Media Effects Lab measures audience response

Interested in analyzing where viewers' eyes are drawn to on a homepage? How about whether viewers' heart-rates go up when watching a horror film? Or perhaps you are even keen on observing whether students become more prone to ‘green' behavior after reading an article or watching a video about environmental catastrophe. The LSU Media Effects Lab, or MEL, has what you need to answer a wide range of media-related research questions.

MEL is a state-of-the-art experimental lab equipped for measurement of a wide range of psychological and physiological responses among audiences of diverse forms of media. As both a research and teaching facility, MEL promotes exploration of how various media formats and content influence audience's thoughts, feelings and behavior.

"We are able to examine implicit as well as explicit attitudes," said Meghan S. Sanders, associate dean of Sponsored Research and Programs in the Manship School of Mass Communication and director of MEL. "Implicit attitudes are those unconscious thoughts and feelings that people may try to filter when they are given a piece of paper to answer on."

Frank Bourgeois/University Relations

MEL is equipped with computers that can track response time, or how long it takes a participant to respond to a particular question. These measurements can be used to determine whether participants are filtering their responses or whether their responses are reflective of their actual thoughts and feelings, informing research on stereotyped attitudes, for example. MEL allows faculty and students at LSU to conduct research typically difficult to explore with pencil and paper questionnaires.

Contained within the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, MEL is one of the largest and most sophisticated media research labs of its kind within in the country. The lab is complete with heart rate, skin conductance, eye movement and brain activity monitoring capabilities. Using the lab's 16 computer stations, eye-tracking and heart-rate monitoring devices, skin conductance and facial contraction electrodes for the detection of emotional responses, flat screen TV and living room area for natural environment research settings, researchers at LSU and beyond can measure audiences' physical responses to various media messages as well as gather their unconscious attitudes toward those messages.

"MEL is really a one-of-a-kind entity nationally because we do have a variety of capabilities," Sanders said. "So while there are other media effects labs across the country, we are the only one that combines the web-tracking, eye-tracking and physiological recording capabilities all in one place."

In collaboration with Mina Tsay, assistant professor in the College of Communication at Boston University, and Kristin Marks, graduate student in the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Sanders recently conducted a study on parasocial relationships, the dynamic personal bonds that media users develop with mediated figures such as Hollywood movie characters. Using the Harry Potter movie saga as a research example, Sanders and colleagues harnessed resources available in the MEL to explore the phenomenon of parasocial breakups—the termination of a mediated relationship whether forced or mutual, and how such breakups affect various media users differently.

"With the conclusion of the final installment of the Harry Potter movie saga, some fans reported feeling severe loss as the fantasy coming-of-age story ended," Sanders said. "Many fans literally grew up with the characters and stories, possibly looking to them for life lessons. After nearly 15 years, many perhaps have experienced the most profound of parasocial losses. We found that the stronger these relationships, the more intense the breakup emotions, and the more likely people were to try to fill the void by either seeking out similar content, watching the movies and reading the books again, or looking for the actors in other roles."

Experiments at MEL are conducted by Manship faculty, graduate and undergraduate students taking classes in communication theory and research methods, as well as students conducting independent projects such as theses and dissertations. During the spring 2012 semester alone, more than 40 studies ran through MEL, with more than 1,200 undergraduate and graduate students participating in various research projects.

"We have a number of graduate students who have taken projects conducted here and presented them at regional and national conference, and even taken them on to journal publications," Sanders said. "So MEL is really beneficial for graduates students."

Sanders teaches a media effects course that takes place in MEL as part of the Manship School of Mass Communication graduate program. The course allows students to learn not only the theoretical fundamentals of media effects research, but also the nuts and bolts and operations of the facility and the various pieces of equipment that it contains.

Research at MEL is also conducted on behalf of various media-related industries. Using valid and reliable scientific methods, MEL can inform the process of creating effective messages for advertisers, public relations practitioners, journalists, political strategists and many others. Equipment at MEL can be used to examine website usability and attractiveness, effectiveness of printed and online media messages and even media users' unconscious responses to media content and form.

"The Media Effects Lab is a facility designed to assist researchers in learning about the psychological impacts of various forms of media," Sanders said. "I like to say we are one of the best kept secrets on campus because we don't have a lot of publicity, but we are conducting a lot of research every academic year."