Ego-Involvement and the Mass Media.

Muzafer Sherif and S. Stansfeld Sargent

The mass media of communication are products of the revolutionary technological developments of modern times. As such, they are subject to control by those who own the means of production and transportation. As the Report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press quoted from William Allen White: "Too often the publisher of an American newspaper has made his money in some other calling than journalism. He is a rich man seeking power and prestige. He has the country club complex. The business manager of this absentee owner quickly is afflicted with the country club point of view."[1] The content of newspaper columns, movies, or radio broadcasts is not determined solely by news value or intrinsic newsworthiness or entertainment value. It is significantly affected-in some cases selectively chosen-in accordance with the personal involvements, conscious or unconscious, on the part of the publishers, owners, producers and their friends. The work of Doob and other students of propaganda gives detailed evidence of this point.[2]

Therefore an adequate social psychology of mass media should start by determining the personal involvements of publishers, owners, producers, etc. Only in this way can the content, direction and effects of mass media become really intelligible. Usually researches into the effects of mass media concentrate on the readers or listeners-their attitudes, prejudices, personal involvements, etc. The selective processes of the recipient and those of the originator of the stimuli do not operate independently; they act and react upon each other. Unless the one-sided stress upon the reader and listener is broadened to include study of the predilections of the originator, the social psychology of the mass media is doomed to remain academic and sterile.

The two features of the situation which are of particular significance to the social psychologist are (1) mass media replace, to a great extent, face-to-face contacts in shaping attitudes, identifications and the subsequent "public opinion"; (2) mass media reach millions of people with their message almost simul-

(9) -taneously. These two features are already forcing us to revise our provincial views of social psychology based on social stimulation mediated solely through the actual presence of other individuals. The radio, movie and newspaper have become institutions, each with its own prestige halo. The printed word, the broadcast announcement, the star on the screen, appearing with this stamp of prestige, have a more compelling effect than their appearance in person would have. In one important way, however, mass media and face-to-face contacts are similar; they are both powerful weapons for molding, perpetuating and re-orienting personal identifications as well as other attitudes.

A Summary of Ego-Involvement

Ego-involvement is not a concept to designate a phenomenon obtained only from "trained observers" in the laboratory of the psychologist. It is one of the most common features of human behavior, and reveals itself constantly in everyday human relationships.[3] As is well established by now, our reactions are functions of the organism in a situation. They are differential and selective, as determined by internal factors such as motivations or emotional states, by personal involvements, by other attitudes and the like, as well as by our perception or interpretation of the external situation. We do not react uniformly to the same remarks coming from different people. Our reactions are considerably, and at times totally, altered according to our established or expected relationship with the individual or group in question-that is, according to our roles. The group may consist of trusted friends or of proven enemies; of people like ourselves or of outsiders with varying degrees of emotional distance from us; we may perceive them as our equals, our superiors, our inferiors. They may be people with whom association as equals will not be tolerated by the members of our "set". They may be people whose presence is eagerly sought; the occasion may enhance our "personal worth" in the eyes of friend or foe. In all these situations (and the number could be multiplied indefinitely) our ego is actively involved in one way or another. When we are thus ego-involved our reactions are considerably modified positively or negatively. Diverse cases of these differential reactions due to personal involvement have been subjected to experimental investigation during the last decade. It has been shown quantitatively in several studies that performance in a task may be considerably altered, not only by the presence of other individuals, but also by awareness

(10) of the level of the performance of others whose ability in our eyes is superior, equal or inferior to ours. In short, when the ego is involved in any situation, in any capacity, our reactions are not impartial. We become highly selective, accentuating certain aspects, glossing over other aspects to the point of recasting the whole situation to protect or enhance our ego.

The formidable word, "ego", is not a mystic, immutable entity. It is a genetic product, formed in the course of development of the individual, particularly in relation to his social setting. Neither is it a solitary structure. It consists of certain attitudes, related to what the individual comes to consider "I", "me", "mine", etc. We designate attitudes thus related as "ego-attitudes". The ego-attitudes are basically governed by the same principles that govern the formation and functioning of any attitude. They define our established relationships to other individuals. These may be interpersonal relationships such as kinship or friendship, or group relationships such as gang, club, church, state, nation, socio-economic class, international affiliations and the like. Ego-attitudes are situationally aroused when our established identifications are "tapped" in one way or another. The same joke about ourselves which may be taken in a good-natured way in our circle of friends may cause violent reactions in a situation in which we feel uneasy and compelled to protect our personal worth.

The major ego-attitudes and hence the ego are derived primarily from the values of the group or groups with which we identify ourselves. The very character of identification is built up on the basis of attitudes formed in relation to the person, group or institution. The continuing process of our personal identity consists mainly of the constellation of established attitudes in relation to groups and individuals. In accordance with these ego-attitudes we have loyalties, duties and responsibilities in relation to others. When these established ties are disrupted, feelings of insecurity and anxiety arise.

Mass Media and Social Change

With this brief characterization of our concepts, we turn to examples of the occurrence and significance of ego-involvement in connection with movies, radio and the press. However, we must mention first a feature of ego-psychology which is most relevant to the problem of mass media in general.

Once the ego is formed, there is a tendency to avoid being "left out" as a person in any situation of which we are a part. In a group of good friends

(11) whose opinions matter to us, we make a point of showing that we understand a joke, that we catch the drift of a subtle conversation whether we actually do or not. We laugh or smile amiably with the others, because it is frustrating to feel psychologically excluded. The Middletown lady tries to keep up with the latest books recommended by the "Book of the Month Club". She feels, consequently, that she has to be prepared to remark on the fine points of, say, The Egg and 1, at the next meeting of her club. Likewise, the members of a select social group feel they are back numbers if they are not "au courant" on the latest Paris fashions.

With the staggering power of reaching millions of people at the same time, or within a short time, modern mass media crea'e atmospheres which practical ly compel people to "fit in "-i.e. to become ego-involved. Or, to use a popular expression, they produce a "band-wagon" effect, which tends to embrace people in ever-enlarging proportions. Once people are ego-involved by this atmosphere or band-wagon effect, their attitudes are more easily molded or manipulated in a desired direction (e.g. favorable to casting a vote, making a contribution etc.) Many ads illustrate how people are induced to become personally involved in this way: "Get your copy today and become one of the great company of _______ readers"; "Get in the swim with a _______ bathing suit." The radio, movies and newspapers have become powerful agents for creating band-wagon effects which are potent in enlisting the personal involvements which lead to desired behavior.

Recently Merton gave a detailed analysis of a striking case of ego-involvement achieved by means of the radio. Many of us still remember the Kate Smith "marathon" war bond drives. In Merton's words: "September 21, 1943, was War Bond Day for the Columbia Broadcasting System. During a span of eighteen hours--from eight o'clock that morning until two the next morning --a radio star named Kate Smith spoke for a minute or two at repeated intervals. Stardom implies a mammoth audience: it was estimated that in 1943 some 23,000,000 Americans listened to Smith's daytime programs in a week and some 21,0000,000 to her weekly evening program."[4]

The result was that she got thirty-nine million dollars worth of bond pledges in the course of that one day. Among the appeals she used in her marathon drive the most effective were those which sought to get her listeners personally involved. Content analysis presented by Merton shows that "sacrifice

(12) themes" (arousing people to do their share) and "participation themes" (appealing for direct personal involvement) constituted about 70% of the material presented. A concrete illustration is as follows: 

"Could you say to Mrs. Viola Buckley—Mrs. Viola Buckley whose son Donald was killed in action—that you are doing everything you can to shorten the war--that you are backing up her son to the limit of your abilities?"

Such appeals creating group atmospheres, against the excited background o f the war .situation, produced effective ego-involvement and action on the part of tens of thousands of people, as the huge sum pledged indicates. These ego-involvements on the part of listeners are typified by the following reactions of two contributors.

"Well Dad, we did something. I was part of the show."
"We felt that others had been impressed and bought a bond. And the fact that so many people felt the tame way made me feel right-that 1 was in the right channel."

Ego-involvements may be quite general, or they may become personalized and specific. When one enjoys a movie, a radio drama or a novel, one projects himself into the situation and lives it vicariously through a kind of identification. Thus one enjoys a travelogue of the South Pacific, a March of Time dramatization or a good short story. But the reader or listener is likely also to identify himself with a leading character in the plot and participate vicariously in the action by way of that particular role. Or again, an individual may become ego-involved with a particular newspaper or magazine columnist or radio commentator and depend unconsciously upon the views expressed for his own ideas and attitudes.

In the moving picture ego-involvements are at a premium. The visual and the auditory are synchronized in a most realistic way. Movies leave little to the imagination. They have a world of scope and dramatic effect as compared with the legitimate stage. The darkened movie theater facilitates this process of ego-involvement by eliminating distractions of the sort usually present when we read or listen to the radio. When we go to a movie we expect to be entertained; we have a passive rather than an active mental set, which also helps. Add to this the fact that practically all movie plots are built around "human interest" themes compared with only a fraction of radio, newspaper and even magazine content, and it becomes clear why movies afford maximum opportunity for identification.

However in the movies the personalized sort of ego-involvement is even more striking. An extensive survey reported in 1941 on the tendency of movie

(13) theater-goers to project themselves into situations shown on the screen, "to imagine themselves in the place of the star, or (perhaps unconsciously) to pretend they are the star." It was found that a star's popularity is greatest with his own age and sex group. Mickey Rooney was most popular with boys his own age; Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin with post-adolescent girls. Paul Muni, Lionel Barrymore and other mature actors were most favored by men over thirty-one; actresses like Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert and Norma Shearer by mature women. Most of the female stars were more popular with women than with men, and vice versa for the male stars.[5]

This personal identification is especially intense in the case of youth. Apparently movie actors and actresses represent beauty, glamor, romance and fame --all of which are skilfully played up in other news media by the 400 correspondents assigned to Hollywood. In his study of Hollywood, Leo Rosten says:

"Each day millions of men, women and children sit in the windowless temples of the screen and commune with their vicarious friends and lovers, to ride with Autry, love with Garbo, fight with Gable. These millions devour tons of strange magazines dedicated exclusively to Hollywood gossip and movie personalities. Each night they read the newspaper pages devoted to the chit-chat, the lingerie, and the petty history of the fabulous community which has captured their imagination."[6]

Another slant on this process of identification is given in the Payne Fund studies of the movies. Blumer discovered much of what he called "emotional possession" in children at the movies. The child often immerses himself in the picture to the extent that he loses ordinary control of feelings, thoughts and actions. The extensive autobiographies studied by Blumer revealed such emotional possession in the form of fright, sorrow, love and excitement.[7] These findings were confirmed by experimental studies of emotional reactions performed by Dysinger and Ruckmick.[8] Ordinarily this kind of emotional involvement is short-lived, but other investigators discovered that the sleep of some children was noticeably disturbed by certain movies.[9]

While the fact of ego-involvement in the movies is clearly established, it is harder to evaluate its effects on behavior. Summarizing the Payne Fund studies the chairman, W. W. Charters, concluded that the movies have "unusual power to impart information, to influence specific attitudes toward objects of social value, to affect emotions either in gross or in microscopic proportions,

(14) to affect health in a minor degree through sleep disturbance, and to affect profoundly the patterns of conduct of children.[10] However, as all the investigators found, it is very difficult to separate the effects of movies from those of other social influences, and to estimate properly the long-range effects.

Radio and Press Compared To Film

Radio listening does not provide as ideal a setting for ego-involvement as do the movies. It relies solely on the auditory sense and is subject to various interruptions. Human interest dramas, where a maximum of identification can occur, make up only a fraction of total radio presentation.

In an intensive study of radio listening habits, Eisenberg found that New York children ten to thirteen years old preferred radio programs to almost anything else but movies and funnies.[11] They spent an average of six to seven hours a week listening, chiefly to dramas, comedies and variety programs. Between a third and a half reported sometimes lying awake thinking about the programs they had heard, or dreaming about them, which suggests considerable identification or "emotional possession". Identification is also common in adults. Herzog studied 100 women who listened to serial radio stories.[12] The two commonest types of gratification they mentioned were emotional release and vicarious experience, both of which indicate ego-involvements.

The content of the press is far more varied than that of movies or even the radio. Conditions are less conducive to identification, which takes place mostly with respect to that part of the newspaper devoted to human interest stories, pictures, cartoons, comics and some of the features. It may, however, play a part when one reads signed columns, editorials and even straight news reports.[13] Much of the magazine content and most books consist of fiction, roughly comparable to the plots of movies. Data show, in fact, that the movie have influenced our reading habits to a large extent. The publicizing of movies like David Copperfield, Wuthering Heights or Great Expectations caused a tremendous rise in demand for these classics at libraries and bookstores.

Probably the best study on ego-involvement in reading was done by Katharine N. Lind.[14] Intensive case studies of children showed that a substantial

(15) group read in order to escape into a dream world; identification was pronounced. A second group sought diversion and release from tension, evidencing some but not as much involvement as the first group. Even in a third category a certain amount of identification was found among those who were seeking solutions to their problems and trying to discover the meaning of life. The fourth group read to obtain information related to their specialized interests. Lind concluded the major facts on attitudes occur where personal identifications are made; she saw danger in the "escapist" type of reading.

Mass Media and Social Change

Looking broadly at the effects of the mass media of communication, we see that, along with other modern technological developments of which they are a part, they are profoundly altering our patterns of culture. Their consequences are international as well as national, in war and peace. Through their function of disseminating news they keep us in touch with our world. They provide possibilities for us to live far richer than our forbears.

But these ready-made facilities for vicarious living also embody elements of danger. Students of communications note that we are falling into habits of passive enjoyment which lead away from the world of reality. The ease with which all kinds of ego-involvement take place, particularly in the movies and radio, may cause confusion and militate against development of well-integrated personalities.

A major consequence of ego-involvement is the adoption of new forms and values. Without doubt, this is the most important single effect of our gigantic system of mass communication. It is true that the movies, radio and press, in various degrees, mirror the times and stay within the bounds of sanctioned values. But they never mirror a culture as a whole; they do not depict it in a comprehensive, realistic way. For one thing, the attitudes, and personal involvements of publishers, producers and other owners of mass media provide norms which give the content a generally conservative flavor. Their efforts to reach the widest possible audiences reinforces this tendency to avoid the more vital and controversial facets of the culture. Narrowing down the selection still further, they emphasize, within the areas of content which seem desirable to them, the more striking, dramatic, and emotion-arousing aspects, linked with popular interests of the times. Hence the stress upon conflict, violence and war rather than peace and cooperation, or upon themes like the desirability of money, power, luxury, adventure, and glamorous romance.


Thus the mass media, by selecting and stressing certain themes at the expense of others, have the effect of creating and perpetuating ego -involvements which will not endanger the status quo. The values stressed are typically those which make no contribution to the processes of social change. While some of the entertainment provided is very good, much of it tends to be unoriginal and stereotyped—e.g. the "boy meets girl" motif found in most movies. There are notable exceptions, of course; one thinks of the "Life of Louis Pasteur", the movies of Chaplin, or the forthcoming production of "Gentlemen's Agreement" —if the latter appears without its teeth being drawn! Social psychologists and many students of communications agree however, that the mass media can inform and entertain us, and at the same time challenge us to move on toward the new goals demanded by our changing world.


  1. Report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press, University of Chicago Press, 1947. pp. 59-60.
  2. Doob, L. W. Propaganda: Its Psychology and Technique. Holt, 193).
  3. For a more extensive discussion, see "The Psychology of Ego-Involvements," by Muzafer Sherif and Hadley Cantril, Wiley, 1947.
  4. Merton, Robert K., "Mass Persuasion-the Social Psychology of a War Bond Drive." Harper, 1946. (P. 2. )
  5. See Sherif, M. and Cantril, H. "Psychology of Ego-involvements," 1947, p. 351.
  6. Rosten, Leo C., "Hollywood." Harcourt Brace, 1941, pp. 11-11.
  7. Blumer, H. "Movies and Conduct," Macmillan, 1933.
  8. Dysinger, W. S., and Ruckmick, C. A., "Emotional Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation," Macmillan, 1933.
  9. Renshaw, S., Miller, V. L., Marquis, D., "Children's Sleep," Macmillan, 1933.
  10. Charters, W. W.. "Motion Pictures and Youth," Macmillan, 1934.
  11. Eisenberg, A. L., "Children and Radio Programs," Columbia U. Press, 1936.
  12. Herzog H.,. "On Borrowed Experience." Stud. Phil. Soc. Sci 9, No. 1, 1941.
  13. A landlady of one of the writers reported: "I read all the stories about accidents and robberies in the paper and imagine how awful it would be if it happened to me."
  14. Lind, K. N., "Social Psychology of Children's Reading," Am. J. Sociol., 41, pp. 454. 469, 1936.

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