George Gerbner Cultivation Theory Explained


The George Gerbner cultivation theory looks to see what the outcome of television is on humanity from a long-term perspective. Its proposition is that as people spend more time watching characters and identifying with social situations that occur in their favorite shows, they will attempt to believe that social realities must be aligned to create similar circumstances.

Because the perceptions a person may have are influenced by the messages and images that are being received, it becomes possible to change the way a person thinks about the world, including their core beliefs.

How Can Television Have Such a Profound Influence on People?

In the United States, the invention of the television changed society. Shows, events, and other types of broadcasts became central to the overall culture in a way that was unprecedented. The general population suddenly had access to a mass form of communication that could bring diverse communities of people together.

No matter what a person’s socioeconomic background, ethnicity, or viewing preference, the ability to watch TV unites people. That uniting effect helps people to socialize and it standardizes their behaviors and perceived roles.

It is such a power effect, in fact, that Gerbner compared the power of television to the poer of religion. With heavier consumption of either, the faithful find a uniting force.

And if something can unite people, it will also divide them from those who see that force in a different light.

The Three Fundamental Assumptions of Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory

Gerbner created the cultivation theory based on three core assumptions.

1. Television is a different form of mass media.
People can obtain information from newspapers, magazines, and other forms of distribution. The difference between them and television is that there is no need to be literate to obtain information from a television broadcast. And, because TV is free with broadcast signals, all a person needs to do to participate in society is purchase a television or obtain a digital converter box for an older TV.

2. Television shapes how people think.
The reality that is portrayed on television becomes a reality that individuals wish to create in their lives. It isn’t about a specific attitude or an opinion. It is more about the basic assumptions of life and how those assumptions are judged that people seek out. When a person watches TV for 7+ hours per day, it creates a system of stories that become a centralized part of that person’s life.

3. Television offers a limited effect.
Television doesn’t create massive socioeconomic changes to a society. What it does provide is a small change in the way people see and think about each other. Small changes can make a crucial difference in relationships because of how that relationship is perceived.

A popular talking point regarding the use of television in homes is that “Hollywood” is trying to influence future generations in some way. Gerbner doesn’t look at television as causing a specific behavior simply through watching. A person doesn’t choose to be violent because they’ve watched an action movie.

The cultivation theory suggests that watching TV, over time, provides an influence as to how we perceive the world.

What Is the Difference Between Choice and Perception?

Imagine a person only watches horror movies for a week. After that week is over, Gerbner isn’t suggesting that the person will then decide to become a secret serial killer that forces people to solve puzzles in the hopes of changing their lives. What he does suggest is that consistent exposure to that medium can alter the person’s perspective of how they see the world.

That person may see a stranger on the street and wonder, “I wonder if they’re the ones who might want to kidnap me.”

It is thought that could precipitate action, but often stays as just a thought.

Choices occur because of a conscious decision to pursue a specific goal. Perceptions occur because of the influences that are present in our environment. A parent can change perceptions because of their religious views, never coming home after work, or any number of behaviors. The child still has a choice to follow that religion, love the parent anyway, or pursue their own dreams.

Gerbner found that with heavier exposure, higher levels of cultivation occur to change the perceptions that people would have in their social realities. Although we watch TV, it is an interactive medium, offering visual and auditory cues, and that can change the attitudes we have with consistent exposure.

To get a dose of the real world, the cultivation theory suggests that we reduce time in front of the television. Otherwise, what is seen might not actually be reality.