Uses and Gratifications Theory

According to uses and gratifications theory, it doesn't matter how powerful a means of communication is. In fact, such a medium only becomes relevant to someone if it satisfies their practical and psychological needs, even if people don't know why they have such needs.
Uses and Gratifications Theory

Last update: 23 December, 2021

Uses and gratifications theory is an approach used to understand why and how people actively seek out specific media to satisfy their particular needs. The roots of this theory first appeared in the 1930s, when the mass media began to be a part of everyday life for most people. First came radio, then television, and, more recently, digital media.

And art (ah what luck!) offered alternatives for those who were not prisoners to the mass media.”

-Umberto Eco-

The point of this theory is that today, there are still people who prefer radio, even though there are other means of communication within their reach. Others may prefer TV or the Internet. Uses and gratification theory claims that no matter how powerful a medium is, if it doesn’t satisfy the needs of a particular user, it won’t have an impact.

Hand turning on the radio

Some history on the theory of uses and gratifications

At the beginning of the history of mass media, it was believed that audiences were completely passive. In other words, people were thought to receive the information or entertainment and simply absorb it without offering much response or resistance to what they were told or led to believe.

Towards the 1940s, when television was gaining importance, communication theorists began to notice that there were different responses in viewers to the options offered to them. They noticed that not everyone saw or heard the same thing, nor did the media have the same impact on everyone.

By the 1960s, the theory of uses and gratifications began to take shape. Its pioneers were researchers such as Elihu Katz, Jay G. Blumler, and Michael Gurevitch, who conducted empirical studies in this regard. They proposed that the mass audience to which the information was directed was not as homogeneous as previously thought. Furthermore, they found that a medium was successful when it responded to the practical and psychological needs of its audience.

The principles of the theory of uses and gratifications

Lundberg and Hulten developed a set of principles that began to shape the theory of uses and gratifications. In practice, they cross-referenced the results of empirical research with Maslow’s pyramid of needs. They produced five principles.

These are as follows:

  • Audiences are active not passive. They respond in a different way to what the media offers them.
  • Each member of the audience decides the relevance of the medium. Each ‘recipient’ decides whether the medium offers the uses and the gratifications that it particularly requires.
  • The media compete. The only source of satisfaction of needs isn’t the media, nor a particular medium. Therefore, they compete for people’s attention.
  • People are aware of what they’re looking for. For example, you might not really know why, but you do know what you want when you’re looking for one medium and not another.
  • The cultural significance of the media is determined by the public.
Woman with computer

The implications of this theory

Based on the basic approaches of the theory of uses and gratifications, it was later found that people approach an environment seeking to satisfy four aspects: fun, interpersonal relationships (substitute company), personal identity, and surveillance of the environment.

Later, all this was grouped into four categories: cognitive, affective, personal integration, and social integration needs. For each individual, each group of needs has a different value. They end up looking for a means of communication so that they can satisfy those that they consider being the most important according to their own personal circumstances.

The arrival of the Internet and social networks generated important changes in this theory. For the first time, interactivity between people and information sources was two-way and could occur in real-time. At the same time, the networks turned people into creators of information, and entertainment, etc.

According to the most recent studies, people on social networks are basically looking for one or more of the following aspects: trust, company, happiness, fun, vigilance, and bonds. Networks can’t provide all of these but they do sometimes create the illusion of providing them. Finally, after our brief exposition of the theory of uses and gratifications, you might want to ask yourself what you look for in each different communication medium you use.

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  • Martínez, F. (2010). La teoría de los usos y gratificaciones aplicada a las redes sociales. In II Congreso Internacional Comunicación (Vol. 3).
  • Severing W,  Tankard J. Communication theories: origins, methods and uses in the mass media. 5.ª ed. USA: Longman; 2001.