Media Psych Studies

A portfolio of work for media psychology research

Compulsive Consumers and the Narrative Arc for Western Society


In 1985, James Burke presented a theory that outlined western society as being comprised of “compulsive consumers.” For moments of business or pleasure, entertainment or survival – people turn to technology to provide them with a means to fulfill their current objective. This paper will defend Burke’s concept and illustrate its relevance nearly 30 years later. Two factors will be described which contribute to our world being integrated with digital domains: 1) human’s innate passion for storytelling and 2) new media applications focus on absorbable story content through user-friendly functions.


Western Society has evolved into an integrated digital field where at any point in time, we are immersed in technology. It’s inescapable. In James Burke’s “Trigger Effect” (1975) episode, he gives viewers an assignment – ask yourself what the objects in your current space do for you. I paused the video and looked around…television, laptop, lamps, clocks, xbox, bookshelf full of dvds/books/collectibles… I jotted a few notes to complete his task, and the consensus is comfort. All of these objects make up my living room and make me as an individual feel comfortable. This overall sensation is possible because I know I can connect to anything in order to seek entertainment or information.

The world has become a digital domain where technology is inescapable (Burke, 1975; Isbouts and Ohler, 2013). Burke (1975) offers an example of being stuck in an elevator to illustrate how much we depend on technology. If an elevator shuts down, our first instinct is to hit the ’emergency button’ and literally expect technology to notify someone and come save us (Burke, 1975).  In 2014, our dependencies on new advancements have only magnified. If we get lost – we look to GPS. If we get hungry and don’t know what to eat – we seek applications like Yelp to offer suggests. Technology is no longer necessary only when you are stuck between floors. Rather today, technological advancements give us content that is now absorbable and reflects our need for story.

Burke (1985) refers to our society being full of “compulsive consumers,” a group of individuals who (often subconsciously) consume technology to fulfill any objective or situation that is in ahead of them. Just as my living room paints my picture of comfort, it even follows me outside of my home. On a few occasions, I found myself intentionally trying to avoid technology, a weak attempt to prove that I was not dependent on it. I went to the gym – and realized that I was still using my iPhone to give me a playlist for motivation (the Rocky IV soundtrack is awesome for that by the way…). So then I decided to use nature as my gym and go hiking. I thought to myself, “alright…now where are the trails?,” and went straight to the app store in my iPhone to download the “LA Hiking” app which would show me paths and even track distance and calories. Success on the workout! But a failure in avoiding technology. This real life example illustrates how from 1985 to 2014, there are endless ways in which we compulsively consume new media technologies and find information about ourselves.

Isbouts and Ohler (2013) provide a historical background on how our lives are centered around stories. From oral testimonies set around a campfire, visual representations told through paintings in the Sistine Chapel, to radio and television broadcasts, stories are being told on new platforms (Isbouts and Ohler, 2013). But what these new outlets have also sub categorically produced are devices which allow the consumer to more easily consume. In the flow of a narrative arc positioning Western Society as the protagonist, the question is, “how can we better define ourselves through story?” The answer to this is defined within Burke’s (1985) concept of compulsive consumerism. The digital media revolution has created a substantial list of ways in humans consume and store the stories that they want to retain. {Please see figure 1 for a narrative arc illustration and figure 1.2 for the key} Beta, VHS, DVD, multiprocessors, internet – the progression of these devices all center around the story (Isbouts and Ohler, 2013) and have maintained strength because of their emphasis on user functionality.

A major trend that media developers are employing is making easier ways for the consumer to consume. Easy functioning platforms I believe allow the user to feel adapted, comfortable, and therein creates a positive sense of well-being because they feel strongly about their skills in new technologies. And there is no other way to perfect your skills other than practice, which in this industry calls for more consumption of applications. Take a magazine cover – editors design the cover to be eye catching. If it does not grab us immediately, we’ll put it back on the stand and move on. Similarly in electronics, the interface has to be simultaneously catching and simple enough for someone to learn and use effectively – both almost instantaneously. Apple has done a remarkable job in perfecting this through consistency and ease. Commands for every generation iPhone, iPad, iMac, etc are the same (e.g. screen grabs, quit, enlarging and decreasing size by pinching). If a person has ever had one Apple product, no tutorial is required to use any other. I have often even found people trying to use Apple commands on non-Apple products and become frustrated when they do not work. Apple understands that the key functions for the user have to be easy and the same (or at least very similar) because otherwise, the consumer is likely to put it down, just like a bad magazine.


New advancements in technology has provided society a means for protection, professional ventures, and entertainment. Our participation in either objective has created a world full of compulsive consumers. This prediction from Burke nearly 30 years prior is confirmed in media developers emphasis in creating new ways to simultaneously absorb and retain the information we see ourselves immersed in. The progression of storytelling through technology is illustrated via narrative arc in Figure 1. The end in this diagram is marked with a question mark, representing the endless nature of possibilities that technology gives consumers. The capabilities of a digital media evolution not only creates an opportunity to score a home run by developing the next great app, but also makes a space to change to the rules of the game in how we consume. By focusing on consistent, user-friendly functions and ways to store content, there is no way to predict how we evolve to tell stories without the inclusion of immersive, narrative based technology.

Figure 1

Figure 1, Narrative Story Arc

Figure 1.2, Key to Narrative Story Arc as illustrated in Isbouts and Ohler (2013)

Figure 1.2, Key to Narrative Story Arc as illustrated in Isbouts and Ohler (2013)


Burke, J. (1978). James Burke : Connections, Episode 1, “The Trigger Effect” [Video file]. Retrieved from

Burke, J. (1985). The Day the Universe Changed – EP1: The Way We Are (1985) [Video file]. Retrieved from

Isbouts, J. P., & Ohler, J. (2013). Storytelling and media: narrative models from Aristotle to augmented reality. In K. Dill (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of media psychology (pp. 13-42). New York: Oxford University Press.


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This entry was posted on 01/24/2014 by in Uncategorized.
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