A summary of the main psychological theory of researcher Charles E. Osgood.
Osgood’s mediational theory proposes a variant to the more classical behavioral equation, which only considered stimuli and responses to understand how an individual reacted to the demands of the environment.
Charles E. Osgood postulated the existence of concepts to which human beings tended to attribute meaning, thus posing a historical milestone in the evolution of behaviorism. From his model the semantic differential technique would emerge, whose purpose was to evaluate this extreme.
In the successive lines we will delve into the fundamental ideas of his mediational theory, which constituted a milestone for Psychology and has inspired much research on how individuality mediates the relationship between stimuli and responses.
Osgood’s mediational theory
Osgood’s mediational theory gives a special value to words, since it assumes that they harbor the capacity to represent tangible objects of reality and to mobilize in every human being some of the behaviors that they would articulate in the direct presence of these. It is, therefore, a model that places special emphasis on the symbolic properties of language ; and that adds richness to the classical behavioral equation (from which any reaction to the environment was limited to the well-known stimulus-response).
This theory is based on the fact that words, and the cognitive processing that can be suggested from them, act as the mediational axis between the presentation of any stimulus and the response associated with it. That is why it is considered a model with a clear neo-behavioral nature, as it broadens its theoretical framework and contemplates the constructive capacity of human beings in their interaction with the reality that surrounds them.
Next, we propose the three levels that are included in the Osgood postulate, in which the progressive transformation of sensations (dependent on the sense organs) to perceptions and meanings is detailed, which imply higher-level elaborations and that base the selection. of a range of behaviors that will be mediated on the natural environment.
1. Projection level
The level of projection refers to the area of immediate sensations, as they occur at the moment they are perceived by the sense organs. It includes both those that belong to the visual domain and to the rest of the sensory modalities, and it traces the way in which every human being immerses himself in the physical environment that surrounds him. In particular, it is a wide universe of sensations that unfold during the experience, in a composition of nuances that can be grasped by the sensitive and organic limits.
This initial process obeys to a perception of the facts as they are (icons), without the interpretation of them or the contribution of the individuality of who participates in this situation.
At the other end of the equation, the projection level includes all the possible behaviors (movements) that the agent subject can use to interact with what surrounds them. Thus, the projective level brings together potential stimuli and responses, without using filters of any other nature.
2. Level of integration
At this second level, two sequential processes occur, independent in their definition but functionally connected. In the first place, the stimuli of the preceding phase are combined in a rich subjective experience that integrates them according to the way in which they tend to present themselves. In any case, they are part of the canvas of a complex experience that can hardly be reduced to the sum of all its parts.
The way in which all of them are assembled depends on past experiences, which constitute the second point of this process. Through our interaction with the world we learn that certain phenomena tend to occur together (by temporal and spatial contingency) and also that their confluence endows them with a new meaning.
This process is equivalent to perception, through which the feeling is reworked and certain behavioral expectations are generated. Therefore, it is not a passive reception of the stimulating matrix, but the person endows it with value or meaning.
3. Level of mediation
At this level, a semantic meaning would arise to capture the experience, which would be translated into verbal terms (words) that differ in structure from the object to which they allude, but that suppose a symbol in whose essence lies the convergence of all the elements that make it make up. This symbol would act as a triggering stimulus, but not purely physical, but rather one with a very noticeable subjective charge (emotional, for example) of an abstract nature.
And it is that life allows us to understand that certain events make sense when they occur together, and that we do not react to each one of them separately, but to what makes up their semantic uniqueness. This can be represented by a single word whose appearance is the result of social consensus. From it, and the value that is given to it, responses will be displayed in the form of complex behavioral patterns and personal emotions.
In the same way that the stimulus is the union of icons of the perceptual field in a significant unit, the response implies a pattern of movements (understood as the most elementary form of action) that are selected from the whole range of possibilities, according to the way in the one that the person values the semantic unit. For this reason, each of them responds in a different way to the same situation.
At this point, it is essential to consider that words symbolically represent the things that occur in reality and elicit responses comparable to what they are representing, this being the key point of mediational processing. The aforementioned process implies a cognitive elaboration that goes beyond sensation or perception, as it interferes in the realm of the meanings that the event can have for each person.
Thus, the sensations that accompany each word (icons) depend on the experiences that have been maintained with what it represents (a storm is not the same for someone who never lived close to any of them as for someone who lost their home as a result of a temporal), which would precipitate in each individual a different pattern of behaviors / emotions when presented to consciousness (as a result of the perception of suggestive signs of it in the environment).
The truth is that words such as “storm” could be associated with a very varied range of responses, but the individual will only display those that are congruent with the value they have for him.
Thus, for those who have never experienced its dramatic effects, it will be enough to walk home, but for those who have suffered them, it will be inevitable to run the same journey as if their life depended on it or to look for a place to immediately safeguard themselves.
The semantic differential
The semantic differential is an evaluation procedure with which to explore the way in which a person perceives a specific word (and therefore what it represents).
A list of several pairs of adjectives is usually used, each of which forms a continuum at whose ends are the opposites expressed in bipolar terms (good or bad, adequate or inadequate, etc.), and the subject may be located at some point between the two (with seven different answer options, ranging from -3 to +3 and with a value of 0 indicating neutrality).
Because the best way to understand Osgood’s mediational theory is through examples, we proceed to make the case of a person facing a natural catastrophe. We will break down the process into its most specific parts, in order to shed light on each of the points raised throughout the article.
Osgood’s mediational theory in action
It was a mild June afternoon on the eastern shores of Japan. Shigeru spent his time fishing on a makeshift rocky beach, though he hadn’t been very successful so far. For an unknown reason the fish were wary of taking the hook, so he just rested after a busy week at work. There he often found a haven of peace, in which to take shelter from the bustle of the city.
Suddenly he felt that the earth seemed to tremble under him. A flock of seagulls scuttled from the sea horizon inland, squawking erratically until they disappeared behind the silhouette of the little houses that lined a few meters from the coast. A dense, foamy wave lapped the shore and came unusually forward on the sand. Behind her, the ocean seemed to shrink and retract as if breathing in, exposing hundreds of meters of shimmering boulders and colored shells. A wild, bubbling, watery roar filled the air and crashed into his ears.
Somewhere a nervous bell rang, barely discernible behind the furious growl of a suddenly rough sea. It was not the first time I had experienced something like this. His body shuddered and he began to put together everything he had seen and felt in just a few seconds. The noise, the birds fleeing, the trembling … It was definitely a tsunami. He got up like a breath and picked up a few pieces of gear, the ones he most appreciated, shooting out of there like a soul carried by the devil.
A few years ago he lost everything because of a natural phenomenon like that, so wild and uncertain. His possessions were wiped out or engulfed by a brutal destructive body of water, and since that day he had always lived with the floating sensation that it could repeat itself again. Just hearing the word “tsunami” felt a deep horror, so dense that it even took his breath away. After all, it was something that only those who had experienced closely the destruction that the sea can leave in its wake could understand.
He survived, but after many months, Shigeru kept thinking about everything that happened. The word “tsunami” came to his head from time to time, and just by saying it he felt the need to run and hide somewhere. It was as if he suddenly had the power to arouse a primal, raw, visceral panic ; that forced him to seek refuge. But he was sitting in a central terrace, safe, in a city located in the center of the Japanese archipelago. Far, far from the coast.
She was then able to grasp that, a few meters away, a group of young women were speaking aloud about the recent news of another tsunami that had ravaged the fishing villages in the south and east of the country. And although his words were guessed affected by that tragedy, it was perceived behind them that they had never experienced the cruel fury of nature on their own skin. They bought their respective coffees and left the place, chatting about some worldly and completely different matter.
Interpretation of the example
Shigeru was spending a nice day in solitude, fishing unpretentious. After a while, he sensed a series of events around him (angry sea, birds fleeing and the deep roar of the ocean) that could mean in a single word: tsunami.
This term would act for him as a stimulus to respond to, of which he already had enough knowledge to understand its scope and risk. And all this despite the fact that the tsunami was not really present in the natural environment, but only the objective indications of its imminence (being at that time, therefore, a symbolic threat).
Because he once lost everything due to a natural phenomenon like that, and associated the term “tsunami” with very particular adverse experiences, he chose to flee quickly from there (out of all the options available in that situation). Thanks to the behavior he issued, he managed to take refuge and save his life.
The word “tsunami” would symbolize for him a whole series of difficult affections, since it had the power to evoke dramatic events in his life, but women who drank coffee were able to approach this question without feeling overwhelmed by the same pain. At this point , the different meanings that each human being can attribute to the same term are appreciated, according to the way in which he has been related during his life to the reality to which he refers, which is closely associated with the behavior and emotion that is it will unfold when it emerges into consciousness.
- Holland, PC (2008). Cognitive versus stimulus-response theories of learning. Learning Behavior, 36 (3), 227-241.
- Tzeng, O., Landis, D. and Tseng, D. (2012). Charles E. Osgood’s continuing contributions to intercultural communication and far beyond! International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36 (6), 832-842.