Personality traits, television viewing, and the cultivation effect.

Author:Nabi, Robin L.

More than three decades of cultivation research support small, though significant, effects of television (TV) exposure on perceptions of social reality (e.g., Morgan & Shanahan, 1996). Theoretically, the most commonly cited explanation for such effects focuses on the cognitive processes underlying them (e.g., Shrum, 1995), specifically the accessibility of constructs from memory as a function of the heuristic processing of media fare. Although much cultivation literature focuses on determining the key variables that might influence the relationship between TV exposure and perception of the social world, the potential for personality traits to influence the elicitation of cultivation effects has been ignored. This is surprising, given that personality traits, like TV exposure, likely influence construct accessibility. Given the centrality of accessibility in current cultivation theorizing, this research examines how certain personality traits might impede (or facilitate) the cultivation process. As such, they have the potential to illuminate the conditions under which stronger cultivation effects might be expected or, conversely, conditions under which cultivation effects might be unlikely to be found.

Cultivation Theory

Cultivation theory asserts that common conceptions of reality are cultivated by overall patterns of TV programming to which communities are regularly exposed over long periods of time (Gerbner, 1969; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002). Gerbner and his colleagues propose that compared to light TV viewers, heavy viewers are more likely to perceive the world in ways that mirror reality as presented on TV rather than more objective measures of social reality. Researchers have tested and found support for the cultivation hypothesis in a range of contexts (e.g., Morgan & Shanahan, 1996); however, the bulk of cultivation research focuses on TV violence and its effects on perceptions of real-world incidences of crime and victimization (e.g., Potter, 1993, for a review). Numerous content analyses have documented that the number of violent acts on American network TV greatly exceeds the amount of real-world violence (e.g., Diefenbach & West, 2001). In turn, heavy TV viewers: (a) overestimate the incidence of serious crime in society (first-order effects), and (b) are more likely to believe that the world is a mean place where people cannot be trusted and are just looking out for themselves (second-order effects; Gerbner et al., 2002; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980).

Although originally a more sociologically based theory, cultivation theorizing has taken a decidedly psychological approach in recent years. Shrum's research program in particular offers evidence that overestimates of crime prevalence are likely the result of heuristic processing of TV programming, allowing TV-based constructs to enjoy higher accessibility in the minds of heavy viewers (e.g., Shrum, 2001). That is, because heavy viewers are recently and frequently exposed to certain common images and themes on TV, those themes become more accessible in memory and thus more influential in making judgments, like violence prevalence estimates.

Several methodological and conceptual critiques of cultivation (e.g., Doob & Macdonald, 1979; Potter, 1993) have motivated consideration of potential moderators of the cultivation effect. Most notable is personal experience (Doob & Macdonald, 1979; Shrum & Bischak, 2001; Weaver & Wakshlag, 1986), which has been proposed to have two potential effects. Resonance suggests cultivation effects may be amplified in situations where viewers have more real-world experience whereas mainstreaming suggests that TV exposure might override differences in perspectives that might ordinarily result from personal experiences (e.g., Gerbner et al., 2002).

In addition to personal experience, the cultivation literature has revealed several other variables that moderate the cultivation effect, including viewing motivations (e.g., Carveth & Alexander, 1985); attention level; need for cognition (Shrum, Burroughs, & Rindfleisch, 2005); nation of origin (Woo & Dominick, 2003); and elaboration styles (Shrum, 2001). Despite these advances, however, scholars argue for the need to investigate other potential moderators of the relationship between mass media exposure and crime perceptions (e.g., Shrum & Bischak, 2001). In considering viable directions for such investigations, it seems reasonable to step back and ask:

On what premises are cultivation effects based, and what about the receiver is likely to shape those outcomes? As the cultivation paradigm is predicated on the assumption that TV socializes individuals from infancy and thus its effects predate most experiences, individual differences that predate TV exposure would be of considerable interest. Chief among these are personality traits, which may not only impact processing of TV messages but may also influence construct accessibility, the prime mechanism posited to underlie cultivation effects.

Personality Traits and Cultivation Effects

According to H. J. Eysenck (1990), personality is a hierarchical structure comprised of single and habitual cognitions or acts, dimensions or patterns of thoughts and feelings (i.e., traits), and intercorrelations between traits. Because personality traits are relatively enduring over time, they are generally presumed to be governed by genetic factors (H. J. Eysenck, 1992; for a review, see Matthews, Deary, & Whiteman, 2003). However, there is some evidence that environment may play a role in shaping personality over the life span (e.g., Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006). H. J. Eysenck (1990) argues for three broad personality dimensions: neuroticism, psychoticism, and extraversion. According to Eysenck, neuroticism represents emotional instability, and its component traits include anxiety, moodiness, tension, shyness, and low self-esteem. Psychoticism represents emotional independence and is marked by a hostile disposition, lack of empathy, impulsivity, creativity, and tough-mindedness. In contrast, extraversion is characterized by sociability, activity, and sensation seeking.

According to Wober (1986), personality traits have been remarkably understudied in media research up until the mid 1980s. Since then, researchers have focused largely on how personality traits impact media selection and preference (e.g., Bruggemann & Barry, 2002; Weaver, 1991; Weaver, Brosius, & Mundorf, 1993), with much less attention paid to the ways in which personality variables shape media effects processes and outcomes. Still, some evidence exists in this domain. For example, Gunter found that neuroticism (Gunter & Furnham, 1983) and psychoticism (Gunter, 1983) enhance perceptions of violent TV content. Relatedly, Zillmann and Weaver (1997) found that after exposure to gratuitous violence, high psychotic males were more accepting of violence as a means of conflict resolution. These findings suggest that personality traits impact the ways in which individuals respond to mass media messages. However, such traits fail to be integrated into broader theoretical frameworks. The goal of this research is to incorporate notions of personality trait into the cultivation paradigm.

Although cultivation research rarely includes personality variables (though Bryant, Carveth, & Brown, 1981, offer a notable exception), recent theoretical advancements lay the foundation for this sort of integration. Recall that Shrum's (1995) model posits that TV exposure leads to first-order cultivation effects because it makes TV images and themes readily accessible in memory. Social cognition research, however, has demonstrated that both external stimuli and internal factors have the ability to affect construct accessibility (Bargh, Lombardi, & Higgins, 1988). Further, certain constructs may become chronically accessible, even in the absence of a prime, when a person has frequent and consistent related experiences given their unique life history and social encounters (e.g., Higgins & King, 1981; Higgins, King, & Mavin, 1982).

Here, it is argued that personality traits represent internal factors that affect one's unique life history and social encounters and, therefore, promote chronic construct accessibility. This view is supported by the evidence that personality traits are related to cognitions (Calvo & Castillo, 2001 b), opinions and attitudes (Zillmann & Weaver, 1997), behavioral tendencies (McCroskey, Heisel, & Richmond, 2001), and direct experiences (McCrae, 1996). If, as asserted, certain personality traits predispose individuals to have related constructs already chronically accessible, it would limit TV's opportunity to impact accessibility. Thus, it is expected that cultivation effects are somewhat dependent on personality traits. Below key traits related to H. J. Eysenck's (1990) personality dimensions are elaborated and predictions are offered as to how these traits might interact with TV viewing to affect cultivation outcomes.

Neuroticism/Trait Anxiety

Generally speaking, those high in neuroticism exhibit cognitive biases towards negative, dangerous thoughts; experience more stress; and tend to have lower life satisfaction than low neurotics (for a review, see Matthews et al., 2003). Neuroticism's subcomponent of trait anxiety is of particular interest as it has been a focus in the media effects literature (Bryant et al., 1981). By definition, trait anxiety is a person's proneness to perceive potential harms in his or her environment (H. J. Eysenck, 1992). Research on the relationship between anxiety and cognitive processes has shown that trait-anxious individuals exhibit an attentional bias towards threatening stimuli (MacLeod & Matthews, 1988), are more likely to jump to negative conclusions when presented with ambivalent information (Calvo & Castillo, 2001 a), and judge ambiguous situations as threatening (Calvo & Castillo...

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