Variations in preferences for media content highlight the importance of how the diversity of the viewing audience affects exposure and responses to media content. Among the limitless ways in which audience members may differ, the personality characteristics of the viewer provide a vast and diverse means of predicting individuals’ uses of, preferences for, and reactions to media content.
Personality As A Concept In Communication Research
Although the term “personality” has been used in a variety of ways, it is generally understood to refer to traits or dispositions that are relatively enduring and stable. Whereas demographic characteristics such as race and gender could be included under this definition, personality is typically understood to represent traits, outlooks, and behavioral tendencies that are relatively consistent and enduring within individuals.
Because the concept has been explored extensively in a variety of disciplines and because it provides a broad framework for conceptualizing individual difference variables, it has enjoyed a wealth of scholarly attention among media researchers interested in examining a host of related questions. Among these questions are how personality serves as a useful predictor of preference and enjoyment of content, how personality functions as a predictor of selective exposure and perception, and how personality may serve as an important moderator in explaining differential effects of media content on viewers.
Personality And Media Use And Enjoyment
Media use is not uniform across populations, nor is media content homogeneous. Some individuals spend a great deal of time viewing television; others refuse to have a television in their homes. Some people have an affinity with action films and horror; others prefer romance, tear-jerkers, and melodrama. Variations in use and preferences may reflect a host of audience characteristics, including gender, historical or social context, or mood, among others. However, the personality of the viewer undoubtedly plays an important role in media use, as personality is thought to be relatively stable across temporal variations.
Research from a uses-and-gratifications perspective conceptualizes media use as goal-directed, purposive, and fulfilling needs for individuals (Palmgreen et al. 1985; Rubin 2002). Following from this assumption, research generally supports the proposition that personality tends to be associated with using media for the fulfillment of various goals. For example, Weaver (2003) reported that neurotic personality types tended to watch television more frequently for purposes of passing the time and stimulation, whereas extroverts (who presumably had greater social contact) were less likely to watch television for purposes of companionship. Similarly, emerging research on Internet use suggests that individual-difference variables such as social skills and shyness may be useful in predicting uses of and preferences for online communication over face-to-face interactions.
Research also suggests that personality variables are useful in predicting many preferences for different types of content or media portrayals. In this regard, media associated with potentially harmful behavioral or attitudinal reactions have garnered the greatest share of scholarly attention. For media violence specifically, research generally suggests that personality variables indicating greater hostility or aggression on the part of the viewer are predictive of greater interest and enjoyment. For example, research has reported that traits such as callousness, rebelliousness, tough-mindedness, psychoticism, and aggression are associated with greater viewing and enjoyment of a host of different genres, including horror films, defiant rock music, and television violence, among others. Similar patterns have also been obtained for research on erotica or pornography, with higher levels of sexual permissiveness associated with enjoyment of sexually explicit materials per se, and with higher levels of aggressive or sexually callous traits associated with enjoyment of sexual materials featuring violence or unconventional behaviors (for reviews, see Oliver 2002; Oliver et al. 2006).
Although existing research suggests that viewers appear to be attracted to entertainment that mirrors or complements their existing dispositions, unambiguous explanations for these preferences have yet to be identified. For example, these preferences may reflect how individuals have been affected by media consumption, with heavier viewers of violent content developing dispositions that reflect their media diets. On the other hand, these preferences may reflect a preoccupation with violent or sexual cognitions that serves to make such media content particularly salient or meaningful. The latter interpretation is consistent with Reiss and Wiltz’s (2004) recent argument that individuals are motivated by a finite number of basic desires (e.g., power, status, vengeance, honor, etc.), with the actualization of these desires (including vicarious actualization) resulting in feelings of joy or fulfillment. This line of research implies that existing research on personality and media preferences may illustrate more general patterns of media consumption that reflect the means by which individuals use media content to satisfy basic desires, albeit vicariously.
Personality And Selective Perception, Exposure, And Avoidance
In addition to predicting individuals’ enjoyment of media content, research on individual differences suggests that personality likely plays an important role in terms of media consumers’ selectivity – including selective exposure, avoidance, and perception. Although this research has generally examined individual differences in terms of attitudes, many researchers conceptualize enduring attitudes as part of a subset of related constellations of traits that make up what is commonly understood to be the building blocks of personality.
Research in audience selectivity is often broadly influenced by theories of cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957). This perspective generally suggests that individuals tend to expose themselves to media messages that are consistent with existing attitudes and avoid inconsistent messages as a way of avoiding dissonant feelings. Further, when incongruent messages are encountered, they are often perceived and remembered in ways that are supportive of existing beliefs. Although scholarship on the role of cognitive dissonance and media use has revealed numerous nuanced caveats to this basic prediction (Cotton 1985), research in a host of domains supports the prediction. In particular, research pertaining to social and political media content generally shows that individuals tend to select and perceive messages in ways that are supportive of existing beliefs. However, similar research also curiously suggests that under some circumstances, partisan individuals tend to perceive news reports on salient, related issues as hostile to their position (Vallone et al. 1985). The seeming disconnection between viewers’ assimilation of messages and their perceptions of a hostile media is difficult to resolve, though it may reflect the extent to which individuals are cognizant of how messages may affect other viewers. That is, perceptions of powerful media influence on others may serve to exacerbate hostile-media perceptions (Gunther & Schmitt 2004).
Personality As A Moderator Of Media Influence
In addition to predicting enjoyment and selection of media messages, personality variables can also serve as important moderators of both the strength and direction of media effects. In many respects, research demonstrating this moderating effect may reflect differences in interpretation of media content. For example, individuals who are sensation seekers may find frightening media content exciting and gratifying, whereas individuals low in sensation seeking may experience dread or anxiety. These differences in resultant affect may manifest themselves in further differences in behaviors, arousal levels, cognitions, or related emotional responses.
Related to the notion of interpretation, personality characteristics may also play consequential roles in individuals’ processing of media messages, with variations in processing resulting in variations in the extent to which messages may result in attitude change. For example, individuals who score high on need for cognition (NFC) are typically more likely to carefully scrutinize and elaborate upon message arguments than are those who are low in NFC. According to the elaboration likelihood model, this individual difference may imply different paths to attitude change, with message quality having a stronger influence than peripheral cues for individuals high in NFC, and the reverse true for individuals low in NFC (for a review of this literature, see Petty & Wegener 1998).
In addition to suggesting that individual differences play important roles in moderating the effects of persuasion, studies employing priming models also demonstrate that personality can moderate the extent to which media content may activate concepts, emotions, or action tendencies that, in turn, affect subsequent behavior. In general, research from this perspective argues that for a concept or mental model to be primed or activated, the concept must be present in an individual’s cognitive structure. Applied to issues of personality, this reasoning suggests that certain personality traits may signify a given cognitive structure for a viewer, making the viewer more susceptible to priming effects resulting from exposure to different types of media content. For example, research on media violence and priming has demonstrated that individuals with certain personality characteristics, such as trait hostility, psychoticism, or hypermasculinity, are more vulnerable to priming influences than are individuals who do not harbor high levels of these traits (see, e.g., Bushman 1998; Scharrer 2001).
Personality as a Consequence of Media Selection and Exposure
Arguably, the bulk of social scientific research on personality and media has conceptualized personality variables as independent variables in terms of predicting media selection and response, or as moderator variables in terms of specifying the types of individuals who may be more susceptible to media influence. Because personality is understood to be stable and enduring, this focus is understandable. However, given that media consumption (and its accompanying messages and portrayals) begins at a very early age and comprises the bulk of individuals’ leisure activities, future researchers may profitably examine how long-term and cumulative media use may play important roles in the formation of personality traits and dispositions.
- Bushman, B. J. (1998). Priming effects of media violence on the accessibility of aggressive constructs in memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(5), 537–545.
- Cotton, J. L. (1985). Cognitive dissonance in selective exposure. In D. Zillman & J. Bryant (eds.), Selective exposure to communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 11–33.
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
- Gunther, A. C., & Schmitt, K. (2004). Mapping boundaries of the hostile media effect. Journal of Communication, 54, 55–70.
- Oliver, M. B. (2002). Individual differences in media effects. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 507–524.
- Oliver, M. B., Kim, J., & Sanders, M. S. (2006). Personality. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 329–341.
- Palmgreen, P. C., Wenner, L. A., & Rosengren, K. E. (1985). Uses and gratifications research: The past ten years. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Petty, R. E., & Wegener, D. T. (1998). Attitude change: Multiple roles for persuasion variables. In D. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (eds.), Handbook of social psychology, 4th edn. Boston: McGraw-Hill, pp. 323–390.
- Reiss, S., & Wiltz, J. (2004). Why people watch reality TV. Media Psychology, 6(4), 363–378.
- Rubin, A. M. (2002). The uses-and-gratifications perspective of media effects. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 525–548.
- Scharrer, E. (2001). Tough guys: The portrayal of hypermasculinity and aggression in televised police dramas. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 45, 615–634.
- Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577–585.
- Weaver, J. B., III (2003). Individual differences in television viewing motives. Personality and Individual Differences, 35(6), 1427–1437.