How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

The Aurora Shootings and The Mean World Syndrome

Media depictions of a violent and scary world shape how we live

It’s a violent, threatening, unsafe world out there. Just ask the people in Aurora, Colorado. Or the people in Colombine, Colorado. Or the people of Port Arthur, Australia, where a schizophrenic massacred 35 and wounded 23 in 1996. What do those three mass murders, and so many others, have in common? The killers were all inspired to some degree by things they saw in movies.

Should there be talk about banning violent movies, as there is talk about controlling access to assault weapons with ammunition magazines that contain 100 rounds? No, although Andy Borowitz does a hilarious send-up of just that idea in a satire reporting that the National Rifle Association, claiming it’s “high time to take action against the number one cause of violence in America,” has proposed a ban on all violent movies. Movies don’t make people murderers any more than guns do. But guns make muderous-ness much more feasible, and popular entertainment certainly plants ideas that sick minds can use as inspiration for deadly reality.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Does violence in media lead to violence in the real world? Yes, according to something called The Mean World Syndrome, the idea posited by communications theorist George Gerbner, that violent content in popular media—Gerbner focused on the entertainment media but the concept includes the violent and alarmist nature of news content too—makes people believe that the world is a more violent place than it actually is.

Actually, the implications of the Mean World Syndrome go far beyond what happened in Aurora or Colombine or Port Arthur, or even the idea that violence in the entertainment media might spur violence in the real world. It describes something far more insidious, and far more potentially harmful. The Mean World Syndrome is the byproduct of what Gerbner called Cultivation Theory, the idea that the more we watch the news and entertainment media and the more they depict the world as a violent and threatening place, the more we come to accept that those are the norms of society, and the more those norms shape how we live. A world that feels more violent and threatening than it is makes us more worried than we need to be. The implications of that are enormous, far broader than awful but thankfully rare mass murders by people who are clearly mentally unstable.

Gerbner’s idea holds that if we think the world is a "mean" and violent and unsafe place, the kind of world we see again and again in both the news and so much entertainment media; we live our lives accordingly. We buy guns to protect ourselves (guns purchased for self-protection are far more likely to go off in accidents, suicides, or in crimes against others). We live in gated communities. We support candidates who promise to keep us safe, and policies like the Patriot Act that cede civil liberties in the name of safety. A mean and worrying world causes us to magnify our fears of anything, be it terrorism or industrial chemicals or economic uncertainty; sometimes prompting personal choices or social policies that feel right but do us more harm than good.

In a violent and threatening world we are readier to fear "others". We mistrust more, and polarize more fiercely into our groups in pursuit of the protection afforded to social animals by tribal unity and cohesion. A Mean World is a more divided world, less able to achieve compromise and progress. A Mean World makes us more prone to the profound ill effects of chronic stress. And as Gerbner put it “…a society in which most people or many people already expect a higher degree of victimization, sooner or later they are going to get it.”

Batman, Natural Born Killers, and thousands more movies that normalize violence; countless TV shows about killers and rapists and torturers and terrorists; news reports that so dramatically overemphasize violence and risk, depicting the world as a far more threatening place than it actually is. They all capture our attention, of course, because we are exquisitely sensitive to anything that might threaten us, and we are pruriently rewarded by watching cinematic violence and horror that we can tell ourselves is pretend, and walk away from, happy that “That didn’t happen to me.”

Except that a lot of people in that theater in Aurora didn’t get to walk away. Sometimes the Mean World Syndrome turns us into actual victims, in dramatic ways, when the normalization of violence fostered by the entertainment and news media creates fertile soil for madness. Most of the time, though, the Mean World Syndrome victimizes us more insidiously, making us feel more worried and fearful, more defensive and mistrustful, more polarized and anti-"other", than we need to be. Sometimes, in the name of trying to protect ourselves against the threats of a violent and threatening Mean World, we end up as the victims we are trying not to be.

(There is a wonderful film that goes into depth on the Mean World syndrome, including extensive comments by Gerbner, the trailer for which can be seen here.)

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

more...

Subscribe to How Risky Is It, Really?

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.