March 23, 2017

Diagnosing ‘kind world syndrome,’ a Q&A with Mary Beth Oliver

Mary Beth OliverA faculty member since 1998, Mary Beth Oliver is a distinguished professor of media studies and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory. Her specialty is in media and social cognition. She is co-editor of “Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research” and has appeared in several major communications journals. Her research interests include media entertainment, stereotyping and positive media messaging.

Your research and work with the Media Effects Lab covers a lot of areas. What do you find yourself focusing on most these days?

MBO: I have been looking at ways to harness media for pro-social ends. A lot of media effects research looks at how media is harmful to viewers—increasing aggressions, obesity, cyber-bullying and so forth. It’s very important work, but I am looking for ways media can inspire. Where can we find media that shows common humanity, heightened altruism and the good side of human beings? Right now, we’re collecting data on the people who choose those types of media.

Negativity in the media is well documented. Why do you think negativity is so prevalent in today’s media world?

MBO: Social media is definitely a component of it. In an exploratory—yet very exciting—study we observed people’s eyes and how they were glued to their cell phones. We worry that it prevents people from noticing their environment. It’s isolating, a “mobile bubble.” So, instead of saying “Put your phones down,” we are trying to find ways to encourage them to use their devices as a way to look outward.

How does one go about using their phones to look outward?

MBO: In our study, we gave Penn State students a photo challenge. We asked them to go outside and snap photos of beauty or kindness they see in their lives in any shape or form. You wouldn’t believe all the wonderful images they brought back…a couple holding hands or an advertisement for a blood drive. I have never had participants enjoy a study more. It was incredibly inspiring.

Given the tenuous political climate and the accompanying media frenzy, is this work as relevant as ever?

MBO: Professionally, I think the media is accused of doing pretty bad things in our society—and for good reason. There is a lot of ugly content, but at the same time I see that there’s much more than that. We owe it to ourselves to really look at not just stopping the bad, but exposing the good. Personally, when I witness media’s portrayals of beauty, I am elevated. It’s possible to heighten people’s feelings and connectedness.

Is this the opposite of the “mean world syndrome” theory, which says violence-heavy content in mass media makes consumers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is?

MBO: Yes. When I see our data, I see a “kind world syndrome.” I am floored by the opportunity we have to do good with media. One person that’s been good at harnessing this positivity is Steve Hartman at CBS. He does a great job pulling together stories that show the good in humanity. For example, he featured a disabled middle school student on his school’s football team. During a game, the team rigged their plays so the student could score a touchdown. These stories that show some good in humanity go viral and everyone is reaching for a tissue.

Is the trick sharing real-life stories?

MBO: There is a large body of work on the power of the narrative. It says a narrative is particularly engaging for people. In our research, we impose stories through a narrative, versus a news story about policy, and the narrative usually wins the day. I worked with colleagues on a study where we looked at creating compassion for groups who are often stigmatized, in this case someone who was incarcerated. We were comparing what would happen when we take the same policy issues and write them into a general news story and a story narrative. The story wins pretty much every time.

You have these messages, but hundreds of ever-evolving outlets. How do you stay up to date on the newest media technologies?

MBO: I teach a large general education class of undergraduate students. You can imagine how they keep me younger every year. They tell me about media technologies that I had no idea they used so frequently. That’s important to me. When it comes to their technology, it amazes me how much they open up and share and talk about their experiences. Attending conferences and editing journals is also helpful. I think if you’re active, you can see it as it’s happening.