George Gerbner Cultivation Analysis Theory Explained


Humans are like sponges – or at least that’s the idea behind the cultivation analysis theory. This theory, offered originally by George Gerbner, suggests that exposure to television programming will begin to cultivate a viewer’s perception of reality. This is because TV is a method of socialization that many people use to understand their roles in society and what behaviors are associated with those roles.

In essence, the television is a tool for enculturation.

Gerbner doesn’t suggest that sitting down to watch one TV program is going to create rapid change within an individual. Cultivation analysis theory is a long-term effect that is caused by television (or other similar devices or entertainment options). As people “live” in their preferred television worlds, they begin to believe the social realities that are portrayed and begin to adopt the role they see for themselves in that world.

The Three Entities of the Cultivation Analysis Theory

In order to achieve enculturation, Gerbner suggests that there are three specific entities that help to cultivate the roles that people see for themselves through long-term exposure to their TV worlds.

1. Institutions. These are the entities that create the TV worlds in the first place. They are the individuals, groups, and organizations that are responsible for developing, creating, and airing the programming that eventually has an enculturation effect.

2. Messages. Each TV world offers individual viewers a specific message. These messages are then interpreted on a personal level. If the world being presented is dystopian in nature, for example, then the message may be one of self-survival. It may tell another that there is no hope. Someone else may be inspired to become a doomsday prepper.

3. Publics. This entity helps to spread the messages that are being interpreted by individuals who picture themselves living in a TV world. It isn’t so much a holographic view of the universe, but it does help to create reality from observed fiction. If someone sees the world as a violent place through the news, then they believe it is a violent place even if the facts may show otherwise.

The cultivation analysis theory was initially part of a singular study that was authorized by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The issue of violence has always been part of US culture and Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to know if the effects of television audience was a contributory effect.

There is little doubt that the initial commissioning of the study was a result of the JFK assassination which propelled Johnson into office.

The cultivation analysis theory, proposed in 1976, is the summary of several large-scale research projects that spun off of the original research that had been commissioned. In order for the theory to apply, however, there are core assumptions that must be made about television as a mass communication device.

What Are the 3 Assumptions of Cultivation Analysis Theory?

Cultivation analysis theory is built upon three foundational assumptions.

  1. Television is different on a fundamental level from any other form of mass media.
  2. Television shapes how individuals think and relate to each other within society.
  3. Television has a limited effect.

The first assumption looks at how the auditory and visual components of TV is different from other entertainment options. Offered at a time before online videos, computer streaming, and video games were similar in nature, it assumes that it can influence people without a requirement for literacy. TV is also influential because it if essentially free once a television has been purchased.

The argument is that education and religion do not have the same influence because it offers a shared image and message throughout a culture and even throughout history. By creating mass-produced messages, it can create mass-produced results on an individual level so that everyone, no matter how much literacy or intelligence they have, can be influenced by it.

This influence then creates speculations, which eventually become a reality for TV viewers. According to Gerbner, consciousness is not cultivated through opinions or specific attitudes, but by basic assumptions about the facts of life. It can alter the standards of judgment that people use to reach their conclusions.

It has the effect because of how much television the average person tends to watch on a daily basis. When Gerbner proposed the cultivation analysis theory, people were averaging 7 hours of TV watching on a daily basis. Because of this level of influence, people were seen as living their lives based on the stories being told.

It would be incorrect to say that Gerbner’s theory is a predictive factor in terms of how a person reacts after long-term exposure to television. If someone was watching violent television, the cultivation analysis theory does not predict that they will become violent. It says that those who would consistently watch violent TV would begin to fear a world that is filled with violence and this would change the decisions they make when it comes time to interact with reality.

What Can Change the Influence of TV on Individuals?

The unique aspect of Gerbner’s cultivation analysis theory is that TV has a limited influence. If someone were to stop watching TV or change the types of programming that are being consumed, then the effects caused by their watching habits would also change. Watching less TV would decrease the perceptions experience, while watching increased levels of TV could increase the effects being experienced.

In other words, people are more influenced by small and steady pervasive influences that are offered through mass communication instead of having a massive one-time dose of information.

This means that watching television isn’t going to cause a specific behavior to occur. Watching violent TV is not going to create violent people. What it does is accumulate influences over time so that an individual’s perception of the world begins to change.

To defend this observation, Gerbner created a survey that categorized individuals based on the amount of television that they watched. He placed people into three general categories based on their responses.

  • Those who watched TV for 2 hours or less every day.
  • Those who watched TV for 2-4 hours each day.
  • Those who watched TV for more than 4 hours per day.

Gerbner discovered that those who watched TV the most had opinions and believed that were similar to what was portrayed on TV compared to the real world. People who watched TV for more than 4 hours per day would typically experience depression, loneliness, and shyness had higher rates than the other two groups.

This is what lead to Gerbner’s conclusions about TV and violence. By watching content that shows the world is a dangerous place, it leads people to believe the world is more dangerous than it really might be.

What Does the Cultivation Analysis Theory Mean for Us Today?

Gerber discovered through his surveys that when people view TV on a heavy basis, they have a greater fear of victimization. Certain factors, including local news broadcasts, help to influence this perception. People who watched TV for more than 4 hours per day felt that their odds of becoming a victim of a violent crime were about 1 in 100.

At the time, actual crime statistics showed that the chances were closer to 1 in 10,000.

Because auditory and video media is available in multiple formats today, the screen time exposure rates are much higher. People can watch news snippets, videos, and full broadcasts with a cellular data or internet connection. Just like TV in the past, the barriers to entry for these mass communication tools are low.

Once someone can get onto the internet, they can access many of these media options that are similar to TV for free. This creates a level of social isolation, even though people “feel” connected through platforms like social media, and in turn, this creates a general mistrust for the world.

Gerbner found that people who watch the most TV are the most likely to want to stay out of world affairs. They believe that most people are just looking out for themselves and that the best case scenario is to look out for themselves instead of trying to help out other people. It overrides individual differences and perspectives to form a different perception of reality.

The end result is the creation of what Gerbner and his research partners called the “Mean World Index.” With long-term exposure to TV programming, individuals create a world image that is mean and dangerous world. Heavy TV viewers are the most likely to believe that greater law enforcement protection is needed.

In today’s world, these outcomes can be seen in many of the online interactions, comments, and attitudes that people have. It could even be argued that the consumption of media content that is similar to TV had a direct contribution to the election of Donald Trump in the United States and others with similar views in other nations.

Many see the world as a mean place today. Gerbner’s cultivation analysis theory shows that maybe that perception isn’t actually reality.