Uses and Gratifications Theory

A family sits down together to watch television, and an argument quickly ensues. Dad wants to watch the big football game. His coworkers plan to discuss it the next day, and he doesn’t want to feel left out of the conversation. Mom wants to see a talk show about dealing with nosy neighbors; just yesterday, she spied Mrs. Cranford from next door peeking over their fence. Nine-year-old Bobby clamors for his favorite superhero cartoon, knowing that it always entertains him. Twelve-year-old Nina, however, begs to watch a quiz show; she loves seeing how many questions she can answer correctly.

This scenario illustrates the idea behind Uses and Gratifications Theory. According to the theory, media users actively select the types of media and media content they consume to gratify various psychological needs. Its purpose is to explain how and why people use media. The theory first surfaced in the 1940s but is credited primarily to the research of communications professor Jay Blumler and sociologist Elihu Katz in the 1970s. Research to support the theory is conducted largely through surveys and questionnaires, by which media users self-report their gratifications. Uses and Gratifications Theory represents a radical departure from Hypodermic Needle Theory, which assumes audiences are “sitting ducks” to the media’s influence.

Assumptions

Uses and Gratifications Theory posits a few basic assumptions:

1. The audience takes an active role in selecting a medium, as well as interpreting it and integrating it into their lives.
2. Different types of media compete against each other and against other sources of gratification for viewers’ attention.
3. The medium that provides the most satisfaction for a person will be used more often than other types.

Types of Needs

Through media consumers’ self-reporting, researchers have identified several types of needs that motivate people to seek media for gratification:

1. Cognitive – Refers to acquiring information to aid the thinking and understanding process. People use media such as documentaries and how-to videos to increase their skills or knowledge in a certain area.

2. Affective – Relates to emotions or feelings. People use media to arouse certain emotions within themselves, such as happiness, fear or pleasure.

3. Personal Integrative – Refers to promoting one’s own image, reputation or status. People with this need use media, like Facebook and YouTube, to increase their credibility or social standing or to affirm their sense of self.

4. Social Integrative – Refers to interacting with family and friends. People use media to connect with others.

5. Tension Release – Relates to diversion and stress relief. People use media as catharsis or to escape from reality.

The same form of media or content can fulfill different needs among consumers. For instance, a scientific TV show can provide cognitive gratification for one viewer while providing tension release for another. Developmental maturity, personality, background, class and social roles determine the types of needs individuals have.

The Role of Media

Research also shows the importance of certain roles played by the various media. They can reinforce personal values or model social behaviors. They can provide a basis for social interaction or substitute for real companionship. They can strengthen biases or enable consumers to empathize with others. They can solidify social roles or motivate people to question them. They can help people become more knowledgeable about the world around them or allow them to escape it.

However, Uses and Gratifications Theory suggests that whatever effect media has on an audience is largely determined by the audience itself. Though some forms of media present messages carefully crafted to evoke certain kinds of responses, recipients are capable of interpreting the messages in different ways. Some interpretations may be entirely opposite of what the sender intended, thus demonstrating what some researchers have called an “imperviousness to influence.” For example, a negative news report on weak holiday sales may be taken positively by hearers who interpret the report as a sign that people are spending and saving more wisely than in the past. Also, audiences often practice selective exposure, choosing the media content that best affirms their values and opinions.

Criticism

Though Uses and Gratifications Theory represents a vast improvement over earlier models that assumed audiences were passive and gullible, critics have still managed to find some shortcomings within it. First of all, some researchers say the theory credits audiences with too much selectivity. Some people may consume media without any conscious reason to do so, such as out of habit or ritual. Also, the emphasis on selectivity ignores other unintended effects that the media might have on an audience.

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