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Anybody who has ever watched television or films knows that both mediums are replete with violent entertainment – from cartoons and children’s programs, to horror “porn” such as the Hostel film series that “grossed” $80 million, worldwide.  If one takes in enough of the stuff they may believe it is a mean world indeed.

George Gerbner (August 8, 1919 – December 24, 2005) was dean emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and a World War II veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency). He founded the Cultural Indicators Research Project in 1968 which tracks television content (especially that of a violent nature) and how that content affects viewers’ perceptions of the world. Its database has information on more than 3,000 television programs and 35,000 characters (Associated Press, 2006). By its estimates, American children witness more than 8,000 murders and 100,000 other violent acts on television by the time they leave elementary school (Stossel, 1997). This study led to Gerbner’s formation of cultivation theory which states “the more time people spend “living” in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality portrayed on television…//… effects occur only after long-term, cumulative exposure to television” (Cohen & Weimann, 2000). This cognitive bias is known as mean world syndrome and may be comprised of up to four different recurring attitudes to include the beliefs in:

  1. Increased chances of involvement with violence
  2. Fear of walking alone at night
  3. Perceived activity of police
  4. General mistrust of people (Miller, 2013; Griffin, 2011)

In the following six minute clip provided by the Media Education Foundation Gerbner discusses how this culture of violence has come about and how it translates easily in films and television programming around the world directly stereotyping minorities. Additionally he observes that violent film sequels typically double the level of violence when compared to their predecessors.

Further, Gerbner testified to a congressional subcommittee that “Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line measures. They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television” (Associated Press, 2006).

Interested in more proof? Scott Stossel of the The Atlantic Online had the following independent studies to offer which appear to backup Gerbner’s hypothesis:

  • A 1956 study compared the behavior of twelve four-year-olds who watched a Woody Woodpecker cartoon containing many violent episodes with that of twelve other four-year-olds who watched “The Little Red Hen,” a nonviolent cartoon. The Woody watchers were much more likely than the Hen watchers to hit other children, break toys, and be generally destructive during playtime.
  • In 1981, Brandon Centerwall, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, hypothesized that the sharp increase in the murder rate in North America beginning in 1955 was the product of television viewing. Television sets had been common household appliances for about eight years by that point — enough time, he theorized, to have inculcated violent tendencies in a generation of viewers. He tested his hypothesis by studying the effects of television in South Africa, where the Afrikaaner-dominated regime had banned it until 1975. He found that twelve years after television was introduced there, murder rates skyrocketed.
  • In 1960 Leonard Eron, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, studied third-graders in Columbia County in semi-rural New York. He observed that the more violent television these eight-year-olds watched at home, the more aggressive they were in school. Eron returned to Columbia County in 1971, when the children from his sample were nineteen. He found that the boys who had watched a lot of violent television when they were eight were more likely to get in trouble with the law when older. Eron returned to Columbia County a third time in 1982, when his subjects were thirty. He discovered that those who had watched the most television violence at age eight inflicted more violent punishments on their children, were convicted of more serious crimes, and were reported more aggressive by their spouses than those who had watched less violent television. In 1993, at a conference of the National Council for Families & Television, Eron estimated that 10 percent of the violence in the United States can be attributed to television.


Associated Press. (2006, Jan 3). George Gerbner, 86, Researcher Who Studied Violence on TV, Is Dead. Retrieved Dec 9, 2012, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/03/obituaries/03gerbner.html?_r=1&

Associated Press. (2006, Jan 2). George Gerbner; Studied TV Culture. Retrieved Dec 9, 2012, from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/02/AR2006010200577.html

Cohen, J., & Weimann, G. (2000). Cultivation Revisited: Some Genres Have Some Effects on Some Viewers. Communication Reports , 99-114.

Griffin, E. (2011). A First Look At Communication Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Miller, J. (2013, July 18). Cultivation…Farming? or Media? Retrieved from Applied Social Psychology: http://www.personal.psu.edu/bfr3/blogs/asp/2013/07/cultivationfarming-or-media.html

Stossel, S. (1997, May). The Man Who Counts Killings. Retrieved Dec 9, 2012, from The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97may/gerbner.htm