There’s an unwritten rule we all tend to assume. The rule is ‘the more violence a person views on TV, the more violent their tendencies are in real life’. But one person believed the reverse to be true. That in fact, the more violent the media, the more frightened we become. This is Mean World Syndrome.

What Is Mean World Syndrome?

Mean World Syndrome describes a psychological bias where a person believes the world is a more violent place because they watch a large amount of violence on TV.

Mean World Syndrome is based on the research of Hungarian Jewish journalist George Gerbner. Fascinated by the influence of violence on TV on our perceptions of society, Gerbner wondered why, if we are all now consuming larger amounts of violence on TV are the real-life crime figures dropping.

How to Spot the Signs of Mean World Syndrome?

You might think to yourself that there’s no way you would succumb to this way of thinking, but here are just some of the signs of Mean World Syndrome:

  1. Do you believe that most people are just looking out for themselves?
  2. Would you be afraid of walking through your neighbourhood at night?
  3. Are you cautious when interacting with strangers?
  4. Would you cross the road if you saw a man of ethnic minority approaching you?
  5. Do you think people should go home to their native countries?
  6. Are most people out to take advantage of you?
  7. Would you be unhappy if a Latino or Hispanic family moved in next-door?
  8. Do you avoid people of different ethnic backgrounds?
  9. Do you always tend to watch the same types of programme i.e. horror, gore?

Violence and TV: What Leads Us to Develop Mean World Syndrome?

We tend to think of the TV as an innate and harmless form of entertainment. It sits in our living rooms, we turn it on to appease bored children, or it remains on in the background unnoticed. But TV has changed throughout the decades.

For instance, I’m 55 years old now, and I remember the very first time I watched The Exorcist. It frightened me for nights on end. I happened to show the film to a few friends who were twenty or so years younger than me, expecting them to have the same visceral reaction. But they just laughed.

It’s easy to see why. Films like Hostel show a woman’s eyes blowtorched in graphic detail. In contrast, Linda Blair’s turning head just looks comical.

I think we can agree that TV and films, in particular, portray violence in a much more graphic way these days. But the majority of us watch violence like this on TV and do not turn into serial killers. And this is what interested Gerbner.

See Violence, Commit Violence?

Historically, psychologists focused on whether those who had been exposed to media violence would be more likely to commit violence in real life. Gerbner believed exposure to media violence was far more complex. He suggested that consuming media violence is more likely to make us scared and fearful. But why?

Gerbner found that people with moderate to heavy TV and media viewing habits were more likely to believe they would be a victim of violence. They were also more worried about their personal security. They were less likely to go out in their own neighbourhood at night.

These responses differed greatly from people with light viewing habits. In this case, light viewers had a more rounded and generous view of society.

“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 neighbour who lives in the same world but watches less television.” Gerbner

So What Exactly Is Going On?

There’s a historical view of media and TV violence that we viewers are passive in our entertainment. We are like sponges, soaking up all the gratuitous violence. This old view suggests that TV and media fire information like a bullet into our minds. That TV and media can control us like automatons, feeding our minds with subliminal messages.

Gerbner saw things differently. He did believe that TV and media played a crucial role in the way we view society. But not one where we are encouraged to commit violent acts. One where we ourselves are scared and frightened by what we see.

How Mean World Syndrome Is Cultivated in Our Society

According to Gerbner, the problem lies in how this violence is portrayed on TV and in the media. It intersperses with banal content. For example, one minute, we are watching an advert for bleach or nappies, and the next, we see a news item that someone’s daughter has been abducted, raped, and dismembered.

We switch from one shocking news story to comedies, from a graphic horror film to a cute animal cartoon. And it is this constant switching between the two that normalises the violence we see. And when mass media normalises something as awful as a child abduction we don’t feel safe anymore.

We assume that this is the world we live in now. It’s that old news saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.” News channels focus on the most violent crimes, movies find new ways to shock us, even local news prefer gore and horror to cute stories about rescue puppies.

Violence Is Normal

Gerbner realised that it was the normalisation of violence, he called it ‘happy violence’ that cultivates a fearful society. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the amount of TV a person watches and their level of fear.

Mass media saturates us with graphic images, horrific stories, and frightening storylines. News channels remind us about the ‘War on Terror’, or the consequences of the coronavirus, all while glaring mugshots of offenders pierce through our collective consciousness.

It’s not surprising we are afraid to go outside our own homes. This cultivated fear shapes us into victimhood.

TV and Media Are the New Storytellers

Yet, you could say that we come across violence in fairy tales as children, or in Shakespeare’s play as teenagers. That we need to acknowledge violence as part of what’s good and bad about society. However, we are told fairy tales by a parent who provides context or comfort should we become upset. Shakespeare plays often have a moral story or ending which is discussed in class.

There is no parent or teacher advising us when we view violence portrayed in mass media. Moreover, this violence is often sensationalised, it’s delivered in a spectacular way. It’s often portrayed as humorous or sexy. As a result, we become indoctrinated with this constant flow saturation.

We Are Born into Viewing Violence

psychotic female killer

Gerbner stated that we are born into this saturation. There is no before or after viewing violence, we grow up with it, and from a very early age. In fact, children view around 8,000 murders by the age of 8 years old, and around 200,000 violent acts by the time they are 18.

All this violence adds up to a pervasive narrative we believe to be true. Each TV programme, every news story, all those films add up to a seamless and continuous dialogue. One that tells us the world is a scary, frightening, and violent place to live in.

The reality, however, is much different. According to the Justice Dept., murder rates are down 5% and violent crime is at an all-time low, having dropped 43%. Despite this, coverage of murders increased by 300%.

“Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line measures…” Gerbner

How to Fight Mean World Syndrome?

There are lots of ways you can control how you feel about the society you inhabit.

  • Limit the amount of TV and media you view.
  • Alternate between different types of programmes, e.g. comedy and sport.
  • Remember, the majority version of violence presented by the media is a small minority of real life.
  • Use different kinds of media to access information, i.e. books, journals.
  • Get the facts from reliable sources so you don’t over-estimate the amount of violence in the world.
  • Ask yourself, who benefits from perpetuating the myth of mass fear?

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to see how we can become enveloped in Mean World Syndrome. Every day we are bombarded with the most gruesome facts and images. These present a distorted view of the world.

The problem is if we only see the world through fear-tinted glasses, solutions to our problems will be based solely around this fear. And we could end up imprisoning ourselves for no good reason.



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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Kasandra Vitacca Mitchell

    Brilliantly written. Thank you! The key element question I constantly ask is, “What have you normalized? What have you so accepted as truth you can not see what is true?” I plan to share this article because regardless of the topi – violence, marriage, education, politics, anything – who’s slow boiling pot of water are you sitting in without realizing if you don’t jump out, you will boil to death?”

  2. Chrysogonus Chilaka

    Very articulate, in our world it appears that we are faced with this problem at every encounter with issues happening in the world and from your article i have learnt that one of the solutions to this fear is coming to grasp that mean world syndrome images are just fractions of the whole activities of life

  3. Dolly's Dad

    A very good article. You can take your practice one step further. When I find myself worrying excessively over something, I eliminate all external stimulation and distractions; turn off the phone, media broadcasts, etc. and sit down in a comfortable place and ask myself, “What does it mean to me that I am worrying about…” What ever it is be specific. Then calmly ‘experience’ what comes to mind. Give yourself a few seconds or a minute to get a mental image of what your concern or fear is. Then repeat the same question again using the concern or fear that you just uncovered. Repeat his process until you get to the root of your anxiety. You will know when you reach the root because the answer will be an epiphany, especially the first few times you do this exercise. After the first several successes your mental response may be something like, “Oh yeah, okay, I can do that or I can deal with that”. And that concern or worry is gone forever.
    Like anything else, it takes a little practice; now with many things I can do this on the go. But the big things like my recent divorce where I felt betrayed, lost the love of my life and everything I had that didnt fit into my car, I had to eliminate external stimulation.
    Our mind is designed to calculate, problem solve, interpret, process information and find solutions. Then it creates a mental image of the result; be it a number, a bird, a person or whatever it may be. It shuts down with extended periods of worry, concern and fear. This is because it uses logic to function properly, which is a process of finding similarities with whatever input it just received. When it finds a similarity, it places the mental image in the same niche; ie great dane in the niche of big dogs. When there is no similarity for the new mental image, the mind creates a new distinction, a new niche in which it will place the new mental image.
    Anxiety, worry and fear arise when our Fight, Flight or Freeze response has been activated and there is not enough information for our minds to get a good mental image of what the perceived threat is or how to resolve it. Our survival ‘instinct’ kicks in and it is assumed to be ‘Dire’ until proven otherwise. If the pertinent information isnt relayed to the mind in short order the thought processes of the mind starts to ‘shut down’ and we experience a full blown anxiety attack.
    I have found that my anxieties were layers upon layers of unresolved worries, one on top of the other like the layers of an onion and this practice allowed me to successfully peel away each layer until I reached the core; and since I wasnt in the Fight, Flight or Freeze mode any more I was able to remove it from the processing part of my mind and find a niche for it.

  4. Jacob Clark

    Brilliant article! I have met people with the syndrome you describe many times. The problem is that good news is very rarely shown on TV. Almost 90% are some kind of horror, terrorist attacks and wars. Especially the adult generation, they watch a lot of news on TV and think that the world is really so terrible and scary. Of course you need to be careful, but not afraid of every rustle. Good luck!

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