Cultivation theory is a sociological and communications theory that examines the ways exposure to media (primarily television) affects individuals and society.
According to the theory, people who are regularly exposed to media for long periods are more likely to perceive the world as it is presented by the media they consume. This means that lasting exposure to media affects the attitudes and behaviors of people (Nabi & Riddle, 2008).
Cultivation theory originated from the work of George Gerbner in the 1960s and 1970s. He formulated a paradigm for mass communication that included three types of analysis (MacGeorge, 2016). One of these was the cultivation analysis, defined as the longitudinal surveys of people’s opinions on certain subjects alongside their levels of media reception.
Cultivation Theory Definition
Cultivation theory is a social scientific theory that explains the long-term effects of media on people who are exposed to it for long periods.
It posits that the messages and themes that are repeated on television or other forms of media shape people’s attitudes and beliefs about the world around them, even if they are aware that the messages are not entirely true or representative of reality.
For example, people who watch a lot of crime dramas may come to believe that the world is a more dangerous place than it is, even if they know that the shows are fictional. To counteract this, there is a need for greater media literacy.
Media as Positive and Negative
The theory suggests that the effects of media consumption on individuals and society can be both positive and negative.
On the one hand, television can provide educational and informative programming that can broaden people’s understanding of the world and expose them to new ideas and perspectives.
On the other hand, television can also present unrealistic or distorted portrayals of reality, which can shape people’s attitudes and beliefs in harmful ways.
Aims of the Theory
The primary aim of cultivation theory is to understand the ways long-term exposure to different types of media changes the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of media consumers.
The main thesis of cultivation theory is that the more media people consume (the more time people spend watching television, for example), the more their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors change (Gerbner, 1987; Morgan & Shanahan, 2010). This shows that television is a powerful medium that can shape people’s perceptions of reality, especially when they’re exposed to it for long periods.
According to cultivation theory, the more time a person spends consuming media, the more likely they are to believe and accept the messages presented in that media as reality. This can include messages about what constitutes acceptable or desirable behavior, including social norms and altruistic behavior.
For example, if a person consumes media that frequently portrays acts of kindness and compassion as important and valued, they may be more likely to emulate altruistic behavior.
Conversely, if a person consumes media that portrays selfish or self-centered behavior as normal or even desirable, they may be more likely to adopt those attitudes and behaviors.
There was one important study conducted to study the effects of disaster-related media on altruistic behavior (Shah et al., 2020). The researchers found that exposure to disaster-related news contributed to their fear of victimization. This, in turn, motivates people to be more altruistic.
2. Moral Panic
If a person consumes media that frequently portrays crime as a pervasive problem, they may be more likely to believe that crime is a significant threat in their community.
This, in turn, could lead to a greater fear of crime and a belief that crime is a more significant problem or is more common than it is.
We call this sensationalized and over-blown fear of crime “moral panic“, and we can see it in examples from films like Footloose as well as Cohen’s academic study into punks and rockers in the 1960s in England.
If a person consumes media that frequently portrays certain gender roles and expectations as normal or desirable, they may be more likely to adopt those attitudes and behaviors themselves.
For example, if a person consumes media that portrays men as strong, independent, and dominant, they may be more likely to believe that these traits are desirable in men.
Similarly, if a person consumes media that portrays women as passive, dependent, or submissive, they may be more likely to believe that these traits are desirable in women.
Heavy viewers watch television for at least four hours every day (Griffin, 2012).
People like this are consistently characterized in scholarly literature as more susceptible to images and messages. They rely on television to cultivate their perceptions of the real world (Morgan et al., 2012).
Magic bullet theory, also known as the hypodermic needle theory or the transmission belt theory, is a sociological theory that suggests that media has a direct, powerful, and immediate effect on its audience (Berger, 1995).
While both theories (magic bullet theory and cultivation theory) recognize the influence of media on its audience, they differ in their understanding of the nature and extent of that influence.
Magic bullet theory suggests that media has a powerful and immediate influence on its audience, while cultivation theory suggests that media has a more subtle and gradual influence over time.
According to cultivation theory, the effects of new media consumption on individuals may include shaping attitudes and beliefs, influencing behaviors, and changing or creating social norms.
Cultivation theory is considered relevant in the context of new media by many scholars because new media still uses narratives (Morgan et al., 2015).
If a person consumes media that frequently presents certain political viewpoints or candidates as normal or desirable, they may be more likely to adopt those attitudes and beliefs themselves.
For example, if a person consumes media that portrays a particular political party or candidate in a positive light, they may be more likely to support that party or candidate. We can see this, for example, as a feature of group polarization that occurs when people only watch Fox News or MSNBC.
Similarly, if a person consumes media that portrays a particular political party or candidate in a negative light, they may be less likely to support that party or candidate. This applies to all aspects of political media consumption.
For example, one study found that positive portrayals of the criminal justice system were associated with viewers’ more positive view of the system in real life, whereas negative television portrayals were associated with viewers’ feeling that the criminal justice system often works unfairly (Mutz & Nir, 2010).
If a person consumes media that frequently portrays certain sports or athletes as important, popular, or desirable, they may be more likely to adopt those attitudes and beliefs themselves.
For example, if a person consumes media that portrays a particular sport or athlete in a positive light, they may be more likely to support that sport or athlete.
One study found that the level of agreement with sports-related values, such as being physically fit or athletic, positively correlates with sports-related media consumption (Lin & Atkin, 2007, p. 324).
Teens and children may be particularly susceptible to the influence of media because they are still in the process of developing their beliefs, values, and behaviors.
They may be more likely to accept the messages presented in the media as reality and to adopt those attitudes and behaviors as their own.
Long-term exposure to television, as in the case of heavy viewers, creates what researchers call “television reality.”
Research indicates that heavy viewing creates a worldview that is disproportionately shaped by television (DeMars, 2000, p. 36).
This can affect children’s, adolscents’ and even adults’ self-belief and self-confidence. In order to counteract this, there is a need to teach greater media litearcy skills in order for people to be able to discern how media gatekeepers attempt to manipulate and influence viewers’ perspectives.
Cultivation theory is a sociological theory that explains the long-term effects of television or other types of media on individuals and society. The theory suggests that the more time a person spends watching television, the more likely they are to believe and accept the messages presented on television as reality.
According to cultivation theory, these messages shape a person’s attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors over time (Gerbner, 1987; Morgan & Shanahan, 2010). For example, if a person watches a lot of television that portrays a certain lifestyle or way of living as desirable or normal, they may be more likely to try to emulate that lifestyle or adopt those values.
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DeMars, T. R. (2000). Modeling Behavior from Images of Reality in Television Narratives: Myth-information and Socialization. Edwin Mellen Press.
Gerbner, G. (1987). SCIENCE ON TELEVISION: How It Affects Public Conceptions. Issues in Science and Technology, 3(3), 109–115.
Griffin, E. (2012). A first look at communication theory (8th ed). McGraw-Hill.
Lin, C. A., & Atkin, D. J. (2007). Communication Technology and Social Change: Theory and Implications. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
MacGeorge, E. L. (2016). Contemporary Communication Theory. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.
Morgan, M., & Shanahan, J. (2010). The State of Cultivation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54(2), 337–355. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151003735018
Morgan, M., Shanahan, J., & Signorielli, N. (2012). Living with Television Now: Advances in Cultivation Theory & Research. Peter Lang.
Morgan, M., Shanahan, J., & Signorielli, N. (2015). Yesterday’s New Cultivation, Tomorrow. Mass Communication and Society, 18(5), 674–699. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2015.1072725
Mutz, D. C., & Nir, L. (2010). Not Necessarily the News: Does Fictional Television Influence Real-World Policy Preferences? Mass Communication and Society, 13(2), 196–217. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205430902813856
Nabi, R. L., & Riddle, K. (2008). Personality Traits, Television Viewing, and the Cultivation Effect. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52(3), 327–348. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838150802205181
Shah, Z., Chu, J., Ghani, U., Qaisar, S., & Hassan, Z. (2020). Media and altruistic behaviors: The mediating role of fear of victimization in cultivation theory perspective. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 42, 101336. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2019.101336