal Attraction, Fischoff served as a psychological expert on the DVD bonus tracks to address the psychosocial impact of the movies. In addition, Fischoff has appeared on numerous television and radio shows worldwide providing psychological perspectives to numerous news stories, such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial or the Michael Jackson child abuse trial.
As in other professions, students desiring to become a consultant don't major in "consulting". Rather, it's creating "your own recipe," Fischoff said, by getting a master's or PhD in media psychology and taking courses within the program that teach about media and its effects on cultures and individuals, or adding interdisciplinary courses in media studies and communications. Of course, living in a media city like Los Angeles helps to network and meet people in the industry, he added.
Also a screenwriter, Fischoff met writers and directors in this capacity as well as in his psychologist role - which is what he means by "building your own recipe." One project led to another, and as he worked on more projects, both as a writer and consultant, he met more people, which expanded his professional network.
In addition to his extensive teaching and consulting background, Fischoff helped found the first doctoral program in media psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. This distributed learning program allows students from across the country to pursue a master's degree or PhD through an online learning environment, a structure that permitted current student Jenny Whittemore Fremlin to pursue her degree.
Ph.D. candidate at Fielding Graduate
University - Media Psychology
Living in Alaska, Whittemore Fremlin was working as a creative director for a lifestyle magazine, when the publication folded in 2003. At that time, she formed an online communications design business - MetaPaint Communications Design - with a partner who lived in Belgium. She also started looking for a graduate degree program in media, and discovered the media psychology program at Fielding, which she started in 2004.
Whittemore Fremlin said that she couldn't have attended a traditional "bricks and mortar" university where she would have had to drive to a building and physically sit in classrooms to attend lectures. The fact that the degree program was offered over the Internet, like her company, intrigued her. And, she added, the program at Fielding turned out even better than she anticipated.
She has focused her doctoral dissertation research on how online community building benefits the community, individuals and organizations. This research enables her to approach certain projects, such as creating a MySpace page for one of her clients, the Juneau Jazz and Classics Festival, in a more psychologically informed way.
The combination of media and psychology drew her into the degree - and fascinated her. In addition to applying what she has learned to projects for her business, she also sees the applications of positive social media expanding. As she said in a recent article she wrote for the Association For Psychological Science, "there is always something new on the horizon."
If you are interested in applying a background in media psychology to your current career for job growth and continued opportunities, or you want to pursue a career as a media psychology professional, you should consider a Master's degree in media psychology or PhD in media psychology.
Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are: Psychology Career Licensure.