What Is Uses and Gratifications Theory? Definition and Examples

Businessman touching future web technology buttons and icons with virtual display.

 Busakorn Pongparnit / Getty Images

Uses and gratifications theory asserts that people use media to gratify specific wants and needs. Unlike many media theories that view media users as passive, uses and gratifications sees users as active agents who have control over their media consumption.

Key Takeaways: Uses and Gratifications

  • Uses and gratifications characterizes people as active and motivated in selecting the media they choose to consume.
  • The theory relies on two principles: media users are active in their selection of the media they consume, and they are aware of their reasons for selecting different media options.
  • The greater control and choice brought about by new media has opened up new avenues of uses and gratifications research and has led to the discovery of new gratifications, especially in regards to social media.

Origins

Uses and gratifications was first introduced in the 1940s as scholars began to study why people choose to consume various forms of media. For the next few decades, uses and gratifications research mostly focused on the gratifications media users sought. Then, in the 1970s, researchers turned their attention to the outcomes of media use and the social and psychological needs that media gratified. Today, the theory is often credited to Jay Blumler and Elihu Katz’s work in 1974. As media technologies continue to proliferate, research on uses and gratifications theory is more important than ever for understanding people’s motivations for choosing media and the gratifications they get out of it.

Assumptions

Uses and gratifications theory relies on two principles about media users. First, it characterizes media users as active in their selection of the media they consume. From this perspective, people don’t use media passively. They are engaged and motivated in their media selections. Second, people are aware of their reasons for selecting different media options. They rely on their knowledge of their motivations to make media choices that will help them meet their specific wants and needs.

On the basis of those principles, uses and gratifications goes on to outline five assumptions:

  • Media use is goal-directed. People are motivated to consume media.
  • Media is selected based on the expectation that it will satisfy specific needs and desires.
  • Media influence on behavior is filtered through social and psychological factors. Thus, personality and social context impact the media choices one makes and one’s interpretation of media messages.
  • Media are in competition with other forms of communication for an individual’s attention. For example, an individual may choose to have an in-person conversation about an issue instead of watching a documentary about the issue.
  • People are usually in control of media and therefore are not particularly influenced by it.

Taken together, uses and gratifications theory stresses the power of the individual over the power of the media. Individual differences mediate the relationship between media and their effects. This results in media effects being driven as much by the media user as by the media content itself. So, even if people take in the same media message, each individual will not be impacted by the message in the same way.

Uses and Gratifications Research

Uses and gratifications research has uncovered several motivations people often have for consuming media. These include force of habit, companionship, relaxation, passing the time, escape, and information. In addition, a newer body of research explores people’s use of media to meet higher order needs like finding meaning and considering values. Studies from a uses and gratifications perspective have involved all kinds of media, from radio to social media.

TV Selection and Personality

Uses and gratifications' emphasis on individual differences has led researchers to examine the way personality impacts people’s motivations for using media. For example, a study by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University looked at personality traits like neuroticism and extroversion to see if people with different traits would identify different motivations for watching television. The researcher found that the motivations of participants with neurotic personalities included passing the time, companionship, relaxation, and stimulation. This was the reverse for participants with extraverted personalities. Moreover, while the neurotic personality types favored the companionship motive most, extraverted personality types strongly rejected this motive as a reason to watch TV. The researcher judged these results to be consistent with these two personality types. Those who are more socially isolated, emotional, or shy, demonstrated an especially strong affinity for television. Meanwhile, those that were more sociable and outgoing saw TV as a poor substitute for real-life social interactions.

Uses and Gratifications and New Media

Scholars have noted that new media includes several attributes that weren’t part of older forms of media. Users have greater control over what they interact with, when they interact with it, and more content choices. This opens up the number of gratifications that new media use could satisfy. An early study published in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior on uses and gratifications of the internet found seven gratifications for its use: information seeking, aesthetic experience, monetary compensation, diversion, personal status, relationship maintenance, and virtual community. Virtual community could be considered a new gratification as it has no parallel in other forms of media. Another study, published in the journal Decisions Sciences, found three gratifications for internet usage. Two of these gratifications, content and process gratifications, had been found before in studies of the uses and gratifications of television. However, a new social gratification specific to internet use was also found. These two studies indicate that people look to the internet to fulfill social and communal needs.

Research has also been conducted to uncover the gratifications sought and obtained through social media use. For instance, another study published in CyberPsychology & Behavior uncovered four needs for Facebook group participation. Those needs included socializing by staying in touch and meeting people, entertainment through the use of Facebook for amusement or leisure, seeking self-status by maintaining one’s image, and seeking information in order to learn about events and products. In similar study, researchers found that Twitter users gratified their need for connection through the social network. Increased usage, both in terms of the amount of time one had been active on Twitter and in terms of the number of hours per week one spends using Twitter, increased the gratification of this need.

Critiques

While uses and gratifications remains a popular theory in media research, it faces a number of criticisms. For example, the theory downplays the importance of media. As a result, it may overlook the way media influences people, especially unconsciously. In addition, while audiences may not always be passive, they may not always be active either, something the theory does not account for. Finally, some critics claim that uses and gratifications is too broad to be considered a theory, and therefore, should only be considered an approach to media research.

Sources