What Is Uses and Gratifications Theory in Media Psychology?

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What Is Uses and Gratifications Theory?

Uses and Gratifications Theory

Uses and gratifications theory (UGT) proposes that people choose to consume certain kinds of media because they expect to obtain specific gratifications as a result of those selections.

In contrast to other theories about media, UGT focuses on the media consumer rather than the media itself or the messages the media conveys.

While other theories see people as passive recipients of media messages, UGT sees people as active consumers of media who are aware of the reasons they choose to consume media.

History of Uses and Gratifications Theory

The origins of UGT can be traced back to the 1940s when communication scholars initially sought to study why specific media and content appealed to different people. The theory was further expanded in the 1970s when researchers started examining not just the gratifications that consumers sought but the gratifications they actually obtained.

Today UGT remains one of the most prevalent theories used in media effects research. In fact, communication scholar Ruggiero argued that the rise of new media makes uses and gratifications theory more important than ever as this perspective is especially useful for explaining why people adopt new mediums.

Assumptions of Uses and Gratifications Theory

A cornerstone of UGT is that audiences are active in choosing the media they consume. Moreover, audiences are aware of the reasons they want to consume media and consciously use those reasons to make media selections that will fulfill their needs and desires.

Five Assumptions

Based on these notions, uses and gratifications theory specifies a set of five assumptions about media consumption.

The assumptions are:

  1. Media use is motivated and goal-oriented. People always have a reason for consuming media, even if it's simply habit or entertainment.
  2. People select media based on their expectation that it will satisfy specific wants and needs.
  3. Media use is driven by individual social and psychological factors.
  4. Media compete with other forms of communication, especially in-person communication, for selection and use in the fulfillment of needs and desires. Today, since so much of the media we consume is mobile, that competition is more immediate than ever as even when engaging in in-person communication, media accessed through mobile devices, such as text messages, social networks, and apps are also competing for our attention.
  5. Because people are active media users, media messages don't exert especially strong effects on people.

People are in Control of Their Media Consumption

These assumptions make it clear that UGT places the media consumer at the center of media use. That means that not only do consumers have the power to actively choose and take in specific media, they are also capable of interpreting media messages and utilizing those messages in their lives as they choose. As a result, people control how much and in what ways media impacts them.

Explaining Media Use With Uses and Gratification Theory

Much of UGT research focuses on the gratifications that media does or should fulfill. This has resulted in a variety of typologies that classify gratifications into a concise set of categories. For example, in 1973, Katz, Gurevitch, and Haas created a well-known scheme of five social and psychological needs gratified by media use, including:

  1. Cognitive needs, or the need to acquire information and knowledge or improve understanding
  2. Affective needs, or the need to have aesthetic or emotional experiences
  3. Integrative needs, or the need to strengthen confidence, status, or credibility. These needs have both cognitive and affective components
  4. Social integrative needs, or the need to strengthen relationships with friends and family
  5. Tension-release needs, or the need to relax and escape by lessening one's awareness of the self

These needs, as well as those specified in many other uses and gratifications typologies, are based on the gratifications consumers obtained from old media, such as books, newspapers, radio, television, and movies.

Interestingly, some more recent UGT research has suggested that new media offers similar gratifications. However, work by Sundar and Limperos observes that while old media and new media may fulfill some similar social and psychological needs, affordances of new media also create unique needs that studies of the uses and gratifications of new media may overlook.

The scholars suggest several new gratifications that fall into four categories specific to features of new media.

These four categories include:

  1. Modality-based gratifications: New media content can be served up in a variety of modalities from audio to video to text. The use of these different modalities can satisfy the need for realism, novelty, or in the case of something like virtual reality, the need to feel like you've been somewhere.
  2. Agency-based gratifications: New media gives people the ability to create and share information and content, giving each individual a certain amount of power. This can satisfy needs such as agency-enhancement, community building, and the ability to tailor content to one's specific desires.
  3. Interactivity-based gratifications: The interactivity of new media means content is no longer static. Instead, users can interact with and impact content in real time. This satisfies needs such as responsiveness and more choice and control.
  4.  Navigability-based gratifications: Users move through new media, and the navigation offered by different interfaces can greatly impact users' experiences. Positive new media navigation experiences satisfy needs such as browsing, guidance through navigation (or scaffolding), and the fun that comes with moving through spaces and, if one's playing a game, levels.

Criticisms of Uses and Gratifications Theory

While UGT continues to be widely used in media research, it has been criticized for several reasons.

First, UGT's' belief that audiences are active and can articulate their reasons for consuming specific media has led to studies that rely on self-report data. However, self-report data isn't always reliable and may not always be accurate or insightful.

Second, the idea that people freely choose the media they consume is limited by the media available to them. This may be an even more salient criticism today when there are more media choices than ever, but not everyone has access to every choice.

That lack of access may mean certain people are unable to choose the media that would best satisfy their needs.

Third, by focusing on the audience, UGT overlooks the constraints and boundaries of media messages and how that may impact people. Finally, there has been debate about whether UGT is too broad to be considered a theory.

Some scholars feel because of its lack of distinction between needs and motivations and the poor definitions provided for these and other concepts, the theory is better regarded as an approach than a full-fledged theory.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ruggiero TE. Uses and Gratifications Theory in the 21st CenturyMass Communication and Society. 2000;3(1):3-37. doi:10.1207/s15327825mcs0301_02

  2. Potter WJ. Media Effects. SAGE Publications; 2012.

  3. Rubin AM. Audience activity and media useCommun Monogr. 1993;60(1):98-105. doi:10.1080/03637759309376300

  4. Katz E, Gurevitch M, Haas H. On the Use of the Mass Media for Important ThingsAm Sociol Rev. 1973;38(2):164-181. doi:10.2307/2094393

  5. Sundar SS, Limperos AM. Uses and Grats 2.0: New Gratifications for New MediaJ Broadcast Electron Media. 2013;57(4):504-525. doi:10.1080/08838151.2013.845827

By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.