What Is Cultivation Theory? Definition and Examples

Child From Behind Watching Violent Cartoon on Television
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Cultivation theory proposes that repeated exposure to media over time influences perceptions of social reality. Originated by George Gerbner in the 1960s, this theory is most frequently applied to television viewing and suggests that frequent television viewers’ perceptions of the real world become reflective of the most common messages advanced by fictional television.

Key Takeaways: Cultivation Theory

  • Cultivation theory suggests that repeated exposure to media influences beliefs about the real world over time.
  • George Gerbner originated cultivation theory in the 1960s as part of a larger cultural indicators project.
  • Cultivation theory has mostly been utilized in the study of television, but newer research has focused on other media as well.

Cultivation Theory Definition and Origins

When George Gerbner first proposed the idea of cultivation theory in 1969, it was in response to the tradition of media effects research, which was focused only on the short-term effects of media exposure that could be found in a lab experiment. As a result, effects research ignored the influence of long-term exposure to media. Such influence would happen gradually as people encounter media repeatedly over the course of their everyday lives.

Gerbner proposed that over time, repeated exposure to media cultivated the belief that the messages conveyed by the media apply to the real world. As people’s perceptions are shaped by media exposure, their beliefs, values, and attitudes are shaped as well.

When Gerbner originally conceived of cultivation theory, it was part of a broader “cultural indicators” project. The project pointed to three areas of analysis: institutional process analysis, which explored how media messages are formulated and distributed; message system analysis, which explored what those messages conveyed as a whole; and cultivation analysis, which explored how media messages impact the way the consumers of media messages perceive the real world. While all three components are linked, it is cultivation analysis that was and continues to be most widely researched by scholars.

Gerbner’s studies were specifically dedicated to television’s impact on viewers. Gerbner believed that television was the dominant storytelling media in society. His focus on television rose out of several assumptions about the medium. Gerbner saw television as a resource for the most broadly shared messages and information in history. Even as channel options and delivery systems expanded, Gerbner insisted that the contents of television concentrated into a consistent set of messages. He proposed that television restricts choice because, as a mass medium, television must appeal to large, diverse audiences. Thus, even as choices of programming proliferate, the pattern of messages remains the same. As a result, television will most likely cultivate similar perceptions of reality for very different people.

As his assumptions about television indicate, Gerbner wasn’t interested in the impact of any one message or individual viewers’ perceptions of those messages. He wanted to understand how the broad pattern of television messages impact public knowledge and influence collective perceptions.

Mean World Syndrome

Gerbner’s original focus was on the influence of television violence on viewers. Media effects researchers often study the ways media violence impact aggressive behavior, but Gerbner and his colleagues had a different concern. They suggested that people who viewed a great deal of television became fearful of the world, believing that crime and victimization were rampant.

Research showed that lighter television viewers were more trusting and saw the world as less selfish and dangerous than heavy television viewers. This phenomenon is called the “mean world syndrome.”

Mainstreaming and Resonance

As cultivation theory became more established, Gerbner and his colleagues refined it to better explain the influence of media by adding the ideas of mainstreaming and resonance in the 1970s. Mainstreaming happens when heavy television viewers who would otherwise hold very different views develop a homogenous view of the world. In other words, the attitudes of these divergent viewers all share a common, mainstream perspective that they cultivated through frequent exposure to the same television messages.

Meanwhile, resonance occurs when a media message is especially noteworthy to an individual because it somehow coincides with a viewers’ lived experience. This provides a double dose of the message conveyed on television. For example, television messages about violence are likely to be especially resonant to an individual who lives in a city with a high-crime rate. Between the television message and the real-life crime rate, cultivation effects will be amplified, enhancing the belief that the world is a mean and scary place.

Research

While Gerbner focused his research on fictional television, more recently, scholars have expanded cultivation research into additional media, including video games, and different forms of television, like reality TV. In addition, the topics explored in cultivation research continue to expand. Studies have included the impact of media on perceptions of family, sex roles, sexuality, aging, mental health, the environment, science, minorities, and numerous other areas.

For example, one recent study explored the way heavy viewers of the reality TV shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom perceive teenage parenthood. The researchers discovered that despite the shows’ creators belief that the programs would help prevent teen pregnancy, heavy viewers' perceptions were very different. Heavy viewers of these shows believed that teenage mothers had “an enviable quality of life, a high income, and involved fathers.”

Another study found that television cultivates materialism and, as a result, people who watch more TV are less concerned about the environment. Meanwhile, a third study found that general television viewing cultivated skepticism about science. However, because science is also sometimes portrayed as a cure-all on television, a competing perception of science as promising was also cultivated.

These studies are just the tip of the iceberg. Cultivation continues to be a widely studied area for mass communication and media psychology researchers. 

Critiques

Despite the ongoing popularity of cultivation theory among researchers and the research evidence supporting the theory, cultivation has been criticized for several reasons. For instance, some media scholars take issue with cultivation because it treats media consumers as fundamentally passive. By focusing on the patterns of media messages instead of individual responses to those messages, cultivation ignores actual behavior.

In addition, the cultivation research by Gerbner and his colleagues is criticized for looking at television in aggregate without any concern about differences between various genres or shows. This singular focus came from cultivation's concern with the pattern of messages across television and not the individual messages of specific genres or shows. Nonetheless, recently some scholars have investigated the way specific genres influence heavy viewers.

Sources

  • Gerbner, George. “Cultivation Analysis: An Overview.” Mass Communication & Society, vol. 1, no. 3-4, 1998, pp. 175-194. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205436.1998.9677855
  • Gerbner, George. “Toward ‘Cultural Indicators’: The Analysis of Mass Mediated Public Message Systems." AV Communication Review, vol. 17, no. 2,1969, pp. 137-148. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02769102
  • Gerbner, George, Larry Gross, Michael Morgan, and Nancy Signorielli. “The ‘Mainstreaming’ of America: Violence Profile No. 11.” Journal of Communication, vol. 30, no. 3, 1980, pp. 10-29. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1980.tb01987.x
  • Giles, David. Psychology of the Media. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Good, Jennifer. “Shop ‘til We Drop? Television, Materialism and Attitudes About the Natural Environment.” Mass Communication & Society, vol. 10, no. 3, 2007, pp. 365-383. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205430701407165
  • Martins, Nicole and Robin E. Jensen. “The Relationship Between ‘Teen Mom’ Reality Programming and Teenagers’ Beliefs About Teen Parenthood.” Mass Communication & Society, vol. 17, no. 6, 2014, pp. 830-852. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2013.851701
  • Morgan, Michael and James Shanahan. “The State of Cultivation.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 54, no. 2, 2010, pp. 337-355. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151003735018
  • Nisbet, Matthew C., Dietram A. Scheufele, James Shanahan, Patricia Moy, Dominique Brossard, and Bruce V. Lewenstein. “Knowledge, Reservations, or Promise? A Media Effects Model for Public Perceptions of Science and Technology.” Communication Research, vol. 29, no. 5, 2002, pp. 584-608. https://doi.org/10.1177/009365002236196
  • Potter, W. James. Media Effects. Sage, 2012.
  • Shrum, L. J. “Cultivation Theory: Effects and Underlying Processes.” The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects, edited by Patrick Rossler, Cynthia A. Hoffner, and Liesbet van Zoonen. John Wiley & Sons, 2017, pp. 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118783764.wbieme0040