Cultivation Theory and Media Effects

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Cultivation analysis is the third part of a research strategy designed to examine the role of the media in society (see Gerbner, 1973). The first component, "institutional process analysis," investigates how media messages are produced, managed, and distributed. The second component, "message system analysis," examines images in media content. The third component, "cultivation analysis," studies how exposure to the world of television contributes to conceptions that viewers have about the real world. In its simplest form, cultivation analysis tries to ascertain if those who watch more television, compared to those who watch less but are otherwise comparable, are more likely to perceive the real world in ways that reflect the most common and repetitive messages and lessons provided by television programs.

Cultivation theory is not concerned with the "effect" of particular programs or with artistic quality. Rather, it looks at television as the nation's storyteller, telling most of the stories to most of the people most of the time. While these stories present broad, underlying, global assumptions about the "facts" of life rather than specific attitudes and opinions, they are also market-and advertiser-driven. Television's stories provide a "dominant" or mainstream set of cultural beliefs, values, and practices. Heavy viewing may thus override differences in perspectives and behavior that ordinarily stem from other factors and influences. In other words, viewers with varied cultural, social, and political characteristics should give different answers to questions about values, beliefs, and practices. These differences, however, are diminished or even absent from the responses of those who watch a large amount of television, while they exist for viewers who watch small amounts of television. Thus, television cultivates common perspectives; it fosters similar views and perspectives among those who, on the surface, should be very different.

The methods and assumptions behind cultivation analysis are different from those traditionally employed in mass communication research. Cultivation analysis begins with identifying and assessing the consistent images, portrayals, and values that cut across most programs, either by conducting a content (message system) analysis or by examining existing content studies. These findings are then used to formulate questions about people's conceptions of social reality. The questions juxtapose answers reflecting the television world with those that are more in line with reality. Questionnaires also measure television viewing, typically by asking how much time the respondent watches television on an "average day," and assess demographic variables such as age, gender, race, education, occupation, social class, and political orientation.

The cultivation questions posed to respondents do not mention television, and the respondents' awareness of the source of their information is seen as irrelevant. The resulting relationships, if any, between the amount of television viewing and the tendency to respond to these questions in the terms of the dominant and repetitive facts, values, and ideologies of the world of television (other things held constant) illuminate television's contribution to viewers' conceptions of social reality.

For example, one of the most examined features of television is gender-role stereotyping. Study after study has found that women are under-represented and that most television characters are gender-typed (Signorielli, 1985; Signorielli and Bacue, 1999). Two cultivation analyses focusing on gender roles examined children's responses to questions that dealt with gender-role attitudes and behaviors (Morgan, 1987; Signorielli and Lears, 1992b). The questions that were related to gender-role attitudes asked if certain chores (i.e., wash or dry the dishes, mow the lawn, take out the garbage, help with the cooking, clean the house, help with small repairs around the house, and make the bed) should be done by boys only, girls only, or either girls or boys. Responses to these questions were analyzed to indicate whether or not they reflected traditional gender-role divisions of labor. The children's gender-role behaviors were also determined by asking which of these seven chores they did. In these studies, the "television answer" was the response that only girls should do "girl chores" (i.e., wash or dry the dishes, help with the cooking, clean the house, and make the bed) and that only boys should do "boy chores" (i.e., mow the lawn, take out the garbage, and help with small repairs around the house). With regard to the children's own behaviors, the "television answer" was indicating that they did those chores that were consistent with their gender. These studies found that those who watched more television typically gave more gender-stereotyped views about which chores should be done by boys and which should be done by girls.

The most well-known area of cultivation analysis has focused on the manifestation of television violence through the "mean-world syndrome" (see Signorielli, 1990). These questions (with the television answers in italics) included the following:

  1. Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful, or that they are mostly just looking out for themselves?
  2. Do you think that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance, or would they try to be fair?
  3. Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you cannot be too careful in dealing with people?

Again, the results of these studies indicate that those who spend more time watching television's mean and dangerous world tend to have conceptions that the world in which they live is a mean and dangerous place.

Cultivation analyses have also examined relationships between viewing and the conceptions that people have about aging (i.e., those who watch more television tend to underestimate and undervalue the elderly population of society), occupations (i.e., those who watch more television want high-status and well-paying jobs but do not want to work very hard), and nutrition (i.e., those who watch more television tend to eat less healthy food) (e.g., Gerbner et al., 1980; Signorielli, 1993; Signorielli and Lears, 1992a).

As in most studies of media effects, the observable empirical evidence of cultivation tends to be modest in terms of its absolute size. In most national surveys a trivial, and demographically diverse, number of respondents (about 4% or less) say they do not watch television. Consequently, there are no real control groups. Even "light" viewers watch some television and live in the same cultural environment as "heavy" viewers. But, if one argues that the messages are stable, that the medium is virtually ubiquitous, and that it is accumulated exposure that counts, then it seems reasonable that almost everyone should be affected, regardless of how much television they watch. This means that the cards are stacked against finding evidence of cultivation. Therefore, the discovery of a systematic pattern of small but pervasive differences between light and heavy viewers may indicate far-reaching consequences. Indeed, in study after study, the evidence continues to mount as to the viability of cultivation theory in explaining the cumulative, long-term effects of watching television.

In summary, cultivation theory is an attempt to understand and explain the dynamics of television as a distinctive feature of the modern age. Cultivation analysis concentrates on the enduring and common consequences of growing up and living with television: the cultivation of stable, resistant, and widely shared assumptions, images, and conceptions that reflect the underlying dimensions, institutional characteristics, and interests of the medium itself. Cultivation analysis examines television as the common symbolic environment— the true "melting pot" of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

See also:Elderly and the Media; Fear and the Media; Gender and the Media; Nutrition and Media Effects; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


Gerbner, George. (1973). "Cultural Indicators: The Third Voice." In Communications, Technology and Social Policy, eds. George Gerbner, Larry P. Gross, and William. H. Melody. New York: Wiley.

Gerbner, George; Gross, Larry P.; Morgan, Michael; and Signorielli, Nancy. (1981). "Health and Medicine on Television." New England Journal of Medicine 305:901-904.

Gerbner, George; Gross, Larry P.; Morgan, Michael; and Signorielli, Nancy. (1994). "Growing Up with Television: The Cultivation Perspective." In Media Effects, eds. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gerbner, George; Gross, Larry P.; Signorielli, Nancy.; and Morgan, Michael. (1980). "Aging with Television: Images on Television Drama and Conceptions of Social Reality." Journal of Communication 30(1):37-47.

Morgan, Michael. (1987). "Television, Sex Role Attitudes, and Sex Role Behavior." Journal of Early Adolescence 7(3):269-282.

Signorielli, Nancy. (1985). Role Portrayals and Stereotyping on Television: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Signorielli, Nancy. (1990). "Television's Mean and Dangerous World: A Continuation of the Cultural Indicators Perspective." In Cultivation Analysis: New Directions in Media Effects Research, eds. Nancy Signorielli and Michael Morgan. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Signorielli, Nancy. (1991). "Adolescents and Ambivalence toward Marriage. A Cultivation Analysis." Youth & Society 23(1):121-149.

Signorielli, Nancy. (1993). "Television and Adolescents'Perceptions about Work." Youth & Society 24(3): 314-341.

Signorielli, Nancy, and Bacue, Aaron. (1999). "Recognition and Respect: A Content Analysis of Prime-Time Television Characters Across Three Decades." Sex Roles 40(7/8):527-544.

Signorielli, Nancy, and Lears, Margaret E. (1992a). "Television and Children's Conceptions of Nutrition: Unhealthy Messages." Health Communication 4(4):245-257.

Signorielli, Nancy, and Lears, Margaret E. (1992b). "Children, Television and Conceptions about Chores: Attitudes and Behaviors." Sex Roles 27(3/4):157-172.

Nancy Signorielli