More than 50 years since its invention, the television maintains a controversial presence in American culture. Some claim that TV viewing wastes time and lowers one’s IQ. Others say it’s partly to blame for the current obesity epidemic, the rise in violence among adolescents and the deterioration of moral values. Fans of TV point to its usefulness in education and communication. Parents debate how much, if any, children should be allowed to watch. Therefore, it’s no surprise that one of the most analyzed theories of mass communication—cultivation theory—examines television’s cumulative effects on human attitudes and behavior.
Communication professor George Gerbner founded cultivation theory in 1976 after conducting several large research projects on the effects of television on viewers. He compared television’s socializing force to that of religion, claiming that it defines social roles, standardizes behavior and homogenizes communities much like religion did in early human history. Also, because television portrays excessive amounts of violence, it can cause people to develop Mean World Syndrome, or the idea that the world is scarier than it really is. Gerbner sorted television’s effects into two categories: first order and second order. First order effects refer to general beliefs about the world, while second order effects involve specific attitudes toward one’s environment or certain aspects of society, like law enforcement.
Cultivation theory posits the following assumptions:
1. Because television content is mass produced and occupies a central role in American culture, it is more influential than other forms of mass media.
2. TV does not cause or encourage violent behavior. Instead, it shapes people’s attitudes and beliefs about society and other people.
3. TV cultivates values and attitudes already present in the culture. It serves to reinforce the status quo, not challenge it.
4. Viewing more than four hours of television a day can lead to Mean World Syndrome.
5. Television does not reflect reality; rather, it creates an alternate reality.
The disparity in the degree of cultivation between various television viewers is known as the cultivation differential. A heavy viewer of reality shows, for instance, is likely to think that people are largely competitive and self-centered, while a light viewer may perceive people to be more helpful and friendly. Several factors can influence the degree of cultivation.
1. The amount of television watched – Heavy viewers are more influenced than light viewers.
2. Current environment – Viewers who live in dangerous neighborhoods are more susceptible to Mean World Syndrome.
3. Gender – Since women are overwhelmingly portrayed as victims on TV, women are more likely to experience Mean World Syndrome.
4. Watching alone or with others – Viewing television with others increases the chance that the scenarios presented will be discussed, thus reducing cultivation’s effects. Watching alone increases the chance of cultivation.
5. Level of familiarity with the situation portrayed – People who lack first-hand knowledge of reality depend on television to inform them, which makes cultivation likely to occur.
6. Age – Young children who cannot comprehend motives or consequences as shown on TV are less likely to experience cultivation.
Some have argued that education, ethnicity and income level also play a part in the cultivation differential, but cultivation theorists claim that the amount of television watched overrides such factors.
Cultivation theorists focus the majority of their research on heavy viewers, or those who watch more than four hours of TV per day. Researchers approach cultivation studies by first analyzing TV content and how it is produced. Aspects taken into account include production limitations, the portrayal of women and ethnic minorities, and the amount of violence shown. Based on these findings, researchers then conduct surveys to determine the degree to which viewers’ perception of reality matches the alternate reality portrayed on TV. Survey questions often ask subjects to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as “You can’t be too careful when dealing with others” or name the percentage of people who work in law enforcement. When a person’s answer correlates with what is shown on TV, researchers cite it as evidence of cultivation.
Researchers have documented some common indicators of cultivation among heavy TV viewers, such as the following:
1. Exaggerated fear of becoming the victim of a crime
2. General suspicion of people and their motives
3. Inflated perception of police activity
Critics of cultivation theory denounce its breadth and lack of categorization when it comes to content analysis. For example, cultivation theorists make no distinction between genres or types of violence; they view cartoon violence in the same light as realistic violence.
Moreover, their research is focused on measuring cultivation’s effects rather than studying the characteristics of the people affected. Critics say because cultivation theory largely ignores its subjects’ backgrounds, it does not account for all the factors that may be involved in cultivation. Just because a survey response reveals the presence of an effect does not mean television was the cause.
Supporters of the theory contend that heavy viewers watch multiple genres of programming, which demands a cumulative study. Also, analyzing other variables would be largely meaningless since television is present in American lives from birth.