By Alecia Swasy
By understanding how news readers unconsciously process news, Paul Bolls expects to come up with smarter ways to deliver both news and advertising. Bolls, co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects, or PRIME, lab at the Missouri School of Journalism, has spent more than a decade making the connections between the human brain and how we're programmed to process media.
Kevin Wise, co-director of the PRIME lab, and Bolls did a study on how writing styles accompanying online videos can affect how consumers process the stories. They found that narrative writing, compared to traditional inverted pyramid, just-the-facts, stories, can significantly improve what consumers learn from the video.
That research, along with some preliminary research by colleagues at his alma mater, Indiana University, prompted Bolls to pursue a 2011-2012 Donald W. Reynolds Fellowship. The goal is to dig deeper into how our reading habits are determined by our unconscious and biological motivations. "One of the more exciting things is that it really is focused on how the human brain processes information," Bolls says.
For starters, the first phase of his fellowship will build and administer a national survey of 20-70-year-olds' media use. One part of the survey will measure if they react positively or negatively to different photos. Do certain stories and photos motivate the reader to get more involved in public affairs? The goal is to build "psychological profiles of news audiences."
The second phase of his fellowship will build specific recommendations on how to pick and design news content and advertising. He plans to test it at several news organizations' websites, although it's too early to say which media partners will be involved. The findings should help editors and publishers get beyond the mindset of "people just want weather, crime or celebrity scandals," Bolls says.
"We can produce news to make people smarter about the world around them," Bolls says. "We can also promote the economic welfare of journalism. We can have our cake and eat it, too."
Bolls, who started doing media psychology research as a master's student in 1993 at Washington State University, says this is "the most excited I've been about a project…We can build a bridge between science and practice."
For updates from Paul's perspective, follow him as he blogs.
About Paul Bolls
2011-2012 Reynolds Fellow Paul Bolls will study, using lab equipment that measures physiological responses, how the brain processes news and advertising. The expected outcome: news and advertising that users pay more attention to, understand better, and remember longer. Bolls is an associate professor and co-director of the Psychological Research on Information and Media Effects (PRIME) Lab at the Missouri School of Journalism.