Cultivation theory: How media shapes our worldview

Something nice and sweet trends on social media… a commenter types – “faith in humanity restored”. Many others rush to like the comment.

Something tragic takes place, many people die… the onlookers read the news and sigh “what has this world come to…” Many others react by changing their social media profile picture.

Story by: Zach Chia

The Cultivation Theory, which was first developed in 1976 by George Gerbner and Larry Gross, studies the long-term effects that media, particularly television, have on our world view. The fundamental idea is that our perceptions of the world are shaped by the amount of time we spend exposed to media – the more time spent watching television, the more it encompasses our reality. While the concept of Cultivation Theory began as a study of the long-term effects of television viewing, newer modes of Cultivation Theory have begun to include long-term consumption of other forms of media.

One of the conclusions of the Cultivation Theory is the phenomenon known as Mean World Syndrome. Gerbner showed that the amount of time one spends watching television is directly proportional to how unforgiving and intimidating one thinks world is. As we see more violence on television, we come to overestimate the violence in reality. However, this doesn’t only apply to viewing televised violence. In the immediate aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines plane accidents in 2015 (MH 370 and MH17), the 24-hour news cycle had wall-to-wall coverage of the crash and every stage of the investigations. The airline reported a loss of approximately 97 million USD that quarter (almost double compared to preceding year), and has since been restructured with a loss of 6000 jobs, along with an uphill trudge towards changing the fear of flying with Malaysia Airlines. Yet, the risk of death from flying is 1 in 7 million, comparatively low to the risk of death from cycling, which is 1 in 88,000.

But why does the news media peddle such violent and tragic stories? Essentially stories that generate emotions draw viewers in. News about the end of the world sells more effectively than news showing improvements in life and conditions. Viewership numbers matter because the more people tune in to a station or medium, the more effectively companies can advertise in the space allocated to them on that channel. This may not be something solely under the umbrella of management and marketing, but also concerns psychology and biology. In their seminal work, Baumeister and colleagues (2001) argued that there is clear evidence for bad events having a stronger impact  than good events on human psychology. In a review, Kensigner (2007) summarised neuroimaging and behavioural evidence to argue that negative memories convey more details that positive ones. Furthermore, evolutionary biologists, such as John Garcia, have hypothesized that the power of negative events is vital to our survival as a memory of a negative experience allows us to avoid the same negative stimuli.

But does all this matter?

The current president of the United States has been observed to watch a lot of FOX News, which has the tendency to portray the world as made up of moral absolutes and peddle an “us-versus-them” worldview. On more than one occasion, the current president of the United States has claimed that there are “a lot of bad dudes out there” and more recently, he claimed an immigrant-caused incident in Sweden that no Swedish resident could identify.

In the era of alternative facts and fake news, understanding the concepts of Cultivation Theory, Mean World Syndrome and their biological and psychological relevance is more pressing than before.

This article was previously published in Medicor 2017 #1
Proofread by: Roksana Khalid

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