Cultivation theory, also known as cultivation analysis, was developed by George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, to explain the effects of television viewing on viewers’ attitudes. Television “cultivates” our view of the world, which explains why people who watch a great deal of television have an exaggerated belief in a mean and scary world.
Television is unique in the history of media; it does not require literacy, mobility, or great expense, and it brings a uniform set of images into every home. Because it is ubiquitous, nonselective, and diverse in subject matter, it has become a central force in shaping modern culture. New generations have been raised with television as the primary storyteller in their lives, and it helps shape and reinforce the dominant culture in society. It accounts for “the cultivation of shared conceptions of reality among otherwise diverse publics” (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980, p.10).
Gerbner found that heavy television viewing has a small but significant impact on the attitudes and perceptions of an audience, influencing their outlook on the social world around them. Massive exposure to television has a cumulative effect; it is not just individual messages that the viewer responds to, but also the accumulation of exposure in the aggregate. The cultivation process does not forcefully “push” an individual toward a conception of social reality, but rather subtly “pulls” him into the television mindset. Thus it is the continual process of interaction between the viewer and the medium that results in altered attitudes toward society.
The Cultural Indicators Project
There has been much debate about the influence of television related to individual and societal violence. The Cultural Indicators research project was begun in 1967 in conjunction with the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, with a focus on the nature and effects of the violence seen on television. Gerbner worked with several colleagues on the project, including Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Morgan of the University of Massachusetts,-Amherst, Nancy Signorielli of the University of Delaware, and James Shanahan of Cornell University. Cultivation theory was one component of the project, focusing on message system analysis and cultivation analysis. The project has continued into the 21st century.
The original study tracked viewers of prime-time network television and weekend daytime dramas, rating them according to the amount of television watching they did on the average. Light viewers were classified as those who watched less than 1 hour daily, medium viewers watched 2 or 3 hours daily and heavy viewers watched 4 or more hours daily.
Using the process of message system analysis, researchers began by analyzing the content of the shows and counting the number of instances of violence. Violence was defined as “the overt expression of physical force (with or without a weapon, against self or others) compelling action against one’s will on pain of being hurt and/or killed or threatened to be so victimized as part of the plot” (Gerbner et al., 1980, p. 11). The resulting Violence Index empirically showed that violence occurred on television 10 times more often than in the real world.
Using standard techniques of survey methodology, viewers were then questioned about their conceptions of social reality in various situations, such as their chance of being a victim of violence, fear of walking alone at night, their perceived level of law enforcement activity, and level of trust/mistrust of other people’s motives. The responses were analyzed with regard to the three levels of television viewing habits. Cultivation analysis was then applied by correlating the data from content analysis with survey data from viewer research.
The results pointed to a “cultivation differential,” that is, there was a margin of difference in the perception of the real world between those who watched a lot of television and those who didn’t. Researchers discovered a consistent positive relationship of + .091, and given the large size of the survey and the length of the study, the differences are large enough to be statistically significant.
The concept of cultivation theory has been applied to issues besides violence, encompassing a wider range of concerns and issues. Topics such as environmentalism, gender, minority and age-role stereotypes, politics, religion, marriage, and work have all been examined through the lens of cultivation analysis. Additionally a number of studies have been conducted internationally, including those in Australia, Russia, England, the Netherlands, and Korea. Indications are that each country has significant culture specific differences which may account for variations in television habits, resulting in cultivation analysis that is less predictable.
Mean World Syndrome
Gerbner identified what he called the “mean world syndrome,” that the more time people spend watching television, the more they assimilated what they saw and cultivated the image of the world as a dangerous, scary place where others could not be trusted. For instance, viewers were asked what the odds were of being involved in some kind of violence in any given week, 1 out of 10 or 1 out of 100. Whereas the actual statistics on crime show an incidence of .41 violent crimes per 100 people, the “TV answer” is consistently higher. In general, heavy viewers were more apt to see the world in terms of the images they saw in the programming and not in terms of reality; they were more apt to misjudge the amount of violence in society.
Mainstreaming is the term used by Gerbner to describe another of the consequences of exposure to TV, the belief that depictions as portrayed on television are the norm. Unlike radio, which “narrowcasts” to specific subgroups, traditional television broadcasts to large heterogeneous audiences and steers clear of taking extreme viewpoints. The practice of avoiding audience alienation tends to promote a middle of the road and non-ideological perspective. Divergent views come together in a homogenizing effect to reinforce values of the dominant culture.
Related to acts of violence depicted in programming, viewers are de-sensitized to the violence and become less empathetic to the suffering of others. Likewise studies of other social issues indicate that television cultivates assumptions we label stereotypes. Thus notions of gender roles are reinforced by television content when viewers see women in the kitchen and men in the workplace, for example.
An interesting result of mainstreaming is that heavy viewers tend to label themselves as “moderate” instead of “liberal” or “conservative,” despite the actual positions they take on a number of political issues. “Mainstream does not mean ‘middle of the road’” (Gerbner et al., 2002, p. 57). Mainstreaming has influenced the heavy viewer to consider himself as conforming to the dominant viewpoint rather than be counted among those who are outside of the norm.
However, with the emergence of new forms of media and the fracturing of audiences, mainstreaming effects may be changing. Traditional television broadcasting holds an increasingly smaller segment of viewers, with many more channels and venues disseminating multiple worldviews. Rather than diminishing mainstreaming effects, it may be that multiple viewpoints are exposed, and thus many more worldviews are mainstreamed.
Gerbner claims that resonance occurs when the viewers’ personal experiences are congruent with what is seen in the television world, enhancing the cultivation effect. People who have experienced physical violence show greater apprehension; violent content resonates for them, and what they see on television justifies their unease. Heavy television viewing magnifies and reinforces their personal experience, leading to increased fear, insecurity, and need for protection. Resonance is greater when they personally identify with what is shown in the content and explains why certain viewers who watch a lot of television experience the mean world syndrome to a greater extent.
Cultivation theory explains how long-term exposure to television may have effects that are small in the short term, gradual, and indirect, but argues that those effects are cumulative and significant. Compare the statistical results of the Cultural Indicators Project to global warming, for instance. Where even small changes in temperature can alter the environmental climate, likewise small shifts in public perceptions can alter the cultural climate.
There can even be significant repercussions on social and political policy, as well. The mean world syndrome leads to a decreased sensitivity to violence and an increased sense of vulnerability. People then have a need to alleviate their fears, which can lead to influencing political policies toward increased levels of security such as more law enforcement and prisons.
Cultivation theory offers a very convincing premise: heavy exposure to television has measurable social effects. However, the theory has been criticized on a number of levels.
Critics claim that the theory oversimplifies the relationship between television viewing and its audience. It fails to factor in other influences on public perceptions such as other media, social networks, and institutions. The process of content analysis and surveys asking viewers for evaluations of crime statistics has been criticized for its subjectivity. In the same way the bias inherent in defining violence and assigning a numerical value to heavy viewing is problematic.
But like all theories CT is not intended to be a comprehensive account. The television phenomenon in our culture is a complex issue, and if CT can explain even a portion of this issue, it will help enlighten students of communication and cultural studies. Probably the biggest issue facing CT is the changing world of media in mass communication. With the introduction of new technologies allowing more diversity and more communication tools, the question arises whether television will keep its hold on viewers’ attention. Reduced usage and exposure to television is likely to lead to the decrease of cultivation effects in the future.
For Further Reading
Baran, S. & Davis, D. (2008). Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth.
Gerbner, G. (Spring 1994). Reclaiming our cultural mythology: Television’s global marketing strategy creates a damaging and alienated window on the world. The Ecology of Justice, 38, 40-44.
Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The ‘mainstreaming’ of America: Violence profile no. 11. Journal of Communication, 30 (3), 10-29.
Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M. Signorielli, N., & Shanahan, J. (2002). Growing up with television: Cultivation processes. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (Eds.). Media effects: Advances in theory and research (pp. 43-67). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Griffin, E. (2006). A first look at communication theory (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.