Where Media and Psychology Meet: Researching Cognitive Behavior
by Leslie Cranford
Advertising. A medium designed to draw people in – to a product, a place, an attitude. And many people are successfully tempted by its messages. But for one particular Texas Tech professor, the mystique of advertising lured him into the field itself.
It was inevitable that Sam Bradley, associate professor and chair of the Department of Advertising, would wind up in the world of publicity, promotion and marketing. After all, his dad worked at radio stations when he was a toddler, and his parents opened an advertising agency when he was 3 years old. Bradley watched them and learned from them his entire childhood.
“I grew up around a family advertising agency in the Kansas City metropolitan area,” Bradley said. “When my dad would work on the weekends, I’d sit in the art room laying out my own newspapers and ads. The day it was legal for me to work, I began working in the mailroom. By high school, I was conducting research on the effectiveness of their advertising.”
Personal rebellion found him trying his hand at journalism, an industry in which he worked for two years.
“I got tired of nights and weekends and very little pay and went back to graduate school to explore things,” Bradley said. “I’ve always had a passion, too, for the human mind. I didn’t want to be a psychologist, but I’ve always had that interest. And obviously I had a media interest.”
When he found out that he could blend his shared passions of the media and human psychology, Bradley was hooked.
“College was an addictive experience for me – I love to learn, and I never wanted to leave,” he said. “A joint doctoral degree in mass communications and cognitive science from Indiana University was intellectual heaven.”
Now Bradley is a leading researcher of human responses to a variety of media stimuli. His research offers understanding of how the brain interprets messages, along with providing valuable insight into how communications may more effectively target audience interest, and differentiating between messages that work and those that don’t.
Bradley's research involves using physiological measures and formal computational models to understand responses to mediated messages.
“I’m interested in the cognitive processing of media,” Bradley said. “The vast majority of the human experience has been without mediated communication, yet today’s young people spend more hours staring at screens than at other people. How does the brain make sense of this hyper-mediated world? What captures and holds our attention amid clutter? What do we remember? What moves us emotionally? I ask not only these questions but also those surrounding the cognitive processes underlying this behavior.
“We’ve looked at how the mind processes messages, and we don’t rely a lot on self-report. People will tell you a lot of things about why they like Coca-Cola, why they like M&Ms, why they like Texas Tech. Those stories are often good stories, but they don't seem to correlate very well with their purchase behavior, so we do a lot to try to get below the layer of that surface.”
Right now, Bradley said, they’re working on a centuries-old problem: How does the human mind, in real time, decide truth from falsehood?
“Almost everything consumed through television and film is fiction, yet audiences go along for the ride but balk when something seems too contrived,” Bradley said. “Most likely, you’ve never seen police really raid a meth lab, but you have surprisingly strong notions about what would and would not happen in that given scenario. Where does that come from? How do the media distort your perspective of judging what’s real? This fascinates me.”
Besides pursuing excellence in research, Bradley is a winner of college-level teaching awards and is the recipient of student evaluations rated in the top 10 percent among faculty members in the College of Mass Communications.
“I try to bring my passions and experience to my students,” Bradley said. “They energize me every day, and I tell anyone who asks that being a university professor is the greatest job on the planet. I really like connecting with young people. I like the big lecture halls. I’m okay in a graduate seminar with six or seven people, that’s fun too. But, 170 people in a lecture hall and me trying to keep them engaged. If I can’t keep them engaged, well I’m failing, because I study human attention and memory.”
Sam Bradley is an associate professor of advertising in the College of Mass Communications.
Bradley is the author or co-author of one textbook, 17 peer reviewed journal articles, 10 edited book chapters, and he is a member of three journal editorial boards. Refereed publications have appeared in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Psychology & Marketing, the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Media Psychology, and Human Communication Research.
Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.
Leslie Cranford is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University. Images courtesy Neal Hinkle and Sam Bradley.