Cultivation theory suggests that heavy exposure to consistent and recurrent messages on television will “reiterate, confirm, and nourish” values and shape perceptions of social reality to conform to those presented on television (Gerbner et al. 2002, p. 49). According to cultivation theory, Gerbner and his colleagues submit that “those who spend more time ‘living’ in the world of television are more likely to see the ‘real world’ in terms of the images, values, portrayals, and ideologies that emerge through the lens of television” (Gerbner et al. 2002, p. 47). That is, people who watch a lot of television are more likely to express opinions and hold values similar to those represented on television than are people who watch only a little television.
For example, years of message analyses indicate that violent crimes occur more frequently on television than they do in the real world, according to FBI statistics; heavy exposure to television cultivates a misconception about crime and law enforcement in general (Gerbner et al. 2002). Applying this theory to mental illness stigma would suggest that people who watch a lot of television would assume a television world view of mental illness. Similarly, according to social learning theory (Bandura 1986), learning can be achieved through not only direct experience but also through observation. Individuals can learn a great deal about the world through what they see and hear, particularly through media sources (Bandura 2002). Bandura (2002) would submit that as people watch television they acquire knowledge about behaviors as well as social conventions such as rules of conduct.
Furthermore, according to social learning theory, those behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be learned and invoked than those behaviors that are punished or unrewarded. Once again, the nature of the depiction has implications for the lessons learned. Applying this theory to mental illness stigma would suggest that television teaches social conventions of how to treat individuals with mental illness. Together, these two theories work in tandem with each other; cultivation analysis provides descriptions of the recurrent messages that are being vicariously learned via observation (social learning theory). In the absence of real world experience with people with mental illness, ndividuals may rely on the media for their perceptions of those who have mental illnesses (Link and Cullen 1986). Meanwhile, the media tend to consistently link portrayals of people with mental illness and violent behavior to a degree greater than the real world association (Wahl 1992). This recurrent depiction can lead to learning through media exposure that people with mental illness are dangerous, are to be feared, and should be avoided. Recent research supports this notion, finding that those who watch a lot of television hold more negative views of individuals with mental illness than do those who watch only a little (Granello and Pauley 2000)