Gerbner’s “Mean World Syndrome” catchphrase is underpinned by what he and other researchers call “cultivation theory.” According to cultivation theory, heavy viewers of media violence tend to see the world as a more dangerous place than do other people, and see the world as more dangerous than it really is (Potter, 1993). Even in times where crime statistics are declining, those affected by the factors laid out in cultivation theory are more fearful of the world (Dyson, 2011). That is the “mean world” to which Gerbner refers, and as he described it, the problem arises when the incessant images of violence overlap and feed into each other, creating a world of anxiety and insecurity that serves to shape our entire culture.
It is difficult to argue with the basic premise of Gerbner’s argument. We now live in what is routinely referred to as the “post-9/11” world, as if the events of September 11, 2001 are the most important means by which we can describe the world. Statistics show that people routinely express the belief that crime has risen in recent years, yet statistics also show that crime rates have actually gone down sharply in the same period (Dyson, 2011). This Mean World Syndrome is not necessarily driven by a particular agenda; it is more like a self-propagating virus, one that feeds on itself as it spreads. If there is anything to truly fear about the world, it is that this fear and anxiety advances like a cancer, eating away at our sense of security. It seems impossible to imagine that the factors at the root of the Mean World Syndrome will ever abate, and that is something to truly fear.
Dyson, Rose A. The mean world syndrome diminishes human security. Journal of Human Security. 7(1). June 2011. p1.
Potter, James W. Cultivation theory and research. Human Communication Research. 19(4). June 1993. P564-601.