Fighting “Mean World Syndrome”

Family GeekMom
Image: Kiernan M., age 8

“You know, who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior. It used to be the parent, the school, the church, the community. Now it’s a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell.”  George Gerbner

It’s been a long day. You turn on the TV news on to catch up with what’s going on, then get through a few of your TiVo’d crime shows. Maybe tomorrow you’ll help the kids make sock puppets.

But wait, is that glowing screen afflicting your family with some kind of syndrome?

A syndrome said to cause pessimism, fear, and the inability to gauge reality?

You be the judge.

It’s called Mean World Syndrome.

It’s based on the research of the late George Gerbner. His work showed that a heavy diet of violent content in news and entertainment convinces viewers the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Back when Gerbner did the bulk of his analysis, media was a smaller and quieter place. Now we have 24 hour access to news channels, movies, and net content.

Gerbner wrote,

Our studies have shown that growing up from infancy with this unprecedented diet of violence has three consequences, which, in combination, I call the “mean world syndrome.” What this means is that if you are growing up in a home where there is more than say three hours of television per day, for all practical purposes you live in a meaner world – and act accordingly – than your next-door neighbor who lives in the same world but watches less television. The programming reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia of people.

And those who are convinced the world around them is a highly dangerous and unpredictable place have more than a heightened sense of insecurity. Gerbner found they are more likely to see violence as a solution to problems rather than to reason in more nuanced ways. Fear also drives them to take hard-line political and social attitudes.

When Gerbner testified before a congressional subcommittee in 1981, he said, “Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line measures.”

Screen shot: L. Weldon


But the world is NOT more dangerous. It just seems that way. The Center for Media and Public Affairs did a study on network coverage of murder. In a five year period the murder rate in the U.S. went down thirteen percent. But during that same time span, network coverage of murders increased three hundred percent.

Yes, we face realities too harsh for reality TV. But when crime, disaster, ecological devastation, war, and other tragedies are presented as random occurrences nothing constructive is gained. It’s normal to react with anger, fear, and sorrow because these emotions can rouse us to positive action, but we need an option.  Sometimes that’s direct action, sometimes it’s seeking deeper understanding of how to prevent these tragedies.

Problems relentlessly hyped on movies, news, and by pundits—-well, they just seem so pervasive, so disconnected from causes, so impossible to change that we feel helpless to do anything about it. That’s another effect of Mean World Syndrome.

We end up cynical, which is bad for our own health and bad for the planet. We humans are already more likely to pay attention to and remember negatives, a trait that probably helped us to survive in saber-tooth tiger days. But the long progress of humanity has much more to do with our tendency to cooperate, form close relationships, and to care. We are hard-wired for compassion, not for a mean world.

Fight Mean World Syndrome

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2 thoughts on “Fighting “Mean World Syndrome”

  1. I love that your post and mine ran on the same day…I wholeheartedly believe that Mean World Syndrome exists and that it works against our efforts to create a culture of hope and creation.

    On a related note, I’ve been trying to figure out how to blog about an experience I once had where my then-8 year old was walking down the block and a neighbor I had never met called the police (she had heard he was autistic…he has Asperger’s Syndrome). He was doing nothing wrong–just singing a Beatles song as he walked down the block. When the policeman came to my door, he told me that I needed to understand that we do not live in the same world now that we grew up in and that I was asking for an abduction allowing my child to walk outside alone.

    It still makes my head explode remembering this…

    1. I wrote about this very thing awhile back on GeekMom, about the value of risk versus the vastly overblown fear of stranger danger.

      Your experience is doubly head exploding because not only did a neighbor call the police about something as benign as a child singing and walking down the street, but the police seemed to agree that this was dangerous. Talk about Mean World Syndrome! I hope you DO write about it.

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