What Is Cultivation Theory in Media Psychology?

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Cultivation theory was originated by communication scholar George Gerbner in 1969 to explain the way mass media and television, in particular, influences people over time. Gerbner proposed that television presents homogeneous messages about issues like crime and violence and that TV viewers—especially frequent TV viewers—eventually come to adopt a shared understanding of social reality due to the messages they absorb through television.

Cultivation theory remains a popular avenue of investigation for media psychologists and other media scholars pursuing research on how long-term media exposure influences people's worldviews.

This article discusses the history of cultivation theory, new concepts that have been introduced to the theory, and criticisms of the theory.

History of Cultivation Theory

When Gerbner developed cultivation theory in the late 1960s, it was in reaction to media effects research, which investigated the short-term impact of exposure to a single piece of media at one point in time.

Gerbner wanted to explore the long-term impact of mass media in general. He proposed that television was the dominant storytelling system through which messages were transmitted to the public and that these messages result "in the cultivation of the collective consciousness about elements of existence."

Gerbner wasn't concerned with specific TV shows or individual viewers' interpretations of TV messages, but the broad patterns of TV messages and how they promote common, but incorrect, perceptions of society.

While the content of various TV programs may seem quite different at first glance, Gerbner argued that they offer similar depictions of social reality.

Content analyses of TV have shown that there are consistent differences between the real world and the TV world. For example, the TV world is a more violent place than the real world, shows a disproportionate number of people employed as lawyers, doctors, and police officers, and overrepresents wealth and affluence.

Cultivation theory holds that the consistency of these messages influences the public's shared understanding of the real world.

Since it was initially proposed, cultivation theory has become one of the most cited theories in research on media, a trend that seems bound to continue for the foreseeable future. One reason for the continued interest is that, although television is no longer limited to a few channels like it was when Gerbner originally proposed cultivation theory, watching television remains hugely popular with media consumers.

In 2020, Americans spent an average of 3.1 hours a day with TV—including live TV, DVDs, and streaming—making it the most popular leisure activity amongst Americans of all ages.

In addition, although there are more choices of programs to watch, TV is controlled by a small number of companies that need to make a profit. As Gerbner pointed out in 1998, because these companies tend to produce shows for a global audience, it diminishes the diversity of their messages.

Additions to Cultivation Theory

As interest in cultivation theory took off, Gerbner and his colleagues introduced new concepts that gave additional context to its explanation of media influence. In particular, they contributed the ideas of mainstreaming and resonance.

  • Mainstreaming suggests that heavy TV viewers who come from vastly different demographic groups will come to share the same beliefs about social reality. That is, while people of various ages, genders, social classes, and races often have different views of the world, frequent TV viewers from these groups will come to share perspectives that are reflective of the TV messages they consume.
  • Resonance proposes that when a media message lines up with an individual's life experience it will enhance the impact of the message. For instance, an individual who has direct experience with a violent crime will find TV's messages about the prevalence of crime especially resonant, boosting the cultivation of the belief that the world is an especially violent place. Studies by both Gerbner and other researchers have found evidence for this effect.

Evidence for Cultivation Theory

There is a great deal of evidence for cultivation theory's suggestion that the common messages promoted by TV distort people's perceptions of social reality.

Numerous studies have shown that this leads frequent TV viewers' to overestimate things like rates of crime and violence, the risks posed by natural disasters, the number of people employed as police officers and lawyers, and the prevalence of affluence.

This tendency of heavy TV viewers to form incorrect beliefs about the real world is called "first-order cultivation effects."

While there is a great deal of research support for first-order effects, there is less evidence for second-order cultivation effects, which happen when the messages taken in through TV alter people's values and attitudes about the world.

Nonetheless, there is some support for second-order effects. In particular, studies have indicated that in contrast to light TV viewers heavy TV viewers are likely to believe that most people can't be trusted and that they are at greater risk of falling victim to crime, a perception Gerbner dubbed "Mean World Syndrome."

With so much interest in cultivation theory, cultivation research has continued to expand in new and interesting directions. In addition to studies of television, scholars have recently started to investigate the way other media such as video games, mobile apps, and social media, cultivate users' perceptions of reality.

For example, one study found a connection between greater dating app usage by gay men and the men's attitudes about their masculinity, how much they'd internalized negative attitudes about gay people, and overall body dissatisfaction. Likewise, another study found users who browse Instagram's public content held biased views about strangers' physical appearance and exhibited greater disordered eating.

Criticism of Cultivation Theory

While cultivation theory remains a popular framework for media research, it has also been criticized.

Cultivation Theory Treats Viewers as Passive Consumers

One reason some media scholars question cultivation theory is that it treats viewers as passive. Gerbner's focus was on the messages television conveys. from which he made assumptions about the way viewers respond to those messages instead of investigating viewers' actual behavior. This criticism is valid, yet the plethora of research evidence for cultivation theory indicates mass media messages influence consumers in general despite Gerbner's oversight.

Cultivation Theory Doesn't Consider How Different Genres Impact Viewers

Additionally, some scholars have taken issue with the way Gerbner looked at television as a whole without differentiating between different shows and genres. While Gerbner argued it was the general system of messages that TV communicated that was important, some recent research has used a cultivation perspective to explore the impact of heavy exposure to specific genres or even individual programs.

These studies have indicated that watching different genres has an even greater impact on perceptions of social reality than general TV consumption.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.