Cultivation Theory: Definition and Examples

Key Takeaways

  • George Gerbner introduced cultivation theory in the 1960s as part of the Cultural Indicators Project to examine the influence of television on viewers.
  • Cultivation theory holds that long-term exposure to media shapes how the consumers of media perceive the world and conduct themselves.
  • The cultivation hypothesis states that the more television people watch, the more likely they are to hold a view of reality that is closer to television’s depiction of reality.
  • For many individuals, the distorted and partial reality portrayed on television represents what the world is “really” like.
  • Gerbner also coined the term mean world syndrome to describe the cognitive bias whereby television viewers exposed to violent content were more likely to see the world as more dangerous than it actually is.
  • In more recent times, researchers have delved into other forms of media, such as reality TV and video games, to study the effects of cultivation theory.

Cultivation theory is a communications and sociological framework which posits that long-term exposure to media shapes how the consumers of media perceive the world as well as conduct themselves in life

(Nabi & Riddle, 2008)

Cultivation theory (or cultivation analysis) was introduced in the 1960s by Hungarian-born American professor George Gerbner as a means to examine the influence of television on viewers (Gerbner, 1969). The findings of Gerbner were later expanded upon and developed by the American screenwriter Larry Gross.

This theory implies that those exposed to media interpret social realities according to how such realities are portrayed in the media.

An example of cultivation theory is television’s ability to stabilize and homogenize views within a society. Children who watch commercial TV have notably more sex-stereotypical views of women and men than children who don”t watch commercial TV.

Of particular interest during the initial stage of research was the possible impact of exposure to violence on the viewers of television programs (Settle, 2018).

Gerbner’s introduction of cultivation theory was part of the larger Cultural Indicators Project which was a research study commissioned for the National Violence Commission (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1986).

In addition to cultivation analysis, which examined how the media shaped its consumers’ perception of reality, the Cultural Indicators Project also analyzed two other related spheres (Vinney, 2020).

It engaged in institutional process analysis, which examined the formulation and the distribution of media messages, and message system analysis which explored the aggregate content of media messages.

Cultivation Theory and Television

Gerbner’s primary focus was centered on the role of television. This approach also involved several key assumptions. First, television was distinguished as a unique form of mass media (Gerbner et al., 1978).

For instance, it was simultaneously auditory and visual but did not require literacy. Furthermore, access to television was almost universal. Additionally, the engaging narrative style that television programming generally employs could readily capture the viewers’ attention.

The second assumption held that television influences society’s manner of relating and thinking (Settle, 2018). Both Gerbner and Gross, for instance, held that the consciousness cultivated by television involved the standards of judgment as well as the facts of life (Gerbner & Gross, 1972).

Gerbner further observed that television stabilized societal patterns and induced resistance to change (Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox & Signorielli, 1978).

Thirdly, Gerbner’s approach held that the effects of television were limited (Gerbner et al., 1978).

Television, herein, was identified as part of a larger sociocultural system. Therefore, the aggregation of its effects in a certain direction was considered substantially more critical than the singular effect of a certain program at a particular point in time (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1980).

Gerbner, hence, pointed out that while watching television per se might not cause a certain behavior, watching television over time could significantly influence how we perceive the world (West & Turner, 2014).

The Mean World Syndrome

During the exploration of the effects of television viewing, Gerbner (1980) also coined the term mean world syndrome to describe the cognitive bias whereby television viewers exposed especially to violent content were more likely to see the world as more dangerous than it actually is.

Because television programming significantly shaped attitudes toward and opinions of reality, regular viewers of violent content were likely to experience more fear, pessimism, increased anxiety, and greater alertness to imaginary threats.

Alternatively, those who watched little television were more likely to view the world as less dangerous (Vinney, 2020).

Mainstreaming and Resonance

As cultivation theory gained more traction, Gerbner and his colleagues introduced the concepts of mainstreaming and resonance to further refine their theory.


Mainstreaming is the process wherein consistent exposure to the same labels and images induces television viewers from diverse backgrounds to adopt a homogenous outlook of the world (Griffin, 2012; Perse, 2005).

Therefore, traditional distinctions among groups are blurred by the emergence of a new worldview that shifts the mainstream to the interests of the sponsors of television.

Consequently, heavy television viewing can potentially override individual perspectives in favor of a melting pot of cultural and social trends (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1994).


Resonance is the similarity that television narratives may share with the everyday lives of the viewers (Gerbner, 1998).

According to Gerbner, this congruence constitutes a double dose of messages which amplify the effects of cultivation. Such amplified patterns of cultivation may significantly impact society (Griffin, 2012).

For instance, when those who have already experienced crimes see more violence on television, their perception of the world as scary is further enhanced.

This reinforcement of belief can lead them to demand more security and safety measures from governmental authorities.


Building upon the foundation of Gerbner, scholars, more recently, have ventured into other spheres to study the effects of cultivation theory.

For instance, while Gerbner was primarily focused on fictional television, these researchers have delved into other forms of media, such as reality TV and video games.

They have also explored the effects of phenomena other than violence.

For example, Dmitri Williams (2006) conducted research to ascertain whether, from the standpoint of cultivation theory, video games wield the same influence television does in shaping the perceptions of social reality.

In this field study, wherein the subjects were to play an MMORPG game, a strong correlation indicating the impact of cultivation was found.

Moreover, a research study involving music videos, wherein the musicians endorse alcohol, revealed that exposure to such music videos could create an unrealistic view of alcohol consumption (Beullens, Roe & den Bulck, 2012).

Additionally, research into the communication of hip-hop journalism to impressionable audiences revealed that adolescent fans of hip-hop celebrities were more likely to engage in violence when such celebrities recommended violent conduct (Oredein, Evans & Lewis, 2020).

Furthermore, a research study that examines the impact of social media on immigrant cultural adaptation suggests that immigrants using mainstream social media while adapting to a host culture would perceive their new environment based on the messages of such media (Croucher, 2011).

The study also implies that this cultivation effect would impact even the offline interactions between these immigrants and their host country’s natives.


A number of scholars have critiqued Gerbner’s description of cultivation theory. Some of these criticisms focus on the theoretical flaws of cultivation theory.

For instance, one argument posits that cultivation theory employs methods of the social sciences to address questions pertaining to the humanities (West & Turner, 2010).

Another argument asserts that the apparent relationship between television and the fear of violence might be misleading especially given the possibility that a third factor might be causing both phenomena (Griffin, 2012).

A third related argument questions the theory’s utility due to its ignoring of cognitive processes like rational thinking (Berger, 2005).

Additionally, it is possible that individuals’ lived experiences are more responsible for their perception of the world than is the cultivation effect.

For instance, Daniel Chandler points out that those living in high-crime regions are more likely (than those in safer areas) to stay home, watch television and become convinced that they are more likely to be victims of crime (Chandler, 2011).

Chandler reasons that this direct experience of the viewers would decrease the cultivation effect.

Chandler also notes that cultivation theory is misleading in its assumption of homogeneity in television programs (Chandler, 2011).

Horace Newcomb further adds that television could not cultivate the same perceived reality for every viewer because its presentation of violence is not uniform (Newcomb, 1978).

Moreover, Shanahan and Morgan argue that television viewers do not exclusively watch isolated genres, and consequently, the influence of a particular program type should be evaluated in the context of the aggregate viewing experience of the television watchers (Morgan & Shanahan, 2010).

In response to some criticism, attempts have been made to combine heuristic processes with cultivation theory to evaluate how the vividness of the violence on television influences the cultivation effects (Riddle, 2010).


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Beullens, K., Roe, K., & Van den Bulck, J. (2012). Music video viewing as a marker of driving after the consumption of alcohol. Substance Use & Misuse, 47 (2), 155-165.

Croucher, S. M. (2011). Social networking and cultural adaptation: A theoretical model. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 4 (4), 259-264.

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Gerbner, G. & Gross, L. (1972). “Living with television: The violence profile”. Journal of Communication. 26 (2): 173–199.x

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Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1986). Living with television: The dynamics of the cultivation process. Perspectives on Media Effects, 17-40.

Griffin, E. (2012). Communication Communication Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gerbner, G., & Morgan, M. (2010). The Mean World Syndrome: Media Violence & the Cultivation of Fear. Media Education Foundation documentary transcript [http://www. mediaed. org/transcripts/Mean-World-Syndrome-Transcript. pdf, 19, 2020.

Morgan, M., & Gerbner, G. (2002). Against the mainstream: The selected works of George Gerbner. P. Lang.

Morgan, M., & Shanahan, J. (2010). The state of cultivation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54 (2), 337-355.

Newcomb, H. (1978). Assessing the violence profile studies of Gerbner and Gross: A humanistic critique and suggestion. Communication Research, 5 (3), 264-282.

Oredein, T., Evans, K., & Lewis, M. J. (2020). Violent trends in hip-hop entertainment journalism. Journal of Black studies, 51 (3), 228-250.

Riddle, K. (2010). Always on my mind: Exploring how frequent, recent, and vivid television portrayals are used in the formation of social reality judgments. Media Psychology, 13 (2), 155-179.

Settle, Q. (2018). Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application. Journal of Applied Communications, 102 (3), 1d-1d.

West, R. & Turner, L. H. (2010). Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application (Fourth ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

West, Richard; Turner, Lynn (2014). Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education. pp. 420–436.

Williams, D. (2006). Virtual cultivation: Online worlds, offline perceptions. Journal of communication, 56 (1), 69-87.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Ayesh Perera


B.A, MTS, Harvard University

Ayesh Perera has worked as a researcher of psychology and neuroscience for Dr. Kevin Majeres at Harvard Medical School.