Mean World Syndrome

The term ‘mean world syndrome’ was created by George Gerbner who was a well-known journalist researching television content and the works of cultivation theory. George Gerbner was born in Hungary on August 8th, 1919 and moved to America when he was older to begin his college studies at University of California, Los Angeles.

David 1He then transferred to Berkeley University and got a bachelor’s degree in journalism. After graduating from Berkeley, he joined the U.S. Army in 1942 and worked with the Austrian and Slovenian resistance groups during World War II. After the war, Gerbner went to University of Southern California where he received his master’s degree in education in 1951 and then completed his Ph.D. in communications in 1955 (Signorielli 2016).

Gerbner joined as the staff at the Institute for Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1956 (Signorielli 2016). Soon after, he became a professor of communications and then the dean at Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania in 1964.

In 1967, Gerbner started his research in television violence and created a profile. This profile was “created as part of the Cultural Indicators Project, which holds a database that spans more than 3,000 TV shows and 35,000 characters” (Signorielli 2016). This database is used to provide monitoring of violence in television broadcasts.

David 2In 1973, he created a paradigm for understanding mass communication. The paradigm had three sections. They were institutional process analysis, message content analysis, and cultivation analysis or theory. He thought that television violence had influenced the public’s perception of violence in their lives and in society making them more fearful and helping them develop mean world syndrome (Signorielli 2016). Gerbner died on December 24th, 2005 in Philadelphia.

The term mean world syndrome is a syndrome that links violence-related shows in media. It makes the viewer think the world is more dangerous than it actually is. There has been research that looks at the psychological states and states of people, such as the form of aggressiveness, which lead to violence because of media exposure (Gerbner 1997).

This aggression is linked to crime and violence that is organized and systemic (Gerbner 1997). This syndrome has heavy viewers of television to overestimate their chances of involvement in violence, believe their neighborhood is unsafe, and fear of crime is a huge problem (Gerbner 1997).

The people who have this syndrome believe and assume that that crime is rising regardless of the facts (Gerbner, 1997). The mean world syndrome results in the heavy viewers to try and protect themselves more than others. For example, by having watchdogs, buying new locks, and owning guns.

Also, when viewers are seeing their own group that they associate with have a higher chance of risk, they will develop a sense of apprehension, mistrust and alienation (Gerbner 1997).

It is also thought that long-term heavy exposure to this TV content will have consumers create unrealistic fear and mistrust others (Romer & Jamieson 2014). The impact of mean world syndrome makes consumers feel like there are dangers outside of their homes. The viewers who are heavily invested in television will increase the intensity the fears and angsts.


Gerbner, G., (1997). Rethinking Media Violence. In Media Education Foundation Study Guide Gerbner Series (Part II). Retrieved from

Romer, D., & Jamieson, P. (2014). Violence in Popular U.S. Prime Time TV Dramas and the Cultivation of Fear: A Time Series Analysis. Media and Communication, 2(2), 31-41. doi:

Signorielli, N. (2016, May 23). George Gerbner. Retrieved May 2, 2018, from

Image Attribution: Image 1 is licensed under CC-SA 2.0. Image 2 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Written by David Hudak, 2018

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