Cultivation Theory and Huristics Processing

Subject: Entertainment & Media
Pages: 16
Words: 4304
Reading time:
16 min
Study level: PhD


Reality television in America has emerged as a new fashion. Every day people are being put in unrealistic settings. Now the question is when and where did such kinds of show start? In 1973 the first reality television show was released by PBS. It was a dramatic series called An American Family. After many years MTV’s the Real World became very popular reality television and it is continued till date (Pontius, 2003, Para 2).

Why the reality programming is getting networks? Laurie Hibberd mentions that “the cost of a reality show is $400,000 per hour to produce versus $ 2 million for a dramatic series.” As the reality programming’s rating is going up, every network wants such kind of business to market new reality shows and keep America wanting for more. All these reality shows have common things in them the people acting in the shows are all real and gong through real situation (Pontius, 2003, Para 3).

Gerbner’s cultivation theory explains the connection between the programs that viewers watch and their assumed reality. As much as people watch television they come to know the real world as same as the world is shown on television. Lots of studies support cultivation theory. Watching television is very common in America and that is why it is very difficult to understand its impact on the viewers. Here the participants and the experimenters are very much exposed to television and that is why it is very difficult to do comparison for an unaffected apparent reality. Generally social reality shown on television is not factual as objective reality. Normally Americans watch television four hrs per day and as the television shows are increasing in numbers, it appears that cultivation theory will be supported by this reality craze to a great extent (Pontius, 2003, Para 4). The cultivation theory establishes a connection between constant television viewing and the viewers’ perception of reality. It appears that the viewers of reality television are greatly affected if the programming continuously shows the situation and the people being viewed by the viewers are indeed real. Grady states that some previous studies have shown that some programming which were supposed to be highly unrealistic, like, soap opera ‘As The World Turns’ and watched by the students, shaped the students’ perception of reality. Those who watched this soap opera made their perceptions of reality more complicated by adding deception and distrust for others when they found themselves in hypothetical situations instead of facing the situations by using critical thinking skills for distinguishing the truth. Though because of new nature of reality television a few studies have been done to find out how reality television is suitable for the cultivation theory, yet studies of these kinds are really very supportive to understand the perception of reality and television (Pontius, 2003, Para 4).

The Impact of Television

Television’s effect is generally invisible. Watching television is so common that we cannot understand its influence on us. Television is the medium of supplying its viewers with images, stories of life etc. (Guinn & Shrum, 1997, p. 279). Television affects people’s judgment about real world (Busselle, 2001, p. 43).

The accessibility and frankness of TV is working as an excellent instructor by giving information about sex boldly. Especially the youth are getting such kinds of messages which they will not get anywhere else. Television is the live case before youth which presents examples like dating, relationships, intimacy etc (Ward & Rivadneyra, 1999).

There are two approaches which have been adopted by the children to attend television: one is reactive theory, the other is active theory. In a reactive theory the child watches the television as passive receptor of information and in active theory the child receives the information showing on television (Mateos, n.d., Para 5).

The studies show that people respond to media messages as self socialization and these studies find out that youth not only adopt behaviors of their role models shown on television programs but also they receive information in an active manner. They look for such media models which reflect their own behavior (Rouner et al, 2003).

People try to find their self esteem. They establish connection and know how to react. They try to find out the meaning of their lives and try to develop skills to rectify their problems (Haridakis et al, 2003, Para 5).

Understanding Reality Television

Reality Television is about the growth of television genre. Reality television has lots of variety of entertainment programs which are mainly about real people. Reality television which is often called popular factual television is located in border areas between documentary and drama; information and entertainment. During 1990s and 2000s Reality television has become very successful. The reality television shows program on anything from healthcare to hairdressing; from people to pets. The reality television format is sold all over the world. People love to watch reality television programs (Hill, 2005, P. 2).

It is assumed that viewers are not able to establish difference between entertainment and information; fiction and reality in famous reality television. As the viewers have become much attached with reality television programs, it is necessary to understand the viewers relationship with such types of famous reality shows shown on reality television. Viewers responding to reality television can give precious information and can understand the traditional environment of the reality genre. They can develop critical understanding as contemporary television viewers (Hill, 2005, P. 2).

Some popular reality shows like ‘American Idol’ in the USA or ‘I am a Celebrity’ in the UK have gained up to fifty percent of market share. It clearly indicates that more than half of the population of television viewers watched these programs. To achieve such kinds of rating these programs have to be overall entertainers. In 2004 Reality Central, cable channel, signed up more than thirty celebrities to promote this cannel. According to Larry Namer, who is the co-founder of E! Entertainment and Reality Central, ‘reality TV is television for the reality TV admirers, it is not a fashion’ (Hill, 2005, P. 2-3).

In 2000, the reality game show Survivor was rated number one which attracted 27 million viewers. In 2002 the finale of the reality show American Idol caught 23 million viewers among which half the country’s teenage female viewers turned to this show. In 2003 Joe Millionaire attracted 40 million viewers (Hill, 2005, P. 3).

In the UK reality Television is also popular. The 2000 records say that approximately seventy per cent of the population aged 4-65 watched reality programs regularly. Generally the programs were police crime programs like ‘Police Camera Action’ (Hill, 2005, P. 3).

Psychophysiological dimension is a strong device to know about media messages and communication. We come to know about mind and body’s responses by examining natural biological activities. It happens that lots of things go in the brain to which we do not have access. Anytime we may be lost in any conversion but our body responds suitably. If we are watching a scary movie our body reacts and it prepares itself to leave the place. If we know what is our body doing we can understand the psychological events (Bradley, 2007, p.8).

Islamists have always been disliking reality programs on Arab television. MBC’s Al Rais (Big Brother ) has been forcibly stopped to be telecasted. LBC’s Star Academy and Al Wadi (The Farm) have also faced lots of protests. But despite of this some Islamists have developed a positive approach and working on making reality programs successful in such countries. According to Ahmed Abu Haiba, the manager of Risella in Cairo that Risella will include comedy, game shows, documentaries, soap operas, late night talk shows but they all will be containing ethical elements following religious and cultural values (Wise, 2005, Para 6).

Performance and Authenticity

The reality television presents the people and their stories in such a way that they can be related to truthfulness of visual evidence. Schlesinger states that generally the reality television programs viewers understand the techniques the way television puts reality together. He also talks about how different formats and editing techniques can set different degrees of these reality programs in famous reality television (Hill, 2005, Ch. 4, P.57).

The viewers of such kinds of reality shows are able to relate the truth that they see in the reality programs with the real actors who perform before television cameras. If the actors performing in the show are ordinary, the program is not very real for the viewers. That is why performance is the strong device to make TV programs real (Hill, 2005, Ch. 4, P.57).

The entertaining elements in reality television are taken from fictional genres like soap opera and are shown on famous reality television. Various formats are adopted by such reality programs to attract the viewers as such types of formats show real people’s stories in an entertaining manner (Hill, 2005, Ch. 4, P.58).

When viewers watch reality TV they most likely accept the power of reality television when the real footage is as close as footage viewers relate with news or investigative journalism. Many contemporary programs like news or documentaries are categorized as reality TV and such types of programs are not so successful to reach up to viewers’ expectations about the evidential status of reality TV (Hill, 2005, Ch. 4, P.62).

Reality programs generally begin with mixed cast of contestants. Why this ‘contestants’ word is used here? As such kinds of programs are like contests though they are dramas. Here stories are narrated. The wonderful editing change these contestants into characters who are not merely characters of a game show from the point of view of these reality shows viewers rather they are well developed characters in a describing story assuming the fact that they are ‘real people’ (Kim, 2004, Para 3).

Cultivation Theory

Normally people have their own personal view for life from which they develop their own ideas and receive information but in today’s scenario most of the information is coming from television shows with strong middle-of-the-road ideas and stereotyped characters. George Gerbner’s ‘Cultivation Theory’ says much about such ideas coming from television shows having power to make our perceptions of reality and the whole world around us that put influence on viewers’ attitudes and ways of thinking. Gerbner has made three categories of viewers: light, moderate and heavy (Gulisano, 2008, Para 2).

He did lots of researches and came to a point that people who watched television a lot had more mainstreamed views than those who performed on television shows. This observation was not biased about any particular race. He observed that heavy viewers from all income categories believed that “fear of crime is a very serious personal problem” though the opinions of light viewers differed based on their incomes (Gulisano, 2008, Para 2). He established a fact that light viewers do not accept all the messages from television instead they receive information and create their own ideas. In contrast to that heavy viewers receive most of the information from television (Gulisano, 2008, Para 2).

Gerbner then explicated resonance which is an important element of cultivation theory as applicable ideas and themes on television that holds relevance for viewers. These themes strengthen such ideas which the viewers already have. They appear like a double dose of the message and further support the viewers’ perceptions. If the viewers relate any of experience in their lives with reality program that they watched on television, the cultivation of that program message will be very strong and the viewers would believe that their experience is very common and real. All these different aspects generate Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory. They explain many important methods by which television makes, influences, strengthens viewers’ perceptions of social reality (Gulisano, 2008, Para 3).

As the reality television’s popularity is growing with lots of different types of programs, it has become very difficult to turn on the TV and not happen upon some kind of reality television. Though we have achieved a lot in the field of civil rights and racism, yet there are some upsetting and damaging kinds of things which are highlighted through television shows in our daily lives and thus they reach to us (Gulisano, 2008, para 4).

This is mainly actual in the field of reality television where people perform some stereotypical roles like party girl, player, the girl next door, the good black guy, the angry black guy etc. So it is not difficult to apply Gerbner’s cultivation theory here as it examines the both ways of the television where it creates new as well as old perceptions of social reality (Gulisano, 2008, Para 5).

In reality shows it is very important that people who perform stereotypical roles should be looked real or they will be considered as inauthentic or invalid. According to Bell & Jordan MTV’s ‘The Real World: Denver’ is the good example of this when ‘the angry black man’ and ‘the reasonable black man’ are rutted against each other during an argument over authenticity against blackness (Gulisano, 2008, Para 6).Gerbner’s cultivation theory makes us to believe that when a viewer watches these television shows a lot, his ideas does not remain unique about other races people and such negative ideas capture his mind as genuine fact (Gulisano, 2008, Para 6).

Now it is obvious that the show creators want entertainment and ratings at the priority basis. But the entertainment which they produce is criticized as it generates harmful ideas and unjustly divides people on customs basis. Many Americans are proud of being the native of such nation that does not have any separation, prejudice and racism and when they watch such kinds of television shows with stereotypical ideas that suspends equal opportunity for all the people to make their own unique identity, the ideas remain in their minds. It does not matter whatever race the person belongs to but everyone has his own identity and the presentation of such racial stereotypical ideas puts the people into restrictive categories despite their unique histories and life experiences. Because of this people develop prenotions about some certain groups without even knowing them (Gulisano, 2008, Para 7).

The title ‘reality television’ itself creates problem as viewers think whatever program such kind of television will be showing, it will be completely real and they will have unprejudiced experience of real life through those programs. It is finely emphasized that these participants, their situations, their actions are the reflection of themselves and they are supposed to be natural and that is why they become the reflection of their race. Indeed, many reality television shows have planned out intentional messages. Gulisano (2008, Para 8) states that Gerbner’s study says that the more people watch reality shows the more such programs shape and control their ideas about social life but we actually struggle with the false depictions in reality television and also their presentation of racial stereotypes as real symbolism of whole race (Gulisano, 2008, Para 8).

Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory is very helpful to study the effect of the ideologies presented through the medium of television and their impact on public opinion and perceptions. This is a very good device to know about public formations of many commonly ideologies and connect them to a relevant source. Within the help of this theory we are able to analyze the delicate messages which affect our outlook and views (Gulisano, 2008, Para 9).

Gulisano (2008, Para 9) says that nevertheless, his theory has not been successful in identifying many other important media channels from which people receive lots of information and they just know about dramatic daytime and prime time television shows (Gulisano, 2008, Para 9). These other media channels are news paper advertisements, magazines, radio, movies, music, documentaries and commercials etc. Though the media channels like advertisements, commercials and movies also support negative racial stereotype, still many other sources give people lots of objective information on a daily basis. His study mainly focuses on the quantity of time that people use to watch such reality television programs but it does not consider those many heavy viewers who constantly watch CNN or The Discovery Channel where they receive lots of current and actual information without any racial or stereotypical motivation. Television shows are the formation of our learning and there are many other devices which contribute largely in developing our perceptions for social reality (Gulisano, 2008, Para 10).

America is a country which is more diverse and integrated. People get opportunity to connect with people of all different races, religions and classes. That is why majority of people have become more flexible and they are receiving discerning ideas about race. Our social world is making it possible to watch these reality television shows and it is discouraging false ideas which we know that they are inaccurate. So Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory presents the analytical way of the social constructions of the reality but simultaneously if we look into other contributing factors, it will appear more accurate and relevant (Gulisano, 2008, Para 11).

In recent years experimental researches have shown that the fictional narratives are very strong sources that can alter audiences’ beliefs. These theories suggest that televised fictional narratives make the world as a just place (Appel, 2008, pp 62-83).

Many contents analysis on television have depicted that there are many constructs presented overly on television related to their real world incidence. The constructs are like violence, crime, marital discord, particular occupations like lawyers, doctors (Shrum, 2004, p.511). Cultivation theory says that constantly watching these distortions of reality will end result in the perception that these distortions show reality. Many studies have established the relationship between the quantity of viewing television and beliefs matching with the television portrayals. TV viewing is presented to be related with many doctors, lawyers, police officers in the real world, the prevalence of violence and ownership of expensive products. Excessive of television viewing has been associated with greater anxiety and fearfulness, much faith in doctors, much pessimism about marriage, much mistrust and higher levels of materialism (Shrum, 2004, p.511).

Television information is remembered in a proper way and the connection between valence and arousal is not stronger for negative information in comparison to positive information (Bradley, 2007, p. 212).

Heuristic Processing Model

Heuristic Processing Model of Cultivation Effects deals with relationship between television viewing and social reality judgments. It estimates either for self or society, the probability of crime, divorce, millionaires, and ownership of expensive products. This model has two general proposals: 1) television viewing gives lots of information about particular constructs like lawyers, crime and especially for those who view television in excess, 2) the judgments used to test cultivation effect are made by applying cognitive heuristics, particularly simulation and availability heuristics (Shrum, 2004, p.511). There are three factors involved for using cognitive heuristics: i) the types of judgments are made by recollecting relevant information, ii) the judgments are generally considered difficult, iii) the data is collected through surveys (Shrum, 2004, p.511).

Heuristics that are judgmental shortcuts solve the purpose of organizing and simplifying political choices. Though the prior studies on heuristics reveal that before it has mainly focused on the cognitive aspects of shaping judgments, researchers consider the emotional aspects also (Bucy & Newhagen, 1999, p. 59).

Heuristics are basically knowledge structures saved in memory. Judgments made on the basis of heuristics processing show prompt information instead of individualistic information. Normally this approach does not demand cognitive information much. Higgins states that this approach has some basic principles of knowledge and it uses namely, accessibility, availability and applicability. That is why it requires to be saved in memory, which should also be accessible at the same time and should be relevant to the judgmental tasks at the hands (Chen et al, 1999).

The word Heuristics has lost its real meaning. It is actually the mental short cut for solving problems. Shah and Oppenheimer (2008, p. 207) mention that Simon who is supposed to be the father of heuristics approaches says that heuristics are “methods for arriving at satisfactory solutions with modest amounts of computation” mentioning that people try to make less efforts for making decisions (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 207).

This term was widely used by Newell and Simon to explain simple processes for solving complex algorithms. Judgments and decision making are such processes which contain such kinds of complicated algorithms for making most favorable decisions and precise judgments. There is a weighted additive rule that want people to make efforts in following five tasks (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 207):

  • Recognizing Prompts: All relevant portions of the information should be identified.
  • Recalling and Storing Prompt Values: the values from the portions of the information should be recalled from memories.
  • Evaluating the weights of each prompt: every portion of information is important this should be understood.
  • Incorporating information for all alternatives: the weighted prompt values should be added to give in overall value.

There should be comparison among all alternatives and then the alternative which is having highest value should be chosen.

There have been observed three major problems in the literature of heuristics.

First of all there are lots of disparities and researchers are not able to find similarities in many research programs. Like, heuristics and biases program and fast and frugal programs have lots of disparities in their approach. The first one says about the availability heuristics, in which people make judgments and decisions by using limited information, though the other focuses upon recognition heuristics, where single piece of information is used (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 208).

The other problem is misapplying existing theoretical constructs. Like, Sustein has focused upon moral heuristics, which can reduce the efforts related with moral decision making. There is a possibility that these heuristics lessen they efforts in a different way (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 208).

Third problem is, the current researches have described heuristics highly domain specific, in which it is difficult to understand whether these behaviors are reducing efforts are not (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 208). Finally, lots of researches on heuristics have not recognized how heuristics decrease the efforts related with decision making. Now the heuristic word has become a phrase for unexpected behavior in general (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 209).

As there are five effortful components for weighted additive rule, there are five principles for effort reduction also (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 209):

  • Analyzing less prompts
  • Lessening the difficulties related with receiving and storing prompt values
  • Making easier the weighting principles for prompts
  • Incorporating less information
  • Analyzing less alternatives

The researches done on heuristics before have naturally recognized a division of the effort reduction principles which are established in the present structure. Some approaches accept the presence of such principles, whereas other approaches follow a small number of principles. For example, Hogarth and Karelaia have conducted some series of experiments where they studied appropriateness of many heuristics in different task environments. They described traits that can be used to check which heuristics will be suitable for these environments. They try to recognize features which are connected to the principles of analyzing less prompts and less information (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 213).

Another heuristic theory is dual process view of judgments and decision making. This theory has two styles of reasoning i) short cut process of information, ii) deliberately process information. Early dual process models tell about what and when of heuristics processing. Heuristics processing happens when a person has not much capacity or motivation to do task (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 213).

Researchers find out three types of evidences for heuristics in judgment and decision making. i) researchers use computers to find out the effort and exactness of heuristics, ii) researchers study what information is used to take a decision, iii) researchers analyze people’s behavioral outcomes (Shah and Oppenheimer, 2008, p. 218).

Shrum’s heuristic processing model has five propositions (Bradley, 2007 p.459):

Proposition 1: television viewing increases construct accessibility: a connectionist model can affect the cultivation effect. If television constructs are frequently presented, constructs become more accessible with more television scenario (Bradley, 2007 p.459).

Proposition 2: Accessibility mediates the cultivation effects: Here all activation happens at a time and there is no variation between networks. That is why response cannot be controlled as it is with real participants (Bradley, 2007 p.459).

Proposition 3: Television exemplars are not discontinued: Shrum found out that television exemplars received during the judgment process were used in making the judgments. The connectionist model here says if no source prompts are provided at the time of judgment, the model will be dependant on television memories (Bradley, 2007 p.459).

Proposition 4: Systematic Processing reduces or eliminates the cultivation effect: Experimental data says that people can make good decision if they try. Television memories become less influential while making good decision (Bradley, 2007 p.459).

Proposition 5: Ability to process information moderates the cultivation effect: Present study does not focus on this proposition because there is a need of many assumptions to put into practice ability to process in a neural network (Bradley, 2007 p.459).

Reality TV Shows and third person perception

The third person studies have shown that people believe that media messages affect other people more than they themselves are affected. Paul, Salwen and Dupagne have made three groups of media messages which are used in third person effect studies. These groups are socially desirable, socially undesirable and neither socially desirable nor undesirable (Leone et al, 2006, p.2). In relation to the interest of these three categories the present authors think where to fit reality television in this range. It is a genre that is already so popular. Reality shows are not supposed to inform or educate as news does. They are not produced to influence as political advertisements do and it is not necessary that they will produce negative feelings (Leone et al, 2006, p.2).


Appel M. 2008. Fictional Narratives Cultivate Just-World Beliefs. Journal of Communication, Vol 58 Issue 1, pp 62-83:Web.

Bradley, S D. 2007.Dynamic, Embodied, Limited-Capacity Attention and Memory: Modeling Cognitive Processing of Mediated Stimuli. Media Psychology, 9, 211–239.

Bradley, S. 2007. Examining the Eyeblink Startle Reflex as a Measure of Emotion and Motivation to Television Programming. Media Psychology, 1(1), 7–30

Bradley, S. 2007. Neural Network Simulations Support Heuristic Processing Model of Cultivation Effects. Media Psychology, 10:449–469, 2007

Bucy, E P & Newhagen J E. 1999. The Emotional Appropriateness Heuristic: Processin Televised Presidential Reactions to the News. Journal of Communication, Vol. 49, 1999. Web.

Busselle, W R. 2001. Television, Exposure, Perceived Realism and Exemplar Accessibility in the Social Judgment Process. Media Psychology, 3, 43-67. Web.

Chen, S et al. 1999. Motivated Heuristic and Systematic Processing. Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 10, 1999. Web.

Guinn, T C & Shrum, L J. 1997. The role of television in the construction of consumer reality. Journal of Consumer Research. 

Gulisano L. 2008. Cultivation Theory: Creating Perceptions of Life from Reality Television. Web.

Haridakis, P M et al. 2003. Television Exposure Not Predictive of Terrorism FearNewspaper Research Journal, Vol. 24, 2003, Web.

Hill A. 2005. Reality TV: audiences and popular factual television. London. Routledge.P.231. Web.

Kim, L S. 2004. Race and Reality TV. Web.

Leone et al. 2006. Reality television and third-person perception. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. Web.

Mateos, E L. n.d. The formal features of television, 2010. Web.

Pontius E. 2003. The impact of reality television on viewer’s perception of reality. Web.

Rouner D et al. 2003. Adolescent Evaluation of Gender Role and Sexual Imagery in Television Advertisements, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Vol. 47. Web.

Shah, A K & Oppenheimer, D M. n. d. Heuristics Made Easy: An Effort-Reduction Framework. Psychological Bulletin. 2008, Vol. 134, No. 2, 207–222.

Shrum, L J. 2004. Magnitude of Effects of Television Viewing on Social Perceptions Vary as a Function of Data Collection Method: Implications for Psychological Processes. Advances in Consumer Research, vol 31.

Ward, M L. 1999. Contributions of Entertainment Television to Adolescents’ Sexual Attitudes and Expectations: The Role of Viewing Amount Versus Viewer Involvement – Statistical Data Included, 2010. Web.

Wise, L. 2005. Whose Reality is Real? Ethical Reality TV Trend Offers ‘Culturally Authentic’ Alternative to Western Formats. Web.