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How the Media Affects the Way We Think

Many people do not realize how much influence the media has on them in their daily lives. Media controls people literally in everything: it defines how they dress, what they eat, and what lifestyle they choose. Many people waste a lot of time just switching TV-channels till their bedtime. People may not realize it, but they may feel depressed and not having any goals in their lives just because of the media’s influence. The more people watch TV or listen to radio news, the more disasters they hear about: for example, those times are hard and we live in the conditions of global crisis. People believe that and get depressed about that. Media really forms the way people think, and they let the media do this.

Media significantly contributes to the formation of individuals, institutions, society, and culture. There are several types of media effects on individuals, which include as follows.

  • A cognitive media effect. Mass media affects people’s mental processes or the products of these mental processes. The most wide-spread cognitive effect is the receiving of information from media messages (for example, books, magazines, newspapers, TV-news, advertising banners, websites). This information is absorbed by the human mind by means of the memorization process. When the information is memorized, it transforms into knowledge. The human mind groups this knowledge in various ways to create new interpretations and generate principles about real life. All the above-mentioned mental activities are cognitive mass media effects on individuals.
  • Beliefs. A belief is a faith that something really exists. The media constantly creates and forms our beliefs by means of showing us more than we are can see directly by our own eyes. All of the contemporary people have never seen Abraham Lincoln, for example, but we know that he was a charismatic person and a wise leader, because we have learned about him in books, magazines, or websites and seen TV- programs and films dedicated to him. Every person has certain beliefs about a great amount of things which he/she has never seen directly in real life, and it can be considered as an effect of mass-media.
  • Attitudes are personal judgments about someone or something. When the mass media presents information about people, events, issues, or products, this provokes people to make their own judgments about the above-mentioned information.
  • Affect includes the feelings people experience, their emotions, and moods. The media is often directed to trigger strong emotions such as dread, lust, rage, and laughter.
  • A physiological effect is an automatic response of the body to information received from media. The body response can be automatic (such as the increase of blood pressure) or quasi-automatic (rapid pulse, sexual responses). For example, when we watch an action movie, our pulse and blood pressure increase, as usual. Our muscles tense and palms become sweat.
  • Behaviors are typically defined as the unconcealed actions of a person. The results of mass media effect can be indicated in our behaviors by such things as buying and using the advertised products, discussing political issues, emulation to the habits of a movie hero we sympathize with.

The numeric studies of media effects lead to the appearance of different theories concerning this issue. The most known theories are the following.

  • Cultivation theory. This theory is developed by George Gerbner. It claims that “Persistent long term exposure to tv content has small but measurable effects on the perceptual worlds of audience members” (Media Effect Theories n.p.).
  • Social Action Theory. The authors of this theory are Anderson and Meyer. In accordance with this theory,

“Audiences are neither hapless nor passive. Media audiences participate actively in mediated communication; they construct meanings from the content they perceive. Social action theory sees communication interaction in terms of actors’ intent, receivers' interpretations, and message content. Meaning is not delivered in the communication process; rather it is constructed within it. Each communication act generates, at least, three separate and potentially different sites of this construction” (Media Effect Theories n.p.).

  • Agenda setting theory. This theory was designed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw. In accordance with the article Media Effect Theories, this theory

“…contrasts with the selective exposure hypothesis of cognitive dissonance, reaffirming the power of the press while maintaining individual freedom, …aligns well with social judgment theory, …contrasts with the selective exposure hypothesis of cognitive dissonance, reaffirming the power of the press while maintaining individual freedom, …is consistent with a “use and gratification” approach to television viewers’ motives (and dependency theory), …represents a back-to-basics approach to mass communication research, with a focus on election campaigns” (Media Effect Theories n.p.).

  • Media dependency theory. The theorists are Ball-Rokeach and DeFluer. The key ideas of media dependency theory are “audiences depend on media information to meet needs and reach goals” (Media Effect Theories n.p.), and “social institutions and media systems interact with audiences to create needs, interests, and motives in the person” (Media Effect Theories n.p.).

Media effects are divided into 2 groups: short-term and long-term effects. Short-term effects include the following effects:

  • Imitation and Copying Behavior. People of all ages mimic and incorporate the behaviors of the characters seen in media performs they watch.
  • Triggering Novel Behavior. For example, after watching a violent video, a person may be stimulated to act aggressively, although he/she has not been predisposed to violence earlier.
  • Disinhibiting. Media may reduce viewers’ inhibitions and make them reprogram their values.
  • Attraction. People may be attracted to what is represented by the media.
  • Fight or Flight effect. It provokes people’s bodies to reflect what is seen in media by appropriate physical reactions (for example, increasing pulse rapid, blood pressure while watching of a video with the violent content).
  • Excitation Transfer. Some of the scenes represented in media can provoke arousal in people, which can lead to different unpleasant consequences if is not controlled.
  • Temporary Fear. Information on certain content may provoke intense fright reactions, which may lead to distress anxiety and intensive psychological excitement.
  • Desensitization. Mass media decrease people’s emotional reactions, which breaks down their natural resistance to stresses and the tendency to commit violent acts.
  • Catharsis. It is an emotional effect that is achieved when a person uses media with the purpose to get rid of negative emotions (for example, rage or fear). However, it may work only in case if a person us on a high point of anxiety.
  • Immediate Creation or Change of Attitudes. The personal attitude to someone or something may be created or changed after receiving some information from the media.
  • Learning Specific Acts and Lessons is the acquisition of the facts which can be recalled after some time. In this case, learning is not planned, and people do not have a special intention to learn, and the message sender does not have the purpose to teach anything.
  • Learning Behaviors. People not only learn the behavior of a character performed in media. They also learn about the consequences of their behavior.

Long term media effects include as follows:

  • Generalizing to Novel Behaviors. People can borrow and generalize a particular behavior to a broader set of behaviors.
  • Long-Term Triggering. Staying under the permanent exposure of mass media, people believe more and more that in order to be happy and successful, they need to copy a lifestyle and consume certain products proposed by mass media.
  • Malformed Super Ego. As media often does not give any feedback on people’s behavior, they may develop their own superego system which can be wrongly formed.
  • Training Behavior. Media can shape people’s behavior by means of training.
  • Physiological Adaptation. When a person gets used to watching scenes of violent or sexual content, his/her body stops giving appropriate responses such as pulse increase or sweating palms.
  • Narcotizing. Permanent exposure to media can dull people’s reactions and become a narcotic, which a person may become very addicted to.
  • Emotional Habituation. People become addicted to pseudo-emotional connections with elusive characters in media and do not experience real emotions from real life.
  • Long-Term Reinforcement of Attitudes and Beliefs
  • Cultivation of Fear. After watching a lot of violent scenes or negative news, people cultivate their inner fears and beliefs that the world is a violent place full of dread and cruelty.
  • Generalizing Patterns. After much exposure to media content, people tend to believe that some particular situations, facts, and events are general. For example, if a person watches videos with the scenes of murder, he or she believes that such events are normal and take place everywhere and every time.
  • Learning Social Norms. People may generalize some individual traits and behaviors in which media expounds without understanding that these patterns are not the commonly accepted social norms.

Programming Us How to Think

Changing Institutions

To conclude, it is necessary to mention that the media affects people both positively and negatively. The range of positive effects in concluded in the fact that information about the latest events is received by people instantly and by available means. The vision of media reaches even the remotest corners of the country and makes sure that everyone is aware of what is going on in the country. The easy and swift availability of any given information makes media one of the most reliable sources for forming public opinion. It bridges the gap between the leaders and the masses by becoming their channels of communication. According to the article Effects of Media in Our Society,

“It brings into open the innumerable achievements that are going on in the country. Media gives ordinary people the power to reach out to society as a whole. It can make heroes out of ordinary men. The media acts as a deterrent to corrupt practices and keeps a check on the working of the government. Media has significantly promoted social causes such as literacy, health management, anti-dowry practices, discouraging female feticide, AIDS awareness, etc.” (Effects of Media in Our Society n.p.).

However, mass media may influence us in a negative manner. In accordance with the Effects of Media in Our Society, “Media can adversely affect the thinking capability of individuals and instill negative or destructive thinking patterns in the society as a whole. As already said before, the media has the power to form and alter opinions. It means media can portray an ordinary thing so negatively that it may force people to think or act in quite the opposite way. Media glorifies violence and contains graphic descriptions or images. When viewed by the vulnerable portion of the society, i.e., the children, it can have grave effects on their upcoming and thinking patterns. The media can, sometimes, go out of the way in advertising or glorifying certain issues. Usually, a bad or detrimental message is packaged in a glorious way and is made accessible to the public. Movies that depict filthy rich thieves who do not bat an eyelid before killing someone or extorting someone and the getting away with it, sure give entertainment to people. At the same time, it encourages them to act in a way that promises adventure and thrill in life. This way, the media glorifies the bad aspects of people and encourages them to act in forbidden ways” (Effects of Media in Our Society n.p.).