The Psychology of Communication


3.3 Transformation Theory of Communication

In the early 1970s, a number of communication theorists argued that the "destination" is not passive but actively involved in the communication process. In The Responsive Chord, Tony Schwartz argues that to reach a person and motivate him or her to respond to your message requires more than empirical facts and special effects. Your message must "resonate" with the person, striking that "responsive chord" by connecting and touching your audience's whole matrix of beliefs, cultural identifications, opinions and values [SCHWARTZ]. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes considers communication in the light of the myths shared by the "source" and the "destination", demonstrating that advertisers tune in to the myths in the minds of consumers [BARTHES]. In Message in the Bottle, Walker Percy argues that communication can not be understood as a dyadic event involving just source and destination but must involve a third factor namely the meaning that they may or may not share [PERCY].

Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt argue that information is not simply transported from source to destination but is transformed at the destination [MCLUHAN & NEVITT]. Thus, whereas the behavioristic concept of the person underlies the traditional transPORTation theory of communication, in which information is simply transported from the source to the destination, the humanistic concept of the person underlies an alternative transFORMation theory of communication, in which the information is transformed at the destination.

The transportation theory of communication, based on the behavioristic concept of the person, assumes that the audience is passive. S/he is a couch potato - all eyes but no action. The big television networks tend to view their task cynically as delivering a passive audience to their advertisers, with the programs between the ads merely a device to keep them watching. They talk about capturing eyeballs and putting bums in seats. Critics of television tend to agree with this vision of the audience, and see themselves as condescending to save the slobs from themselves.

There has been, until recently, some justification for this point of view. If no action is possible, except switching to another almost identical channel or, in extreme cases, switching the television off, then the audience is necessarily passive.4

However, recently we have had the revolt of the couch potato - remote control, VCR, interactive videodisk, desktop video production. Such new technologies promise to transform the passive couch potato into an active producer-director programming his/her own evening of enlightenment and entertainment.

The shift from a behavioristic to a humanistic concept of the person is part of a larger shift which is currently taking place. We all know of the shift from an industrial society, based on energy, to a post-industrial society, based on information. This revolution is over and what is happening now is that people are considering the implications of this shift for particular institutions and individuals.

One major implication for we scholars is the shift from physics (study of energy) to biology (study of information) as the basic discipline. In the era of physics, the basic model was the mechanism; in the emerging era of biology, the basic model is the organism. The behavioristic concept of the person, of course, is a mechanical model. The person will remain at rest or move in a straight line unless acted upon by some external force. It is no surprise that the transportation theory was designed to consider communication among mechanisms. Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver were engineers who had no intention of applying their theory to human communication. The humanistic concept of the person is an organismic model. The basic characteristic of an organism, as opposed to a mechanism, is that it is intrinsically motivated.

Thus humanism considers not just input information, as does behaviorism, but stored and input information. The stored information is not just previous input information. Much stored information is acquired as part of the conception-day gift. The unfolding of your human potential is guided by this stored information and input information is evaluated in terms of this stored information. As will be argued later in Section 5.3, life has a happy beginning. You were born wise. You received, at the moment of conception, all the wisdom our species has accumulated over thousands of years of survival in a harsh arena. Input information is transformed in the light of this stored information.

4   The first colloquium I attended in graduate school was presented by Howard Liddell. He described research in which he was testing the intelligence of sheep using a covered maze. He admitted sheepishly that he had crawled in to clean it one day and had taken as long to get out as his stupidest sheep. He brightened up when he reported that the second time he got lost, he did much better. When the decision to turn right or left in a maze is purely arbitrary, our much-vaunted intelligence is of no help. There is no reason why Dr. Liddell should do better than his sheep. All our intelligence provides is the capacity to benefit from experience. Thus the experimenter did better than the subject only the second time he got lost in the maze.