Research in Media Effects (Revised October 2009) Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 9 th Edition

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Theoretical Developments

What does the research tell us about cultivation? After an extensive literature review in which they examined 48 studies, Hawkins and Pingree (1981) concluded that there was evidence for a link between viewing and beliefs regardless of the kind of social reality in question. Was this link real or spurious? The authors concluded that the answer did, in fact, depend on the type of belief under study. Relationships between viewing and demographic aspects of social reality held up under rigorous controls. As far as causality was concerned, the authors concluded that most of the evidence went in one direction—namely, that television causes social reality to be interpreted in certain ways. Twelve years later, Shrum and O’Guinn (1993) echoed the earlier conclusion by saying that cultivation research has demonstrated a modest but persistent effect of television viewing on what people believe the social world is like. More recently, Morgan and Shanahan (1997) performed a meta-analysis of 82 published cultivation studies and concluded that there is a small but reliable and pervasive cultivation effect that accounts for about 1% of the variance in people’s perceptions of the world. The authors argue that although the effect is small, it is not socially insignificant.

How does this process take place? The most recent publications in this area have focused on conceptual models that explain the cognitive processes that cause cultivation. Potter (1993) presents an extensive critique of the original cultivation formulation and offers several suggestions for future research, including developing a typology of effects and providing a long-term analysis. Van Evra (1990) posits a multivariate model of cultivation, taking into account the use to which the viewing is put (information or diversion), the perceived reality of the content, the number of information alternatives available, and the amount of viewing. She suggests that maximum cultivation occurs among heavy viewers who watch for information, believe the content to be real, and have few alternative sources of information. Potter (1991b) proposes a psychological model of cultivation incorporating the concepts of learning, construction, and generalization. He suggests that cultivation theory needs to be extended and revamped in order to explain how the effect operates.

Tapper (1995) presents a possible conceptual model of the cultivation process that is divided into two phases. Phase one deals with content acquisition and takes into account such variables as motives for viewing, selective viewing, the type of genre viewed, and perceptions of the reality of the content. Phase two is the storage phase and elaborates those constructs that might affect long-term memory. Tapper’s model allows for various cultivation effects to be examined according to a person’s viewing and storage strategies.

Shrum and O’Guinn (1993) present a psychological model of the cultivation process based on the notion of accessibility of information in a person’s memory. They posit that human memory works much like a storage bin. When new information is acquired, a copy of that new information is placed on top of the appropriate bin. Later, when information is being retrieved for decision-making, the contents of the bin are searched from the top down. Thus, information deposited most recently and most frequently stands a better chance of being recalled.

A person who watches many TV crime shows, for example, might store many exaggerated portrayals of crime and violence in the appropriate bin. When asked to make a judgment about the frequency of real-life crime, the TV images are the most accessible, and the person might base his or her judgment of social reality on them. Shrum and O’Guinn reported the results of an empirical test of this notion. They reasoned that the faster a person is able to make a response, the more accessible is the retrieved information. Consequently, when confronted with a social reality judgment, heavy TV viewers should be able to make judgments faster than light viewers, and their judgments should also demonstrate a cultivation effect. The results of Shrum and O’Guinn’s experiment supported this reasoning. Shrum (1996) reported a study that replicated these findings. In this experiment, subjects who were heavier viewers of soap operas were more likely to show a cultivation effect and responded faster to the various cultivation questions that were asked of them. The same author (Shrum, 2001) presents evidence that the cognitive information-processing strategy employed by the viewer has an impact on cultivation. Specifically, when subjects were asked to respond to questions about estimates of crime and occupations spontaneously, a cultivation effect was found. On the other hand, when subjects were asked to think systematically about their answers, the cultivation effect was not found. Shrum argues that those who thought systematically were more likely to discount TV as a source of their information and rely on other sources, thus negating a cultivation effect.

Cultivation has proven to be an evocative and heuristic notion. Recent research continues to concentrate on identifying key variables important to the process and on specifying the psychological processes that underlie the process. For example, Nadi and Riddle (2008) looked at the impact of trait anxiety, psychoticism and sensation seeking on the cultivation effect and found that low trait-anxious individuals and those high in sensation-seeking were more likely candidates for cultivation and Bilandzic and Busselle (2008) introduced the notion of “transportation into narrative” to help explain the cultivation process.

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