Osgood’s media theory proposes a variant to the more classical behavioural equation, which only contemplated stimuli and responses to understand how an individual reacted to the demands of the environment.

Charles E. Osgood postulated the existence of concepts to which the human being tended to attribute a meaning, thus positing a historical milestone in the evolution of behaviorism. From his model would emerge the technique of semantic differential, whose purpose was to evaluate this extreme.

In the following lines we will delve into the fundamental ideas of his media theory, which was a milestone for Psychology and has inspired many investigations on how individuality mediates the relationship between stimuli and responses.

Osgood’s media theory

Osgood’s media theory gives special value to words, since it assumes that they harbour the capacity to represent tangible objects of reality and to mobilize in every human being some of the behaviours that he would articulate in the direct presence of these. It is, therefore, about a model that makes special emphasis in the symbolic properties of language ; and that contributes wealth to the classic behavioral equation (from which any reaction to the environment was limited to the arch-known stimulus-response).

This theory is based on the fact that words, and the cognitive processing that can be suggested from them, act as the mediational axis between the presentation of any stimulus and the response associated with it. That is why is considered a model of clear neo-behavioural cut , since it extends its theoretical framework and contemplates the constructive capacity of the human being in his interaction with the reality that surrounds him.

Next, we propose the three levels included in Osgood’s postulate, in which the progressive transformation of sensations (dependent on the sense organs) into perceptions and meanings is detailed, involving higher level elaborations and which are the basis for the selection of a range of behaviours with which the natural environment will be mediated.

1. Projection level

The level of projection refers to the realm of immediate sensations , as they occur at the moment they are perceived by the sense organs. It includes both those that belong to the visual domain and the rest of the sensory modalities, and traces the way in which every human being immerses himself in the physical environment that surrounds him. In particular, it is a broad universe of sensations that unfold during the experience, in a composition of shades that can be grasped by the sensory and organic limits.

This initial process obeys a perception of the facts as they are (icons), without the interpretation of them or the contribution of the individuality of the person involved in this situation.

At the other end of the equation, the projection level includes all the possible behaviors (movements) that the agent subject can use to interact with that which surrounds him. Thus, the projective level brings together potential stimuli and responses, without using filters of any other nature.

2. Level of integration

In this second level two sequential processes occur, independent in their definition but functionally connected. Firstly, the stimuli of the preceding phase are brought together in a rich subjective experience that integrates them according to the way they tend to be presented. In any case, they are part of the canvas of a complex experience that can hardly be reduced to the sum of all its parts.

The way they are all assembled depends on past experiences , which is the second point of this process. Through our interaction with the world we learn that certain phenomena tend to occur together (by temporal and spatial contingency) and furthermore, that their confluence endows them with a new meaning.

This process is equivalent to perception, through which sensation is reworked and certain behavioral expectations are generated. It is not, therefore, a passive reception of the stimulating matrix, but rather the person endows it with value or meaning.

3. Level of mediation

At this level, a semantic meaning would emerge to capture the experience, which would be translated into verbal terms (words) that are distant in terms of the structure of the object to which they allude, but which are a symbol in whose essence lies the convergence of all the elements that make it up. This symbol would play the role of a detonating stimulus, but not a purely physical one, but one with a very notable subjective charge (emotional, for example) of an abstract type.

Because life allows us to understand that certain events have meaning when they occur together, and that we do not react to each of them separately, but to what makes up their semantic uniqueness. This can be represented by a single word whose appearance is the result of social consensus. From this word, and from the value given to it, , responses will unfold in the form of complex behavioural patterns and emotions of a personal nature.

In the same way that the stimulus is the union of icons of the perceptive field into a meaningful unit, the response implies a pattern of movements (understood as the most elementary form of action) that are selected from the whole range of possibilities, according to the way in which the person values the semantic unit. For this reason, each of them responds in a different way to the same situation.

Representational capacity

At this point, it is essential to consider that words symbolically represent things that occur in reality and elicit responses comparable to what they are representing, this being the key point of media processing. The aforementioned process implies a cognitive elaboration that goes beyond sensation or perception , since it interferes in the scope of the meanings that the fact may have for each person.

Thus, the sensations that accompany each word (icons) depend on the experiences that have been maintained with that which it represents (it is not the same thing as a storm for someone who has never lived close to one, as it is for someone who has lost his home as a result of a storm), so it would precipitate in each individual a different pattern of behaviors/emotions when it presents itself to the consciousness (as a result of the perception of suggestive signs of it in the environment).

The truth is that words like “storm” could be associated with a very wide range of responses, but the individual will display only those that are congruent with the value they have for him.

Thus, for those who have never experienced its dramatic effects, it will be enough to walk home, but for those who have suffered it, it will be inevitable to make the same journey by running as if their life depended on it or to look for a place to safeguard themselves immediately.

The semantic differential

The semantic differential is an evaluation procedure with which to explore how a person perceives a particular word (and therefore what it represents).

A list of several pairs of adjectives is usually used, each of which forms a continuum at the ends of which are the opposites expressed in bipolar terms (good or bad, adequate or inadequate, etc.), with the subject being able to stand somewhere in between (with seven different response options, ranging from -3 to +3 and with a value of 0 indicating neutrality).

Because the best way to understand Osgood’s media theory is through examples, we proceed to raise the case of a person facing a natural disaster. We will break down the process into its most concrete parts, in order to shed light on each of the points raised throughout the article.

  • You may be interested in: “Semantic Differential Test: What it is and how it is used in psychology”

Osgood’s media theory in action

It was a quiet June afternoon on the eastern shores of Japan. Shigeru spent his time fishing on a makeshift rocky beach, although he had not had much success so far. For some unknown reason the fish were reluctant to take the bait, so he simply rested after a busy week of work. There he often found a haven of peace, where he could take shelter from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Suddenly he felt that the earth seemed to tremble under him . A flock of seagulls drifted from the sea horizon inland, squawking erratically until they disappeared behind the silhouette of the little houses that lined up a few meters from the coast. A dense, frothy wave licked the shore and rolled unusually forward on the sand. Behind it, the ocean seemed to shrink and recede as if it were inspiring, revealing hundreds of yards of shiny pebbles and colored shells. A wild, bubbling, watery roar filled the air and crashed into her ears.

Somewhere a nervous bell rang, one that could barely be discerned behind the furious grunt of a suddenly rough sea. It was not the first time I had experienced something like this. His body shuddered and began to weave together everything he had seen and felt in just a few seconds. The noise, the birds fleeing, the shaking… It was definitely a tsunami. He stood up like an exhalation and picked up a few rigs, the ones he appreciated the most, and shot out of there like the devil’s soul.

A few years ago he lost everything because of a natural phenomenon like that , so wild and uncertain. His possessions were annihilated or swallowed up by a brutal mass of destructive water, and from that day on he had always lived with the floating feeling that it could happen again. Just hearing the word “tsunami” he felt a deep horror, so dense that it even took his breath away. After all, it was something that only those who had experienced at close quarters the destruction that the sea can leave in its wake could understand.

He survived, but after many months, Shigeru was still thinking about everything that had happened. The word “tsunami” came into his head from time to time, and only by uttering it did he feel the need to run and hide somewhere. It was as if he suddenly had the power to awaken a primitive panic , which forced him to seek refuge. But he was sitting safely on a central terrace in a city in the middle of the Japanese archipelago. Far, far away from the coast.

She was then able to catch a group of young women talking aloud a few metres away about the recent news of another tsunami that had ravaged the fishing villages in the south and east of the country. And although their words were affected by that tragedy, one could sense behind them that they had never experienced in their own skin the cruel fury of nature a. They paid for their respective coffees and left the place, chatting about some worldly and completely different matter.

Interpretation of the example

Shigeru was having a nice day alone, fishing without any major pretensions. After some time, he felt a series of events around him (angry sea, birds fleeing, and a serious roar from the ocean) that could mean in one word: tsunami.

This term would act for him as a stimulus to which he would respond, of which he already had sufficient knowledge to understand its scope and risk. And all this despite the fact that the tsunami was not really present in the natural environment, but only the objective signs of its imminence (being, at that time, a symbolic threat).

Because he once lost everything because of a natural phenomenon like that, and associated the term “tsunami” with very particular adverse experiences , he chose to quickly flee from there (among all the options available in that situation). Thanks to the behaviour he displayed, he managed to take refuge and save his life.

The word “tsunami” would symbolize for him a whole series of difficult affections, since it had the power to evoke dramatic events in his life, but the women who drank coffee were able to address this issue without feeling overwhelmed by the same pain. At this point we can appreciate the different meanings that each human being can attribute to the same term , according to the way in which he has related during his life to the reality he alludes to, which is intimately associated with the behaviour and emotion that will unfold when it emerges into consciousness.

Bibliographic references:

  • Holland, P.C. (2008). Cognitive versus stimulus-response theories of learning. Learning Behavior, 36(3), 227 – 241.
  • Tzeng, O., Landis, D. and Tseng, D. (2012). Charles E. Osgood’s continuing contributions to intercultural communication and far beyond! International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36(6), 832 – 842.