Psychology of Media

Rotational ambigram for “media”

Good design of educational technology needs to build on an understanding of what particular technologies can (or cannot) do. An important part of my research has been to develop a better understanding of the psychological affordances of technologies and how individuals (and groups) respond to the design of these technologies.

In Mishra, Spiro, & Feltovich, (1996) I argued that different media engender different mind-sets or ways of thinking; they prefigure cognitive processes and human responses to them. An important part of the design of media is to develop a better understanding of the differing characteristics of different media, the kinds of representational formats they support and how these representations can be (mis)interpreted. This is a critical argument for design, since it is the design of media (not the medium in the abstract) that influences how people respond.

In Mishra and Brewer (2003) we showed how the design of text (i.e. whether or not it is an explanatory theory) influenced memory and learning. Clearly, the effect we found was not inherent in the medium of text, but rather in how text was designed. In Mishra (1999/2004) I analyzed the pedagogical functions of scientific illustrations to show that these images, as representations of particular concepts, carry histories as well as particular cultural and ideological biases. I argued that educators need to develop an awareness of the historical, disciplinary and representational conventions of scientific representations.


Different representations have differing strengths and weaknesses. Two different representations of the periodic table, rarely seen in textbooks. Such representations were the basis of FLiPS, A multimedia cognitive flexibility hypertext to learn complex concepts in chemistry.

Other studies include a mixed-method study of learning science from hypertexts (Jacobson, Maouri, Mishra, & Kolar, 1996); the design and evaluation of a multimedia hypertext for learning chemistry (Mishra & Nguyen-Jahiel, 1998; Mishra & Yadav, submitted); and a theoretical piece on how the architecture of the Web supports pedagogy (Ferdig, Mishra & Zhao, 2004).

The most significant part of my work in the area of understanding the affordances of media has been with the psychological aspects of working with interactive media. This work builds on what has been called the Computers As Social Actors Hypothesis (CASA). This perspective is based on the premise that people often respond to interactive media just as they respond to real people.

For instance, research has shown that people are polite to computers, treat them as teammates, stereotype them, and feel flattered by them. Over the years, I have been involved in systematically exploring the educational and design implications of this attribution of agency to interactive media.

In the realm of theory I have attempted to explain the idea of “perception of intentionality” in interactive media within a broader framework of responses to all media. I draw upon evidence from cognitive science, developmental psychology, and evolutionary psychology to argue that this intentional stance is a “cognitive illusion,” that is the product of highly sophisticated, deeply entrenched inferential principles that are quite inaccessible to conscious introspection or voluntary control.

Kids and media: The social and para-social aspects of playing with interactive toys.

This line of research has significant implications for designers of educational software tools indicating that they need to go beyond the purely cognitive aspects of working with computers and factor in the social and psychological aspects as well.