Wednesday 6 November 2013

Cultivation Theory and the Availability Heuristic

In my post Probabilistic Needle Theory, I defined cultivation theory as the view that television is a system of coherent memes and messages that perpetuate the ideological status quo. In this post, we’ll see how a hypothesis in cultivation theory was empirically tested and provided concrete evidence of a mechanism by which humans can be influenced by media content.

In fictional content like movies and TV shows, the world is a pretty just place. The criminal almost always gets caught at the end of each episode of CSI and Law and Order. The good guy gets the girl at the end of the movie. Crime doesn’t pay. What goes around comes around. Rarely in mainstream entertainment is a benevolent protagonist defeated by a malevolent antagonist.

In contrast, people often complain that the news is pretty grim. Non-fictional television content is mostly a list of scandals, murders, wars, natural disasters, and other serious problems going on around the world.

Markus Appel hypothesized that frequent watchers of fictional television content would therefore be more likely to hold inflated opinions of the justness of the real world, whereas non-fiction TV watchers would hold inflated opinions of the scariness of the real-world, such as the fear of crime. Two studies, one in Germany and one in Austria, confirmed Appel’s hypotheses, showing correlations between watching fiction and holding beliefs in a just world, but not between general TV watching and holding beliefs in a just world.

This finding is consistent with the psychological notion of the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic is an explanation of a certain way in which humans systematically depart from rationality. It predicts that when people try to determine the quantity of some thing or the probability of some occurrence, they search their memories for instances of that thing or occurrence and then use the quantity of remembered instances and the ease of recollection as evidence to support their estimation. Thus when asked to estimate the number of homicides compared to suicides, people answer that there are far more homicides in the world, even though the reverse is true. The explanation of this is that the mass media report on homicides far more often than they report on suicides, so people have more available instances of homicide in their memory. This influences their beliefs about the real world. It's easy to see how this false belief could then be politicized to influence mass opinions on, for example, gun control policies.

This is one concrete pathway to persuasion. Media can influence real-world beliefs by shaping the qualities and quantities of events stored in people’s memories. Of course, not all viewers will have their beliefs changed. Instead, we can imagine a probabilistic needle firing at a TV-watching culture, and only a certain percentage of viewers getting injected. Learning about more narrow effects of media like this will gradually allow us to form a larger picture of how media can have significant consequences. Once we’ve figured out the different streams of consequences, we can weigh them in importance and get a better understanding of which factors we should care about most.

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