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The Mean World Syndrome Theory Explained with Examples

Sai Kardile
Do you think that the world is a merciless, untrustworthy, and a mean place to live in? Well, you didn't arrive at this conclusion overnight. Your mind was beat out to accept this as your reality. Television is the source that led you to develop a fearful attitude about the world.
"Most of us live rather insulated lives and we don't meet too many people of other groups, of other races, other ethnic backgrounds than our own. Most of what we know about other races, other ethnic groups, we know from television. And on television we get some very peculiar type of information."
― George Gerbner
To understand what the mean world syndrome is and how it gets jibed with our perception of the world we live in, we first need to discuss cultivation theory. Cultivation theory was put forth by Professor George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
Gerbner explains television as the originator of the cultivation theory. All of his assumptions are based on people's perceptions and ideas that are developed as a result of television viewing.

Understanding the Parent Concept of Mean World Syndrome

You ask an adult if he believes in the existence of fairies, ogres, evil witches, etc., and he will be quick to repudiate them as fairy tale concepts, even when as a kid, he thought them as real or living.
Our belief or attitude is largely influenced by story telling, and this is possibly why we all have, in some point of time in our lives, believed in the existence of fairy tale characters. This is exactly what happens with television.
Television is a significant source of amusement, and the media messages that we allow ourselves to be exposed to do not necessarily paint the world in a positive light. Murder, violence, rape, torture, etc., are portrayed as everyday happenings on the television. Likewise, it also normalizes notions concerning minorities, gender roles, stereotypes, etc.

Negative Norms at Work

These portrayals form our norms, which act as our guide to the society or, at large, the world we live in. These norms that are established as a result of heavy television viewing, thus cultivate attitudes in the viewers, which are in accord with the ones presented on television, thereby affecting our perception about the everyday world.
Heavy viewers (people who spend more time watching television) are prone to think of the world as a merciless and dangerous place to live, a conclusion that followed from the cultivation theory, also known as "mean world syndrome."

Mean World Syndrome Theory Explained

The mean world syndrome holds that crime and violence-related televised content instills fear among people and persuades them that the world is a nasty and dangerous place to live in than it really is.
People who have become ritualistic in watching television hold unrealistic and unfavorable views about the world. Violent television programs culminate in a significant psychological impact.

The Fear

The more people are subjected to violent imagery, the more affrighted and insecure they become of the world. Thus, watching violence-related content on television makes violence appear far more worse than it actually is, which then redounds on people's perception and attitude about everyday life.

Examples of Mean World Syndrome

Example 1

An example of the mean world syndrome is news programming. Prime time news feeds people with disturbing news like that of gruesome murders, rape, crime, disasters, etc., inducing people to cultivate pessimistic and fearful views about the world.
More often than not, news coverage tampers with reality in order to stir unrest, and rouse feelings of sorrow, fear, and uncertainty among people. To build sensationalism, they exaggerate and focus on a murder, almost making people oblivious to the millions of peace-loving people and triggering a fear that the world is not a safe place to live.

Example 2

Another example of mean world theory syndrome can be of old age homes. In this case, the only source of entertainment for old people is television. So heavy is their dependence on television that they don't even realize the amount of media that is absorbed by them, which, simultaneously is affecting their perception about the outside world.
This prolonged exposure to televised messages, which incline more toward the overrepresentation of violence and crime engender heightened feelings of fear and pessimism among the old people.
By injecting fear in the minds of people, television networks don't just imbue us with feelings of fear and cynicism, but also limit our freedom. The more mistrustful and fearful we become, the more defensive and protective attitude we take on and constrict ourselves as well as those who matter to us by taking unnecessary precautions.