Do you think we live in a mean and terrible world? Then you may have mean world syndrome.
Mean world syndrome is a concept proposed by George Gerbner, an influential professor of communication who spent his life studying how culture and media influences our beliefs and perception about society.
The basic idea behind mean world syndrome is that too much exposure to violence and crime through TV, movies, music, video games, and culture can influence some individuals to believe that we live in an inherently evil and mean world.
I used to believe that people were generally bad. It’s hard not to when you can turn on the news at any given time and hear about all the cruel and tragic things people do. Most of the stuff that gets reported is about something really devastating: war, murder, theft, greed, suicide, violence, rape, etc.
When that is the kind of information you consume on daily basis, it becomes really easy to fall into the trap of mean world syndrome. Everyone is seen as a potential threat or enemy. And that in-itself can become a kind of self-fulfilling belief, where your perception of society affects how you interact with others.
In a study published in Media Psychology, individuals who watched more violent media gave higher estimates of the likelihood of crime happening in the real world. Researchers say this is due to the “availability heuristic,” our mind’s tendency to judge the likelihood of an event based on how easy it is for us to think of examples of it.
So when you watch a lot of bad news, you build up a rich reservoir of negative information to draw on. Maybe you hear about murders and theft everyday, so you begin to become excessively fearful or protective that something bad is going to happen to you too. Thus the mean world syndrome begins to develop.
In another study, it was found that individuals who had spent more time watching television during childhood and adolescence were significantly more likely to have a criminal conviction, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, and more aggressive personality traits compared with those who viewed less television.
This reminds me of the classic “Bobo doll experiment” done in the 1960s which showed children who watched a video clip of an adult being aggressive toward a doll were more likely to imitate that aggression when left alone with the doll by themselves. You can check it out here:
It’s important to be aware of this susceptibility to mean world syndrome and find ways to limit the negative influence culture can have on our beliefs and behavior. Here are recommendations for overcoming mean world syndrome in your everyday life.
Be mindful of the media you consume
Most of the mass media we consume – whether it’s Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, Huffington Post, Alternet, or whatever – thrives on reporting news that is sensationalized and dramatized.
They commonly appeal to negative emotions like fear, anger, and jealousy, and play off of those emotions for ratings and advertisers.
Consuming these news outlets doesn’t have to be a negative thing, so long as you think for yourself and don’t take anything you hear as truth unless you’ve backed up those claims with your own research.
Too much news can create a distorted view of reality, leading to a greater chance of mean world syndrome. Try to keep in mind that these outlets are often focused on finding news that is shocking and tragic because that is what often grabs our attention.
If you’re someone who watches television everyday, try spending a little less time and instead engaging in other activities – like reading a book, listening to music, or being creative in someway.
Don’t let the media become too big of an influence on your world perspective. And spend time thinking critically and reflecting on what you consume so you don’t just take the information you absorb for granted.
Actively look for positive news
It can be hard to find good news in our culture. There may be a funny, bizarre, or interesting story shared every now and then, but the majority of news is still dominated by negativity.
People actually do good things in this world, so instead of following the details of every economic collapse, political dispute, national tragedy, or trial of some sick and lonely criminal, why not actively look for positive and uplifting news?
Some good places to start include Uplifting News or Made Me Smile on Reddit.com. These provide a way to expose yourself to some positive news and build a more balanced and likeable view of humanity as whole. You see? Not everyone is so bad.
Try bookmarking or saving some of your favorite and most uplifting stories, then use that as a resource when you need to restore a little faith in society. This will help keep you mentally healthy and sound, even while other news outlets are focusing on all of the drama in the world.
Violence and crime is on the decline
Our culture can often paint the picture that we live in an inherently mean world, but is it even true when you look at the evidence and data?
According to evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, most violence and crime have actually been on a steady decline over recent history.
Is society perfect? No, and humans still do ugly things, but from a broader view most of the world is better off today than it was 100-200 years ago. And that’s a positive sign that we are moving in the right direction.
So despite all the evil in the world, there are plenty of things to be optimistic about – we are constantly improving our technology, communication, healthcare, businesses, governments, relationships, and awareness on various social issues.
Making the world a better place is a very gradual process, but it’s something that really exists and we all play a role in that process everyday. Once you get over your mean world syndrome, you can become a part of the solution too.
Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement from The Emotion Machine: