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What is the “Mean World Syndrome”?

Violence can be seen across different media platforms. Shows focus on a variety of violence that often portray gruesome crimes, and the potential evil people may possess. But did you know that because we are constantly exposed to this kind of content, it affects our general perception of the world? A journalist in the seventies discovered this and formulated his theory on it.

The Mean World Syndrome is a theory stating that people who are constantly exposed to violent content in media, particularly in the news, perceive that the world is much more violent than it actually is.

What is the Concept Behind “Mean World Syndrome”?

George Gerbner, a communications professor, hypothesized that people who constantly consume violence through mass media could experience anxiety, fear, and pessimism, increasing awareness of perceived threats. He coined the term Mean World Syndrome for this theory.

At the time, the rate of violent crime was steadily increasing. Murders and property crimes were on rampant at an all-time high, and constantly sustained high rates for nearly a decade. The media gave crimes so much attention and often reported them on the news, and filmmakers started creating films that depicted violence. (Source: Interrogating Justice)

Gerbner reasoned that people who are constantly exposed to violence and crime would eventually develop a cognitive bias that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. What people see, hear, and read, whether factual or not, as in the case of news reports or fictional depictions in film and TV shows, significantly contribute to the bias. (Source: Happiful)

The professor’s hypothesis was proven when the crime rates decreased in the nineties, but people still didn’t feel safe. By 1993, Gallup, a public opinions poll company, started to conduct annual surveys about perceived crime levels. They discovered that people think that crime levels were increasing annually when it was, in fact, steadily declining. (Source: Interrogating Justice)

Many researchers followed Gerbner’s hypothesis and found it true. In an interview, Beverley Hills, a counselor, and lead partner at The Practice stated that the media kept people on constant alert, whether in the news or movies. Due to the improvement of media production over the years, our brains find it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. People end up believing that dangers exist all around all the time. (Source: Happiful)

Can We Avoid this Mindset?

Since the syndrome itself is constantly fueled by the media, there are ways for people to combat it. Hills recommends that we challenge the way we think. We can ask ourselves questions like is the thought I have a fact, or is it fiction? Is there evidence that supports this thought? Hills claims that by checking your thoughts, one would be able to avoid this pitfall.

Another way to avoid the syndrome is to ensure balance in our media consumption. Carefully selecting our news sources as well as consuming media content with cheerful tones greatly helps in avoiding a generally negative perception of the world. It is also highly important that we are aware of what’s happening in the world and understand that most of the negative headlines are often excessively portrayed. (Source: Happiful)

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