What Is the Cultivation Theory?

Cultivation theory says that consistent television watching over time will distort the viewer's conception of reality.
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  • Written By: D. Grey
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2014
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Cultivation theory is a concept which considers the social ramifications of the effects of consistent television watching over the long term. The word cultivation represents the idea that regular exposure to television will over time distort the viewer's conception of reality. The ideas behind the cultivation theory were initially developed by communications professor George Gerbner during his time at the University of Pennsylvania beginning in the 1960s. Gerbner was also responsible for the related concept of the mean world syndrome in which he postulates that exposure to mass media depictions of violence and other negative content cause viewers to believe that reality is more unforgiving or dangerous than it actually is. He also offered ideas on how viewers of television could recognize these negative effects for themselves and how to avoid them.

George Gerbner was born in 1919 in Budapest, Hungary where he lived until 1939 before moving to the United States. Once he arrived, he studied at the University of California in Berkley and attained a bachelor's degree in journalism. After serving in the military during World War II, Gerbner furthered his education, eventually becoming the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication located at the University of Pennsylvania. Serving at this post from 1964 to 1989, Gerbner mostly worked in the field of media research, including the cultivation theory.


Having an interest in European folklore from an early age, Gerbner openly enjoyed skilled storytelling. He concluded that television had developed into the primary source of entertainment, and subsequently, he became interested in its effects on society. During the later years of his development of cultivation theory, Gerbner became particularly interested in the effects of television on children and young people who, he asserted, were more easily persuaded. He claimed that instead of hearing stories from parents and community members, children were being entertained by for-profit companies who had a vested interest in selling products.

In order to combat the negative effects of television watching, he offered three principles on how to become what he called "media literate." The first principle is that the view should dissect television presentations, identifying the filming techniques that sway the viewer's opinion on the subject matter — such as villains wearing black hats in westerns. Second, Gerbner suggested that viewers of television become aware that television companies are businesses that profit from their audiences and employ tactics that increase their success in doing so. The final principle is that viewers should examine what outlooks or moral values the television program is displaying and to question how it impacts their world view.


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