Cultivation theory

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The cultivation theory suggests that people who are exposed regularly to media over long periods of time perceive the world’s social realities as presented on media and it affects the audiences’ attitudes and behaviors.[1] Cultivation theory was founded by George Gerbner in the 1960s. At first, cultivation theory began as a way to test the impact that all this television viewing had on viewers, particularly with regard to violence.[2] "The primary proposition of cultivation theory states that the more time people spend 'living' in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality aligns with reality portrayed on television."[3] The images and ideological messages transmitted through popular television media heavily influence perceptions of the real world. The more media is consumed, the more the perceptions of people is thought to change. This leads to the idea of the "Mean World Syndrome", which refers to the idea that long-term exposure of violent media will lead to a distorted view that the world seems more violent than it actually is.

Cultivation theory was founded by George Gerbner, and was later expanded upon by Gerbner and Larry Gross and is positivistic, meaning it assumes the existence of objective reality and value-neutral research.[4] A study conducted by Jennings Bryant and Dorina Miron in 2004, which surveyed almost 2,000 articles published in three top mass-communication journals since 1956, found that Cultivation Theory was the third-most frequently utilized theory, showing that it continues to be one of the most popular theories in mass-communication research.[5]


this diagram summarizes the process of cultivation theory from a psychological point of view[6]

Cultivation theory suggests that exposure to media, over time, subtly "cultivates" viewers' perceptions of reality. Gerbner and Gross assert: "Television is a medium of the socialization of most people into standardized roles and behaviors. Its function is in a word, enculturation".[7] Within his analysis of cultivation, Gerbner draws attention to three entities—institutions, messages, and publics.[8]

Though most researchers tend to focus on television as it is the most common form of media consumption in the world, Cultivation Theory has been shown to encompass many different forms of media, such as newspapers, film, and even photographs. This can apply anytime social observation occurs in any form outside a natural environment.[9]

Initial research on the theory establishes that concern regarding the effects of television on audiences stem from the unprecedented centrality of television in American culture.[3] Gerbner posited that television as a mass medium of communication had formed into a common symbolic environment that bound diverse communities together, socializing people into standardized roles and behaviors.[10] He thus compared the power of television to that of religion, stating television was to modern society what religion once was in earlier times. Thus, Gerbner's research focused on the larger meaning of heavy television consumption instead of the meaning behind specific messages.[11]


Cultural Indicators Project[edit]

The cultivation theory arose as a project titled the Cultural Indicators Project. The Cultural Indicators Project began as a stand-alone study commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.[7] The 1960s saw an increase in violence, especially racial injustice with the likes of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The political turmoil also brought about the shootings of Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy. American was experiencing a hostile climate of violence that was broadcast on television nationwide, generating a great deal of public opinion.[12] The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed to address issues of violence in American culture; one specific area of interest for the Johnson administration was the effects of television violence on audiences.

Gerbner subsequently began work on the federally funded Cultural Indicators Project at the Annenberg School of Communications.[13] Congress then facilitated the creation of the Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior in 1972. This new committee funded a number of studies on the effects of television: Gerbner's Cultural Indicators was one of those chosen. Through Gerbner's involvement with Cultural Indicators, he began to produce the Violence Index, a yearly content analysis of prime-time television that would show how violence was portrayed on television, from season to season. This allowed viewers the access to data regarding the frequency of violence in television shows but also raised questions regarding the accuracy of the study and the research hypotheses used. While the Violence Index received criticism, Gerbner and his team updated the Index to make sure that the data being produced was accurately composed, and addressed any criticisms posted. Gerbner's research found that violence was portrayed in prime time more frequently compared to violence in the real world.[14]

Gerbner's project came about during an increasing divide between political conservatives and private commercial investors in the late 1960s.[15] Performing the task of middleman, Gerbner and his team acted as impartial researchers, examining the effects and implications of television consumption without having any vested political or financial interest in its outcome. This standpoint allotted Gerbner access to a number of grants that continued to fund the Cultural Indicators Project throughout the 1970s.[7]


Cultivation theory holds three core assumptions. The first assumption highlights the medium, the second, the audience, and the final assumption deals with the function of the medium on audiences and their ability to react to it.

Television is fundamentally different from other forms of mass media.[16][edit]

This first assumption lists the differences between television and other forms of mass media. Television is visual and auditory, and therefore doesn't require viewers to be literate. It has the potential to be free, aside from the initial cost of obtaining a television (although free access to television is generally quite limited). There are multiple added costs for television viewing, including the necessity of a converter box to access most local television broadcasting and the high monthly fees required for accessing cable television. These costs may prohibit poor and low-income families from viewing television. However, television is still ageless in the sense that anyone from any walk of life can use it, and most importantly, anyone is able to comprehend the content that is broadcast through television. Television programming uses storytelling and engaging narratives to capture people's attention.
Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli argued that while religion or education had previously been greater influences on social trends, now "[t]elevision is the source of the most broadly shared images and messages in history ...Television cultivates from infancy the very predispositions and preferences that used to be acquired from other primary sources ... The repetitive pattern of television's mass-produced messages and images forms the mainstream of a common symbolic environment."[7]
Television has a lower threshold for consumption than print media (because of the need for literacy) and film (because it requires a level of financial capability).[4] Because it is accessible and available to everyone, television is the “central cultural arm” of our society."[16] Besides, television could put dissimilar groups together and can make them forget their differences for a time by providing them with a common experience.[2]

Television shapes our society’s way of thinking and relating.[2][edit]

Gerbner and Gross write that "the substance of the consciousness cultivated by TV is not so much specific attitudes and opinions as more basic assumptions about the facts of life and standards of judgment on which conclusions are based."[17] Simply put, the realities created by television are not based on real facts but on speculation.According to James Shanahan and Vicki Jones, "Television is the dominant medium for distributing messages from cultural, social, and economic elites. Cultivation is more than just an analysis of effects from a specific medium; it is an analysis of the institution of television and it's social role."[18]
Gerbner observed that television reaches people, on average, more than seven hours a day. Television offers "a centralized system of story-telling".[19] Gerbner asserts that television's major cultural function is to stabilize social patterns and to cultivate resistance to change. We live in terms of the stories we tell and television tells these stories through news, drama, and advertising to almost everybody most of the time.[16]
Cultivation Theory doesn't predict what we will do after watching a violent television program, but rather posits a connection between our worry and fear about a violence-filled world and exposure to violent programming on television.

Television's effects are limited.[edit]

Assumption three paradoxically asserts that television is a part of a larger sociocultural system. Therefore, although the effects of watching television may be increased or decrease at any point in time, its effect is consistently present.[16]
Gerbner's ice age analogy states that "just as an average temperature shift of a few degrees can lead to an ice age or the outcomes of elections can be determined by slight margins, so too can a relatively small but pervasive influence make a crucial difference. The size of an effect is far less critical than the direction of its steady contribution."[20] Rather than focus on the total impact of violent television, this analogy focuses more on the fact that there once was or is an impact to viewers just through exposure. Gerbner argues that watching television doesn't cause a particular behavior, but instead watching television over time adds up to our perception of the world around us.[14]

Research strategy analyzing the role of the media[edit]

Cultivation differential is the final step in a four-part process that looks at the effects of television on society.[8] The first two steps include institutional process analysis and message system analysis. While cultivation theory focuses on macrosystems of television's influence on society as a whole, the first two steps deal with the creation of media messages and how these messages are portrayed in front of an audience.[11]

Step 1: message system analysis[edit]

The first part of this strategy is known as message system analysis, which has been used since 1967 to track the most stable and recurrent images in media content. Described by Gerbner, Gross, Morgan and Signorielli as a "tool for making systematic, reliable, and cumulative observations about television content", it not only tracks the perceived awareness of an individual about what he or she is viewing on television, but also represents the ongoing collective messages shown on television that shape larger community impressions over an extended period of time. Although information provided through media channels is not always reliable, message system analysis provides a method for characterizing the messages transmitted through television.[7]

"Based on message system analyses, cultivation researchers develop hypotheses about what people would think about various aspects of reality if everything they knew about some issue or phenomenon were derived from television's dominant portrayals."[8] This step entails creating a detailed content analysis on the consistent images, themes, and messages in any one particular show.

Another facet of the message-system analysis Gerbner discovered was something Griffin called "equal violence, unequal risk." The research Gerbner conducted showed that the amount of violence portrayed in media stayed consistent, but the distribution of that violence was never equal. The children and the elderly, for example, are more common recipients of violence than young or middle-aged adults. Gerbner often discovered trends in violence toward minority groups, with African Americans and Hispanics being the recipients of violence more often than Caucasians; two other demographics that experienced similar inequality were women and "blue-collar" workers. Griffin wrote: "The ironic result of this tendency is that the demographics shown, inaccurately, to be more in danger of violence than the rest are the demographics that will walk away from the media more afraid of violence.[10]

Step 2: questions regarding viewers' social realities[edit]

The second part of this process focuses on people's feelings about their day-to-day lives to gain a larger understanding of how they perceive their realities. Findings from the message system analysis process guide researchers to formulate questions about social reality for the subjects of a study (in this case, television viewers).[17]

Step 3: surveying the audience[edit]

The third part of this process brings Step 2 into action: asking audience participants questions about their understanding of their lives, and surveying television consumption levels. After questions are formulated based on social reality, Gerbner and Gross explain that, "To each of these questions there is a "television answer", which is like the way things appear in the world of television, and another and different answer which is biased in the opposite direction, closer to the way things are in the observable world".[17] These questions are then used to evaluate detailed characteristics of the participants under evaluation. Measurement items include the breadth of television consumption, habitual characteristics relating to television, and the social, economic, and political makeup of the participants.

Step 4: cultivation differential[edit]

The final part of this process is Cultivation Differential. This is described as "the percentage of difference in response between light and heavy television viewers."[14] Certain measures are evaluated including, ", age, education, and other characteristics. The margin of heavy viewers over light viewers giving the "television answers" within and across groups is the "cultivation differential" indicating conceptions about social reality that viewing tends to cultivate."[17] According to Griffin: "Cultivation deals with how TV's content might affect viewers—particularly the viewers who spend lots of time glued to the tube. This is where most of the action takes place in the theory."[10] Gerbner found that the effect of television on its viewers is not unidirectional, that the "use of the term cultivation for television's contribution to conception of social reality... (does not) necessarily imply a one-way, monolithic process. The effects of a pervasive medium upon the composition and structure of the symbolic environment are subtle, complex, and intermingled with other influences. This perspective, therefore, assumes an interaction between the medium and its publics."[7]

This cultivation differential is what Gerbner sought to discover in his research. Griffin defines this as "the difference in the percentage giving the television answer within comparable groups of light and heavy TV viewers."[10] Gerbner wanted to find how often individuals who watched a significant amount of television were influenced by what they saw in the media. Gerbner believed there was no before-television stage in a person's life. He alleged the media influences a person the moment they are born.

There are four attitudes that Gerbner focused on: (1) the chances of involvement with violence, (2) fear of walking alone at night, (3) perceived activity of police, and (4) general mistrust of people.[10] When a person watches more television, that person is more likely to think he or she has a higher chance of being involved violence and is more mistrustful of others. See also the description of mean world syndrome below.

Key terms in cultivation analysis[edit]

Two types of cultivation: Mainstreaming and Resonance[edit]

The process of cultivation that television contribute to viewers’ conceptions of social reality occurs in two ways. One is mainstreaming and the other is resonance.

A representation of the effects of mainstreaming and resonance. Source: Adapted from Gerber et al., “The mainstreaming of America: Violence profile no. 11” Journal of Communication, vol. 7 (1980), p. 16, Figure 2. Reprinted by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.[21]

Mainstreaming is the blurring, blending, and bending process by which heavy TV viewers from disparate groups develop a common outlook on the world through constant exposure to the same images and labels on TV.[10] Blurring refers to the fusion of traditional distinctions. Blending refers to the emergence of new conceptions into television's cultural mainstream.Bending refers to shifting the mainstream to the institutional  interests of the medium and its sponsors.[22]

Mainstreaming through television plays a central role in society. There are many people that do not have access to television, but the reach of television is so expansive that it has become the primary channel responsible for shaping what is mainstream in our culture.[10] The mainstream is more than the sum of all cross-currents and sub-currents; it represents the broadest range of shared meanings and assumptions in the most general, functional and stable way.[23] Heavy television viewing may override individual differences and perspectives, creating more of an American (and increasingly global) "melting pot" of social, cultural and political ideologies.[23]

Gerbner found that ideas and opinions commonly held by heavy viewers as a result of mainstreaming have to do with politics and economics. According to Griffin, Gerbner's research led to the conclusion that heavy viewers tend to label themselves as middle class citizens who are politically moderate. However, he also found that "cultural indicators noted that their positions on social issues are decidedly conservative. Gerbner also found people who labeled themselves as either liberal or conservative among those who mainly watched TV occasionally. "[10]

Resonance occurs when things viewed on television are congruent with the actual lived realities of viewers. Gerbner writes that this provides a double dose of messages that resonate and amplify cultivation.[19] Additionally, Gerbner et al. defines resonance as the similarity between everyday reality and television narratives. The example they give is of minority groups whose fictional television character is stereotypically more frequently victimized on television, creating an exaggerated perception of violence for individuals who watch more television[23] Griffin sums it up nicely, when he states, "Gerbner claimed that other heavy viewers grow more apprehensive through the process of resonance."[10] Furthermore, Gerbner said, "The congruence of the television world and real-life circumstances may 'resonate' and lead to markedly amplified cultivation patterns."[10] This cultivation could have a large effect on our society if these viewers insist on receiving more security from the government, their work place, family, friends, etc. Resonance seeks to explain why heavy TV viewers often have an amplified vigilance about the world.

Two Measures[edit]

As either mainstreaming or resonance, cultivation produces first-order or second-order effects.

First-order effects refers to the learning of facts.This is a quantitative measure, where subjects are asked about their quantitative expectations about the occurrence of some phenomena in the society, such as the possibility of becoming a victim of a violent crime.[24]

Second-order effects involve "hypotheses about more general issues and assumptions" that people make about their environments.[7] This is a qualitative measure investigating the  perception of people' s beliefs regarding a phenomenon in the society. In this measure, various phrases are designed to describe the world, for example, portraying society as ethical, or wicked, etc. Viewers are then asked which of these phrases they agree with.[24]

Mean World Index[edit]

Gerbner et al. developed the Mean World Index. The Mean World Index finds that long-term exposure to television in which violence is frequent cultivates the image of a mean and dangerous world. Viewers who consumed television at a higher rate believed that greater protection by law enforcement is needed and reported that most people "cannot be trusted" and are "just looking out for themselves".[20] Heavy viewers were much more likely to see the world as a mean place than were light viewers. For example, based on frequent images of drug use on television, Minnipo and Egmont surveyed 246 Belgians over the age of 30 and found that heavy viewers were more likely to believe that most young people use drugs.[25] The Mean World Index consists of three statements:

  • Most people are just looking out for themselves.
  • You can't be too careful in dealing with people.
  • Most people would take advantage of you if they got the chance.

Heavy viewers[edit]

Heavy viewers are individuals who watch at least four hours of television a day,[10] however Nielsen notes that heavy viewers are now defined as those that watch more than 11 hours of television a day.[26] Heavy viewers are consistently characterized as being more susceptible to the images and messages on television. They also rely on television more to cultivate their perceptions of the real world.[13] In a recent study done on the cultivation effects of reality television, an Indiana University study found that young girls who regularly watched the MTV hit Teen Mom had an unrealistic view of teen pregnancy.[27]

Several cognitive mechanisms that explain cultivation effects have been put forth by Shrum (1995; 1996; 1997).[28][29][30] Shrum's availability heuristic explanation suggests that heavy viewers tend to have more frequent, recent, and vivid instances of television reality on the "top of the head" (i.e., available and accessible) when surveyors ask them questions, resulting in more responses that relate to television viewing and also speedier responses. Another mechanism that might explain the cultivation phenomenon is a cognitive-narrative mechanism. Previous research suggests that the realism of television narratives in combination with individual-level "transportability", or the ability to adopt a less critical stance toward a narrative, might facilitate cultivation effects (e.g., Bilandzic & Busselle, 2008).[31]

Dramatic violence[edit]

Dramatic violence is the "overt expression or serious threat of physical force as part of the plot."[10] Shows such as Law & Order SVU and CSI: Miami use murder to frame each episode of their shows, thus underscoring the presence of dramatic and gratuitous violence.[32] The idea of dramatic violence underscores the relationship between fear and entertainment. Though death is being used as a plot point, it also functions to cultivate a particular image of looming violence.

Magic bullet theory[edit]

The magic bullet theory (also known as the hypodermic-syringe model, transmission-belt model, or hypodermic needle model) is a linear model of communication. This theory talks about "the audiences directly influenced by the mass media" and "the media's power on the audiences".

The "magic bullet" theory graphically assumes that the media's message is a bullet fired from the "media gun" into the viewer's "head" (1995).[33] Similarly, the "hypodermic needle model" uses the same idea of direct "injection." It suggests that the media delivers its messages straight into the passive audience's mind (Croteau, Hoynes 1997).[34] This passive audience is immediately affected by these messages.

Television reality[edit]

Television reality describes the effects television viewing has on heavy viewers. Cultivation theory research seems to indicate that heavy television viewing can result in the creation of a television reality, which is a set of facts and beliefs based on television content rather than actual facts.[35] Generally, the beliefs of heavy television viewers about the real world are consistent with the repetitive and emphasized images and themes presented on television.[23] As such, heavy viewing cultivates a television-shaped view of the world.[36]

While viewers might differ in their demographic characteristics, the amount of television viewing can make a difference in terms of their conceptions of social reality.[37] For instance, people's different degrees of sex-role stereotypes can be traced back to the independent contribution of TV viewing just like others such as sex, age, class, and education.[37] Television viewing time is a main element of creating television reality to the audiences or the viewers. According to Gerbner's research, the more time spent 'living' in the world of television, the more likely people are to report perceptions of social reality which can be traced to television's most persistent representations of life and society.[37]

Since the 1960s, communication scholars have examined television's contributions to viewers' perceptions of a wide variety of topics and issues. Little effort has been made to investigate the influence of television on perceptions of social reality among adolescents, particularly in the areas of sexism, sex roles, mean world, and television reality.[38]

The work of several researchers support the concept of television reality as a consequence of heavy viewing. According to Wyer and Budesheim's research, television messages or information, even when they are not necessarily considered truthful, can still be used in the process of constructing social judgments. Furthermore, indicted invalid information may still be used in subsequent audience's judgments.[39]

Perceptions of violence[edit]

Gerbner's initial work specifically looked at the effects of television violence on American audiences.[40] Violence underscored the larger part of Gerbner's work on cultivation theory, as he and his team speculated that violence had an effect on the way Americans perceive safety, crime, and general lawlessness in both their immediate communities and the greater population. Therefore, they measured dramatic violence, which Gerbner defines as "the overt expression or threat of physical force as part of the plot."[10] Gerbner's research also focuses on the impact of television viewing on high-use television users and their interpretation of the prevalence of crime on television versus real life. He argues that since a high percentage of television programs include violent or crime-related content, viewers who spend a lot of time watching television are inevitably exposed to high levels of crime and violence portrayed. Thus, increased exposure causes viewers to judge the world around them as more violent and crime-filled than it may actually be in reality.[41]

In 1968, Gerbner conducted a survey to demonstrate this theory. From his results he placed television viewers into three categories; "light viewers" (less than 2 hours a day), "medium viewers" (2–4 hours a day) and "heavy viewers" (more than 4 hours a day). He found that heavy viewers held beliefs and opinions similar to those portrayed on television rather than ones based in real-world circumstances, which demonstrates the compound effect of media influence.[11] Those whom Gerbner classified as heavy viewers experience shyness, loneliness, and depression much more than those who do not watch television or who do not watch television nearly as much.[42] From this study, Gerbner also began working on what would become his Mean World Index, which subscribes to the notion that heavy consumption of violence-related television content leads the viewer to believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is.

Positive correlation between TV viewing and fear of criminal victimization[edit]

"In most of the surveys Gerbner conducted, the results reveal a small but statistically significant relationship between TV consumption and fear about becoming the victim of a crime. The question at the start of the chapter is illustrative: Those with light viewing habits predict their weekly odds of being a victim are 1 out of 100; those with heavy viewing habits fear the risk 1 out of 10. Actual crime statistics indicate that 1 out of 10,000 is more realistic."[10]

Supporting this finding is a survey done with college students that showed a significant correlation between the attention paid to local crime and fear. This survey also showed a significant correlation between fears of crime and violence and the number of times the respondents viewed television per week.[43]

Local television news also plays a role in influencing viewers' perception of high criminal activity due to events reported on the news. While news agencies boast their allegiance to report factual, timely news, they rely "heavily on sensational coverage of crime and other mayhem with particular emphasis on homicide and violence" (Hamilton, 1998; Klite, Bardwell, & Salzman, 1995, 1997). Thus, viewers are more likely to develop a heightened sense of fear of crime because of the nature of information spread by local news outlets. Gerbner found that heavy television viewers were more likely than comparable light viewers to overestimate crime rates and risk of personal exposure to crime and underestimate the safety of their neighborhoods.[44]

Busselle found that parents who watch more programs portraying crime and violence are more likely to warn their children about crime during their high school years; these warnings, in turn, predict the students' own crime estimates.[45]

Perceived activity of the police[edit]

"People with heavy viewing habits believe that 5 percent of society is involved in law enforcement. Their video world is peopled with police officers, judges, and government agents. People with light viewing habits estimates a more realistic 1 percent."[10]

General mistrust of people[edit]

"Those with heavy viewing habits are suspicious of other people's motives. They subscribe to statements that warn people to expect the worst." These people would be likely to believe statements such as: "Most people are just looking out for themselves"; "In dealing with others, you can't be too careful"; and "Do unto others before they do unto You." This mindset is what Griffin calls the mean world syndrome.[10]

Gerbner's original analysis shows that heavy viewers are much more likely to be afraid of walking alone at night. The reluctance of these individuals has also been seen on a more global scale because heavy viewers in the United States are much more likely to believe they, as a nation, should stay out of world affairs.[41]

Research applications[edit]

Although Gerbner's research focused on violence on TV this theory can be applied to a variety of different situations. Many other theorists have done studies related to the cultivation theory which incorporated different messages than Gerbner's original intent. This research has been conducted in order to defeat two criticisms of the theory; its breadth and lumping of genres.

Cultivation effects on children[edit]

"There was a positive relationship between childhood television viewing levels and the social reality beliefs in young adulthood. The results of this study suggest that television viewed during childhood may affect the social reality beliefs a person holds as an adult."[10] "Accordingly, the present study focuses on the potential effect of childhood television viewing on social reality beliefs during adulthood. The focus of the present study will be childhood exposure to television genres that tend to be violent. Given that it has been argued and demonstrated that measuring exposure to violent content is a more appropriate method for cultivation analyses than measuring overall television exposure levels."[3]

Another longitudinal study shows how television exposure is associated with overall self-esteem in children. Nicole Martins and Kristen Harrison measured the amount of television viewing in elementary school children and their overall level of self-esteem (not related to perceptions about the body) after television exposure over time. They found that higher levels of television viewing predicted lower self-esteem for White girls, Black girls, and Black boys, but higher self-esteem for White boys. This relationship indicates that exposure to portrayals of White males on television, which tend to be positive, and those of Black men and women and White women which tend to be negative, shape the way children understand their own identities.[46]

International cultivation analysis[edit]

International cultivation analysis attempts to answer the question of whether the medium or the system is the message. Gerbner et al. found that countries where the television programs were less repetitive and homogeneous than the United States produced less predictable and consistent results.[23] The variety of television content is also an important factor. Increased diversity and balance within television channels or programs leads viewers to report similar preferences. Furthermore, importing television programs internationally can elicit variable responses depending on the cultural context and the type of television program. For example, exposure of US television programs to Korean females portrayed a liberal perspective of gender roles and family. However, for the Korean male television viewers, US programs brought out increased hostility and protection of Korean culture. Another study showed that Australian students who watched US television programs (especially adventure and crime shows) were more likely to view Australia as dangerous;[23] however, they didn't transfer this danger to America, even though they were watching US television programs. A study conducted by Minnebo and Eggermont in 2007 found that heavy television viewers, over the age of 30, in Belgium "were more likely to believe that most young people are substance users."[8]

Lifetime television exposure analysis[edit]

In order to accurately survey and represent findings from cultivation theory research, the duration of television exposure has become a topic for further research. It's stated that "cultivation effect only occurs after long-term, cumulative exposure to stable patterns of content on television."[13] However, research that tracks long-term media exposure is very rare and if conducted, must be thoroughly planned out in order to secure dependable results. In a study conducted in 2009, participants were asked to list the number of Grey's Anatomy episodes they had viewed in prior and current seasons. The purpose of the study was to gain a perspective of how viewers see doctors based on impressions from television. Findings from the study showed a positive association with Grey's Anatomy's portrayal with real-world doctors' acts of courage. The finding wasn't surprising, as many episodes within Grey's Anatomy often show doctors as courageous, either by employing a detailed view of an operation, or crediting doctors for their empathy in specific patient scenarios. Gerbner and colleagues argue that cultivation effects span total television viewing, not genre- or program-specific viewing (Gerbner et al., 2002).[47] In a study conducted by Jonathan Cohen and Gabriel Weimann, they found that cultivation through television is more prevalent within the age group of older teenagers and young adults, thus supporting the claim that a cumulative exposure to television throughout a viewer's life has a steady impact on their cultivation longevity.[48]

Impact on psychosocial health[edit]

A study conducted by Hammermeister, Brock, Winterstein, and Page compares the psychosocial health of viewers that reported no television use, viewers who followed the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested consumption of up to 2 hours of television per day, and viewers with high exposure to television. They surveyed 430 participants within the United States implemented via survey method. They found that there was more of an impact on the psychosocial health of women who participated in the study and, "revealed that all the psychosocial variables examined in this study contributed significantly to the one function equation with depression, hopelessness, self-esteem, and weight satisfaction being the strongest discriminators" (Hammermeister, Brock, Winterstein, Page, 260). Findings also exposed the similarity in psychosocial health data between participants who watched up to 2 hours of television per day and participants who opt out of television consumption all together.[42]


InterTV is a concept forecasting the melding of television and online media. Described by Shanahan and Morgan as television's "convergence" with computers, they argue that computers will essentially act as an extension of television through the creation of related websites and online news articles covered within the traditional television journalism realm. Additionally, television programming will also suffer a shift to an online platform in result of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. According to Shanahan and Morgan, this may not be the worst thing, as it allows advertisers a direct source in which they can gather information regarding viewers. They state that, "within a market filled with individual interests, desires and the channels to serve them, such a data-gathering enterprise would still allow advertisers to assemble mass audiences from the fragmented media systems". In a sense, this would allow viewers some way to control the content they are fed through the online platform. While advertisers are infringing on viewer information, the correlated result requires them to shift any programming or storyline content to the satisfaction of the viewer. This poses a challenging example in terms of extending the impact of cultivation theory, instead empowering the viewer to cultivate their own television use experience.[13]


Kathleen Beullens, Keith Roe, and Jan Van den Bulck conducted research relating to alcohol consumption in music videos. The research revealed that high exposure to music videos develops an unrealistic perception of alcohol consumption. Musicians in these videos endorse alcohol in their songs and create a false reality about alcohol and its effects."[49]

Tyree Oredein, Kiameesha Evans and M. Jane Lewis examine violent trends in hip-hop journalism. This study suggest that a significant portion of hip-hop journalism contains violence, which is being communicated to impressionable audiences. The research reveal that in line with cultivation theory's construct of resonance, adolescents who are more likely to identify with hip-hop celebrities may be more likely to engage in violent behavior when an attractive celebrity suggests violent behavior.[50]

Video games[edit]

Research conducted by Dmitri Williams draws the comparison of the effects of television to interactive video games. He argues that while the parameters and basic content of the game developed is through the employment of game developers, creators and designers, the role of the "other player" within the game is also essential in the progression of the story within the video game. Essentially, an interactive game allows players to build relationships with others, and thus is more dynamic and unpredictable as compared to traditional television. Williams attempts to research the question of whether video games are as influential as television from a cultivation theory standpoint. Does it impact our social reality? In the field study, participants were asked to play a MMORPG game, one in which participants interacted with other players in real time. Crime measures divided into four categories were used to evaluate the correlation between the research hypotheses and cultivation theory. The study proved a strong correlation between the impact of cultivation on participants and the players of the MMORPG game.[51] Another study was carried out testing another game, more specifically GTA IV (Grand Theft Auto IV). In this study the basics of the cultivation theory were tested. Test subjects were to play a violent video game, in this case GTA IV over a three week setting for 12 hours in a controlled environment. This allowed for more accurate data later on. Afterwards each participant had to fill out a questionnaire. These results were compared to a controlled set of data (people who did not play video games), to see if the video games or violence actually had an effect on people. The study however concluded no real correlation, indicating there could be no possible link between playing violent games and becoming more violent.[52]

See also Behm-Morawitz and Ta study below, under "Race and ethnicity".[53]

Gender and sexuality[edit]


Sara Baker Netzley conducted research in a similar fashion to Gerbner in the way that homosexuals were depicted on television. This study found that there was an extremely high level of sexual activity in comparison to the amount of homosexual characters that appeared on television. This has led those who are heavy television consumers to believe that the gay community is extremely sexual. Much like the idea of a mean and scary world it gives people a parallel idea of an extremely sexualized gay community."[54]

In a study conducted by Jerel Calzo and Monique Ward, they first begin by analyzing recent research conducted on the portrayal of gay and lesbian characters on television. While growth in the representation of gay and lesbian characters has continued to grow, they found that most television shows frame gay and lesbian characters in a manner that reinforces homosexual stereotypes. Diving into discussion, they even use examples such as Ellen and Will & Grace, describing the storyline content as reinforcing "stereotypes by portraying these characters as lacking stable relationships, as being preoccupied with their sexuality (or not sexual at all), and by perpetuating the perception of gay and lesbian people as laughable, one-dimensional figures (Cooper, 2003; Fouts & Inch, 2005; Herman, 2005)". Their findings confirmed that media genres played an important role in the attitudes developed regarding homosexuality. They also were surprised by the finding that prior prime-time shows, which are no longer on air, reinforced a larger magnitude of acceptance within the LGBTQ realm. They then suggested that because genre played a large impact in the perception that viewers gained while watching certain television shows, more research should be designated towards, "more genre-driven effects analyses".[55]


David & Beverly Roskos-Ewoldsen and John Davies posit that perceptions of women are integrated in a rather stereotypical fashion compared to portrayals of men on television. They state that, "men are characters in TV shows at about a 2 to 1 ratio to women(Gerbner et al., 2002)". Viewers who consume more television usually also have more traditional views of women (Gerbner et al., 2002; Morgan, 1990).[56] Research has also shown that women are more likely to be portrayed as victims on television than men.[57]

Alexander Sink and Dana Mastro studied women and gender depictions on American prime time television. Although women are often perceived to have better representation on television in recent years, these researchers claim that this is not necessarily the case. They claim women are proportionally underrepresented on prime time television, making up 39% of characters despite the fact that women make up 50.9% of the population in the US. Men were also portrayed as more dominant than women, and although men were more often objectified, women were consistently portrayed as hyperfeminized and hypersexualized. Fewer older women appeared during primetime compared to men, and were often shown to be less competent than older male characters.[58]

Sexual attitudes[edit]

A study by Bradley J. Bond and Kristin L. Drogos examined the relationship between exposure to the television program Jersey Shore and sexual attitudes and behavior in college-aged adults. They found a positive relationship between time spent watching Jersey Shore and increased sexual permissiveness. This effect was found to be stronger in the younger participants than older participants, and held true even when the researchers controlled for other influences on participants' sexual attitudes such as religious beliefs and parents' attitudes. This higher level of sexually permissive behavior and attitudes was not a result of higher overall exposure to television, but to higher exposure to Jersey Shore, a highly sexualized program, specifically.[59]

Race and ethnicity[edit]

Meghan S. Sanders and Srividya Ramasubramanian studied perceptions which African American media consumers hold about fictional characters portrayed in film and television. They found that, while study participants tended to view all African American characters positively, social class, rather than race or ethnicity, mattered more in perceptions about the warmth and competence of a character. Their study suggests that the race and ethnicity of media consumers need to be taken into account in cultivation studies because media consumers with different backgrounds likely perceive media portrayals and their faithfulness to reality differently.[60]

A study by Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz and David Ta examined the cultivation effects of video games on White students' perceptions of Black and Asian individuals. While no significant effects were found for perceptions of Asian individuals, researchers found that increased time spent playing video games, no matter what genre, held less positive views of Black people. They also found that real-life interaction with Black individuals did not change this effect. Behm-Morawitz and Ta suggest that the stable, negative racial and ethnic stereotypes portrayed in video game narratives of any genre impact real-world beliefs in spite of more varied real-life interaction with racial and ethnic minorities.[53]

Politics and policy preferences[edit]

Diana C. Mutz and Lilach Nir conducted a study of how fictional television narratives can influence viewers' policy preferences and positive or negative attitudes regarding the justice system in the real world. They found that positive portrayals of the criminal justice system were associated with more positive views toward the system in real life, whereas negative television portrayals were associated with viewers feeling that the criminal justice system often works unfairly. Furthermore, researchers found that these attitudes did influence viewers' policy preferences concerning the criminal justice system in real life.[61]

A study by Anita Atwell Seate and Dana Mastro studied news coverage of immigration and its relationship with immigration policy preferences and negative attitudes about immigrants. They found that exposure to negative messages about immigrants in the news influenced anxious feelings towards the outgroup (i.e. immigrants), particularly when the news showed an example of a member of this outgroup on the program. This exposure did not necessarily influence immigration policy preferences, but long-term exposure to messages of this kind can affect policy preferences.[62]

Katerina-Eva Matsa explores cultivation effects through her thesis on television's impact on political engagement in Greece. She describes the role of satirical television within the cultural realm in Greece and how this form of television engrains the perception that Greek political institutions are corrupt, thus negatively influencing the public's overall opinion of politics in Greece.[63]

New media[edit]

Michael Morgan, James Shanahan, and Nancy Signorielli conceptualize applications of cultivation theory to the study of new media. They note that media technology has not been static, and that media may continue to evolve. However, in the present, older methods for cultivation analysis may have to move away from counting hours of television viewed, and take up a big data approach. These authors argue that, although many were skeptical that cultivation theory would be applicable with the increasing importance of new media, these media still use narrative, and since those narratives affect us, cultivation theory is still relevant for new media.[64]

Stephen M. Croucher applies cultivation theory to his theory of social media and its effects on immigrant cultural adaptation. He theorizes that immigrants who use dominant social media while they are still in the process of adapting to their new culture will develop perceptions about their host society through the use of this media. He believes that this cultivation effect will also impact the way immigrants interact with host country natives in offline interactions.[65]

In an article titled "Facebook and the cultivation of ethnic diversity perceptions and attitudes", there is a research apply cultivation theory to social network sites by investigating how Facebook uses cultivates users’ ethnic diversity perceptions and attitudes. Findings of this study shows that cultivation effects are prevalent on Facebook, but the cultivation variables differ in respect to the distance to media audience’s social environments and in relation to the nature of effects. This study revealed positive cultivation effects. That is, Facebook conveys to users a reality that is ethnically diverse, which, in turn, positively influences ethnic diversity perceptions and attitudes.[66]

Mina Tsay-Vogel, James Shanahan and Nancy Signorielli conducted a study concerning social media cultivating perceptions of privacy.This study examines the impact of  SNSs  on privacy attitudes and self-expression behaviors using a cultivation perspective. It investigates the impact of Facebook use on privacy perceptions and self-expression behaviors over a five-year period from 2010 to 2015. Findings at the global level support the social role of Facebook in fostering more relaxed attitudes toward privacy and subsequently increasing self-expression in both offline and online environments(.[67]


Cultivation theory attempts to predict that media viewing has an effect on the values and beliefs that people have and the things they believe are "reality". A study conducted by David Atkin from the University of Connecticut revealed insights about television viewing of sports and the values of its viewers. An hypothesis that was researched stated "Level of agreement with sports-related values (i.e., being physically fit, athletic, and active) is positively related to participation in sports-related media and leisure activities" (Atkin 324). Studies were conducted and research was presented and the conclusion was that the hypothesis was correct. The study specifically found that "those for whom being physically fit, being athletic and being active are important also engage in more sports media" (Atkin). In this instance, cultivation theory is present because heavier exposure is related to greater agreement with the values that are presented.

Another related study felt that attendance at live and mediated sporting events might cultivate audience values that are consistent with the value of sports.[citation needed]

In an article titled "Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media and Politics", discussion was started about sports and cultivation theory. Cultivation theory can be applicable to many different aspects of society. The research shared "the line of research has found that, as exposure to television increases, an individual's beliefs and opinions of the real-world become more similar to that of the television world." This statement proves to be support of the previous hypothesis and is support for cultivation theory being present in the sports world. If someone engages in sports media, their beliefs of being physically fit and active will then become more and more similar to the beliefs of those they are watching and listening to in the sports media.[citation needed]

Cultivation theory and sports are just beginning to be studied. There are many more aspects that are being studied. One other aspect is the difference between those who participate in sporting events and those who watch them. Another part of cultivation theory can be explained by people being less active, because of what they watch on television and the rise in obesity levels. Because people don't see a lot of active people on television, their "reality" is that people no longer need to be active 30 or so minutes per day.[citation needed]

Cultivation theory can be applied to sports as it can be applied to many other areas of media. A prime example of this is America's shift toward so-called "violent sports". A survey taken in 98 show that only 67% of American teenagers considered themselves baseball fans, compare that to football which is 78%. Just as we consume violent TV shows we also love the more violent sports. This 98 study relates perfectly to  current TV ratings, as football has by far the most hours watched since 2005 at 111.9 million hours.  Leo W. Jeffres, Jae-Won Lee, and Kimberly A. Neuendorf say that "new "media logic" that favors more violent, action-oriented sports, while slower-paced sports have been relegated to secondary status in the United States."

Past cultivation theory research supports the idea that the more someone watches television, the more that individual believes that the television content is like real world reality. This is likely to be found true when it comes to televised violence. But with new research emerging we now know that this cultivation effect is not likely to arise among individuals who watch sports. For example, an individual who happens to watch a lot of football is not going to view the world as a frightening place because of the violence that goes on during games.

Although there was no true correlation between the cultivation theory and sports, there has been research done on the level of violence in sports content and the effects it has on viewers. Results found by Raney and Depalma (2006) found that individuals were less likely to report being in a positive mood after watching violent sports content and its effect on viewers (Wanta 2013).

Altruistic behaviors[edit]

Zakir Shah, Jianxun Chu, Usman Ghani, Sara Qaisar. and Zameer Hassan conducted a research that focus on the mediating role of fear of victimization in cultivation theory perspective. This is the first study to determines the mediating effect of fear of victimization between exposure to media and perception of media with the altruistic behaviors of individuals.Based on cultivation theory, authors suggest that exposure to media and the perception of people about the media on which they exposed to disaster related information affect their fear of victimization and altruistic behaviors. Findings show that high exposure to disaster related news and individuals’ perception about the media contributed more fear of victimization. Moreover, fear of victimization from disaster significantly influences the altruistic behaviors of people.[68]


A number of scholars have critiqued Gerbner's assertions about cultivation theory, particularly its intentions and its scope. One critique of the theory analyzes the objective of the theory. Communications professor Jennings Bryant posits that cultivation research focuses more on the effects rather than who or what is being influenced. Bryant goes on to assert that the research to date has more to do with the "whys" and "hows" of a theory as opposed to gathering normative data as to the "whats", "whos", and "wheres".[69]

Theoretical leap[edit]

Critics have also faulted the logical consistency of cultivation analysis, noting that the methods employed by cultivation analysis researchers do not match the conceptual reach of the theory. The research supporting this theory uses social scientific methods to address questions related to the humanities.[4] Another possibility is that the relationship between TV viewing and fear of crime is like the relationship between a runny nose and a sore throat. Neither one causes the other—they are both caused by something else.".[10][better source needed] Many also question the breadth of Gerbner's research. When using the Cultural Indicators strategy, Gerbner separated his research into three parts. The second part focused on the effects of media when looking at gender, race/ethnicity, and occupation. Michael Hughes writes: "it does not seem reasonable that these three variables exhaust the possibilities of variables available…which may be responsible for spurious relationships between television watching and the dependent variables in the Gerbner et al. analysis."[41]:287 Also, the variables Gerbner did choose can also vary by the amount of time a person has available to watch TV.

Lived experience[edit]

Another critique comes from Daniel Chandler: "those who live in high-crime areas are more likely to stay at home and watch television and also to believe that they have a greater chance of being attacked than are those in low-crime areas." He claims as well, "when the viewer has some direct lived experience of the subject matter this may tend to reduce any cultivation effect."[70] While television does have some effect on how we perceive the world around us, Gerbner's study does not consider the lived experiences of those that do inhabit high crime areas.

Forms of violence[edit]

Gerbner is also criticized for his lumping of all forms of violence. Chandler argues, "different genres—even different programmes—contribute to the shaping of different realities, but cultivation analysis assumes too much homogeneity in television programmes".[70] This point is addressed by Horace Newcomb (1978) who argues that violence is not presented as uniformly on television as the theory assumes; therefore, television cannot be responsible for cultivating the same sense of reality for all viewers.[71] When considering different programs that are on television, it makes sense that scholars would criticize Gerbner's lack of categories. For example, Saturday morning cartoon "play" violence is in combination with a murder on Law and Order. This does not seem to logically fuse together. Morgan and Shanahan understand this dispute, but they contend "that people (especially heavy viewers) do not watch isolated genres only, and that any 'impact' of individual program types should be considered in the context of the overall viewing experience".[8] A study by Karyn Riddle attempts to address this critique, however, by combining heuristic processing models with cultivation theory to examine how not just exposure to violence in television, but also how vividly it is portrayed impacts cultivation effects. She found that there was an interaction effect for portrayals which were vivid and viewed frequently. In this case, real world beliefs were significantly affected.[72]

Humanist critique[edit]

Cultivation analysis has also been criticized by humanists for examining such a large cultural question. Because the theory discusses cultural effects, many humanists feel offended, thinking that their field has been misinterpreted. Horace Newcomb (1978) writes "More than any other research effort in the area of television studies the work of Gerbner and Gross and their associates sits squarely at the juncture of the social sciences and the humanities."[71]:265

The theory has also received criticism for ignoring other issues such as the perceived realism of the televised content, which could be essential in explaining people's understanding of reality.[73] Wilson, Martins, & Markse (2005) argue that attention to television might be more important to cultivating perceptions than only the amount of television viewing.[74] In addition, C. R. Berger (2005) writes that because the theory ignores cognitive processes, such as attention or rational thinking style, it is less useful than desired.[75]

Perceived reality[edit]

The correlation between cultivation effects and perceived reality have been criticized due to the inconsistent findings from various research conducted on the subject. Hawkins and Pingree (1980) found that participants that reported a lower perceived reality scoring actually showed a stronger cultivation impact. Potter (1986) found that, "different dimensions and levels of perceived reality were associated with different magnitudes of cultivation effects". Additionally, a study conducted by Shrum, Wyer and O'Guinn (1994) showed a zero percentage correlation between perceived reality and cultivation effects.


Cultivation analysis has been criticized that its claims are not always useful in explaining the phenomenon of interest: how people see the world. Some also argue that violence is not presented as uniformly on television as the theory assumes, so television cannot be reliably responsible for cultivating the same sense of reality for all viewers. In addition, cultivation analysis is criticized for ignoring other issues such as the perceived realism of the televised content, which might be critical in explaining people's understanding of reality. Attention to television might be more important to cultivating perceptions than simply the amount of television viewing, so the fact that the cultivation analysis theory seems to ignore cognition such as attention or rational thinking style deems it to be less useful.[4]

See also[edit]


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