• Contributors: Sylvia Buchanan, Andree Dumont, Mubeen Ladhani, Tara Litherland, Sultan Rana, Gavin Robertson

Keywords: Cultivation, Mass Media, Television, Mean World Syndrome, Cultural Indicators Project

Cultivation Theory Pioneers:

George_Gerbner.jpgGeorge Gerbner (August 8, 1919 – December 24, 2005) was born in Budapest, Hungary and later immigrated to America in 1939. In 1942, Gerbner received his undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkley, and then worked for the Francisco Chronicle. He also enrolled himself as a member of the US Army in 1943 and was later honourably discharged as First Lieutenant. While teaching journalism at El Camino College and working as a freelance writer and publicist, Gerbner received his master’s degree in 1951, followed by his doctorate in 1955, both of which were in communications at the University of Southern California (USC). His dissertation entitled: “Toward a General Theory of Communication” won an award at USC for best dissertation. Between the years of 1964-1989, Gerbner became Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where he influenced its growth and development in the area of Communication Theory. During this time he also initiated the popular ‘Cultural Indicators Project’ in 1968 (with Larry Gross) in which he developed the notion of Cultivation Theory and coined the phrase ‘Mean World Syndrome.’ He also created, the Cultural Environment Movement, which focused on greater diversity in media ownership and employment. After leaving Annenberg, Gerbner became the Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunication at Temple University in 1997 and also visited many universities as a guest lecturer. George Gerbner died of cancer on December 25, 2005 in Philadelphia.

Larry_Gross.jpgIn 2003, Larry Gross became the director of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, after teaching communication at the University of Pennsylvania for 35 years. With degrees from Brandeis University and Columbia University, Gross was a fantastic addition to the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. As a faculty member, his main areas of interest included media and culture, art and communication, visual communication, and media portrayals of minorities. He even initiated and helped found the field of gay and lesbian studies. However, he is best known for his work on the infamous ‘Cultural Indicators Project’ which he co-directed with George Gerbner, and helped develop the concept of Cultivation Theory. In 1998, Gross was named a Guggenheim Fellow and in 2001 received the International Communication Association’s Aubrey Fisher Mentorship Award. He is also an elected Fellow of the International Communication Association (ICA) and has already been appointed as president of the ICA in 2011-2012.

What is Cultivation Theory?

Developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania, cultivation theory derived from several large-scale research projects as part of an overall research project entitled 'Cultural Indicators. The purpose of the Cultural Indicators project was to identify and track the 'cultivated' effects of television on viewers. They were "concerned with the effects of television programming (particularly violent programming) on the attitudes and behaviours of the American public."’ (Miller, 2005)

Cultivation theory suggests that television can change or ‘cultivate’ a viewers’ perception of social reality. In other words, a viewers’ belief of reality is shaped by the amount of television watched combined with a continual exposure to media messages over a long period of time. The theory suggests that it does not matter what is watched, just the amount time spent watching. Gerbner’s studies have revealed that people who watched a lot of television were more likely to believe the world was a cruel and horrible place, something he referred to as Mean World Syndrome.

The Mean World Index measures the degree to which respondents agree that:

1. Most people are just looking out for themselves
2. You can’t be too careful in dealing with people
3. Most people would take advantage of you if they got a chance.

(Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli, 1980)

Cultivation Theory & Psychosocial Health Characteristics:

Study published in Health Communication, 2005

  • Hammermeister et al. (2005) felt that indicators of psychosocial health (loneliness, shyness, self-esteem, depression, hopelessness, weight satisfaction, life satisfaction, perceived attractiveness, eating disorder tendency) have not been addressed in relation to television viewing time.
  • Hypothesis: Television-free individuals and viewers adhering to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations (up to 2 hr of viewing per day) would display a more positive psychosocial health profile when compared with more frequent television viewers.
  • Results: Only women confirmed this hypothesis not men (no difference). For women, depression, hopelessness, self esteem & weight satisfaction were the strongest discriminators between the groups (television free, television viewers in accordance with AAP, frequent television viewers [>2hrs/day])
  • "Although cultivation theory has long been concerned with the cumulative influence of media contact, this investigation of television-free individuals is an important step in clarifying the as-yet ambiguous threshold [0-2 hrs] at which the influence becomes detrimental." (p. 259)

Examples of Cultivation Theory:

The more one watches television, the more one believes that what is presented is in fact reality. The continuous exposure to the information causes us to stop questioning whether the reports given need to be assessed with a critical view and are valid. The theory applies to both positive and negative views:

1. Enron Corp: Most Americans could not tell where the company stood prior to the scandals etc nor what it had done. The daily tales about the scandals, abuse of finances and greed, have caused most people to feel that it was always a corrupt and fraudulent corporation. They could tell the company was brought down by a few employees who stood up for truth. The ‘mediated reality’ of the company does not reflect its whole history.

2. Violent crimes: Continued media coverage of the crimes prompts people to believe that crime is a serious problem and they are in danger, even if their city has a very low crime rate. Frequency of crime categories does not get reported with the crimes.

3. Martha Stewart: She had a positive, admired public image before her IRS trouble. The public would remain by the company inspite of the crisis. Loyalty may be shaken but not broken.

4. Rosie O’Donnell seems like the “Queen of Nice.” In a different position at the magazine, the executives had difficulty with "their perception of her a controlling, inexperienced manager. Could not convince the public of anything but her gracious considerate, "Queen of Nice" (established mediated reality).

5. War in Iraq
Total Casualties from war in Iraq ( 6 years ) 100,000 annually 16, 650
Mediated reality leaves impression this was very costly war.
Absent from the news, spousal abuse in US annually exceeds 620,000.
- Source- Google

Cultivation Theory & Education:

  • Popular adolescent television shows become a part of the culture
  • Adolescents and children are highly influenced by one another
  • Television portrays the “norm” to many students
  • Stereotypes are developed through media messages
  • Media literacy is increasingly important in the school system
  • Television is replacing religion and education
  • Younger generations are being exposed to more mature content

- Teachers must be aware and current with the media in order to understand the generation that they are teaching

- The use of media devices are becoming more accepted in schools as appropriate assignment options (comic strips, audio or video essays)

- Many schools use media to advertise for their own means (important messages, upcoming events, cafeteria food, school clothing etc)

Cultivation Theory & Gender-stereotyping:

Cultivation Theory & Video Games:

  • Violence in video games believed to work in the same way as violence on television
  • Violence is becoming normalized as people become more “used to” or exposed to violence on a daily basis
  • Society is becoming desensitized to violence

Dr. George Gerbner videos:

The Killing Screens: Media & the Culture of Violence
The Mean World Syndrome - Media As Storytellers
The Mean World Syndrome - Desensitization & Acceleration (Extra Feature)

Critique on Cultivation Theory:

As ground breaking, and in most cases, agreeable a lot of the points in Cultivation are, there are some points of criticism that have surfaced in the past thirty years. Some more relevant to the location one is in (North America), and some just based on our ever-changing media-engorged society. McQuail, Boyd-Barrett and Braham state that there are too many background factors that interfere with this theory. The concerns of how there are too many relationships between symbolic structures, how audience behaviours have a role in how a message (or symbol) is perceived, and the social background factors of the viewer all play a part, and are not brought into the discussion in aspects of Cultivation Theory. These items make the argument/theory seem a lot less one directional.

Pingree and Hawkins see that the duration of viewing is not the real conduit of how the viewer is affected, but it's the content type of the programming that is most important. They imply that content measures should exist within the theory. Different genres and programmes shape and influence different realities (to the viewer).

There is an argument that contends with the idea of "symbolic function". For example, a prolonged exposure a viewer has to monocultured, single gendered programming will mentally penetrate the idea that there might be a dominant culture (identified through what they view, and how it influences his/her perception), and furthermore the importance of one particular gender (usually women) is minimized or obliterated. There are generally major concerns with this idea, and one would have to entertain other factors such as culture, experiences, perceptions and other major psychosocial factors of an individual(s) before making the assertion that television feeds this perception.

There has been little relevance of Cultivation Theory outside North America. In studies in England (UK), self esteem and views of various group of society are not shaped by what one sees on television, however, this could be (in relation to previous points) connected to the type of content that airs on television network in countries such as the UK.

Lastly, there are no conclusions that can be made about the type of person who watches television, the number of hours he/she watches television, and the messages they take from what they view. Studies on people who choose to watch an immense amount of television are often not affected by the messages of fear and insecurity (an argument that Cultivation Theory embodies). As an independent viewer they choose to watch that much content, and choose the content they want to watch, therefore allowing it to affect them in ways that they choose to do so (i.e. Watch a comedy for the purpose of laughing, or a dramatic television show for the reason of an intense storyline).

A myriad of criteria have been argued against the Cultivation Theory in not stating that it is incorrect or implausible, but that it needs to widen it's "net", per se. In summation, a few of those are:
  • viewer behaviour
  • social-cultural contexts/ background
  • television show programme content
  • include a measurement of content
  • the assumption that there is a great deal of homogeneity between television shows
  • it's practicality in societies outside of North America
  • socioeconomic status
  • access to resources (other than television)
  • viewer motivation and connection to program content


  • Boyd-Barrett, O. & Braham, P. (eds.) (1987): Media Knowledge & Power. London: Croom Helm.

  • McQuail, D. & Windahl, S. (1993): Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communication. London: Longman.

  • Hammermeister, J., Brock, B., Winterstein, D., Page, R. (2005). Life Without TV? Cultivation Theory and Psychosocial Health Characteristics of Television-Free Individuals and Their Television-Viewing Counterparts. Health Communication, 17(3), 253-264.

  • The Mean World Syndrome - Media as Storytellers (Extra Feature) – Cultivation Theory with George Gerbner;

  • Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Signorielli, N. and Morgan, M. (1980), Aging with Television: Images on Television Drama and Conceptions of Social Reality. Journal of Communication, 30: 37–47. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1980.tb01766.x

  • Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M. and Signorielli, N. (1980), The “Mainstreaming” of America: Violence Profile No. 11. Journal of Communication, 30: 10–29. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1980.tb01987.x