Jessica Shaw, Hannah Sheehan, and Nick Pulliam

In this chapter we will be discussing theories of mass communication. The Three we have chosen to highlight are The Cultivation Theory, The Spiral of Silence Theory and the Hypodermic Needle Theory. Understanding the different theories of mass communication is important because it makes you as a viewer more conscious of how the media may be affecting you.

Cultivation Theory 

What is cultivation theory? Cultivation theory is the Idea that media affects its audiences, not only consciously, but subconsciously as well. The theory states when we are constantly exposed to the gender roles, cultural norms, and lifestyles by the media, the more we will try to subconsciously match these ideals (Coenen 21).

This theory was founded by George Gerbner in 1976, and was based on the ideas that Television has a bigger influence on its viewers than any other form of mass media (Coenen 12). Gerbner believed this because television has become a central part of our lives, and culture in the 21st century. He also stated that television does not mirror reality, but it makes an alternate one. This unrealistic reality, will become the viewers Ideal, and they will tend to reflect this in their own lives (Cultivation Theory 2). The more time an individual  spends watching TV, the more affected by this they will be.  Because television programs are based on the more emotion stirring points in life, such as crime, and tragedy. Heavy TV users can also start to see the world as a much scarier place, this is known as the “Mean World Syndrome” (Cultivation Theory 2). These television shows can make a heavy viewers reality seem much darker than a light viewer because the shows they watch constantly highlight the crime, a light user may not notice or see in their everyday lives.

A common misconception about the cultivation theory is the fact that watching violent television programs makes a person violent. Television does not change a person, but it can play a part in shaping the way they think, and what they believe. This in turn could make a person violent or it could make them very shy and quiet. How Television affects the person solely depends on what programs they are watching, and what form of reality they are trying to connect with. An example of this is Discovery Channel’s Shark week. Since Discovery started Shark week, survey have shown that people have become increasingly aware, and afraid of sharks. To the point where they have seen a drop in effort for shark conservation and donations to those organizations (Myrick 3). Even though this week of entertainment was created to showcase the power of the animal, but has backfired, because many of the programs show shark attacks, and portray the sharks as killers. It has taken the ideas people had about sharks and begun to shape them into warning signs of danger (Myrick 4).

Here is more information on Cultivation Theory.

Spiral of Silence Theory  

The Spiral of Silence theory is based around the idea that people have an almost unconscious need to belong. Meaning that most people will try to support what’s seen as the majority opinion (Lee, et al 186). For example, during a time like World War 1, speaking out against the war could have some major consequences. People were aware of this and most chose not to say anything negative. Spiral of Silence is made up of five pieces:

  1. Threat of Isolation – People are often afraid to speak out because it could result in them being cast out of their social groups. This could mean their group of friends, family, or an organization that they work for. There have been instances in the past where people have been fired from their place of employment because of something they said on the job. And friend groups have definitely been shattered because of differences in opinion.
  2. Fear of Isolation – This component goes hand in hand with the threat of isolation, since people with an unpopular opinion will often hold it in out of fear that speaking out could threaten their social standing. Oftentimes people they know will shut them out, because they’re afraid of being looked down upon as well.
  3. Quasi-statistical Sense – There has been research in the past that people almost have a “sense” of what the popular opinion is. Their belief of what’s popular may not come from one place in particular, but from multiple. It could be based on what their family is saying, their friends, the media, and people posting on social media. There’s no definite answer to how people acquire this sense, just that they’ll often listen to it in order to avoid social consequences.
  4. Willingness to Speak – Many people who hold the minority opinion are often afraid to speak out because of the reasons stated above. Oftentimes people are afraid of breaking the status quo because doing so can result in backlash. I think a good example would be when church leaders tried to stop Martin Luther King Junior from protesting in Birmingham, because of the impact it would have on a community. The fear that most people have of speaking out is why it’s so important to support someone when they actually do.
  5. Tendency to Remain Silent – Most people will accept the way things are because doing anything else could end poorly for them. Especially in societies where freedom of speech isn’t a privilege and speaking out could bring real harm to a person and their family. In the U.S. freedom of speech is a protected right, but even so, saying something unpopular can result in death threats against you and people close to you. (Spinda 16).

The Spiral of Silence theory was proposed by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974. It’s gained a fair deal of popularity since then but it does have some criticisms as well. One of the more recent ones is how it doesn’t apply to the internet in most cases, thanks to the layer of anonymity you usually find online. People are more willing to speak out when they’re alone, which is why the internet has so many controversial opinions. This doesn’t apply everywhere online, because on social media you usually have your name posted so whatever you say there could be traced back to you. That being said there are plenty of message boards and forums where you do have a certain layer of anonymity (Weichong and Yanshu 80-81).

Hypodermic Needle Theory 

This theory was created around 1920’s and 1930’s, it was inspired by the effect that Civil War propaganda had on its audience. It is one of the earliest theories of how communication connects and effects it’s audience (Lamb 32). It is a linear theory that indicates that propaganda and media is like a hypodermic needle being injected into a passive audience members brain and they will not question the information that is being communicated to them. It conveys the message that all of us, as an audience, will process and understand media in the same way.

In 1929-1932, the Payne Fund Studies did a study on how movies have direct effects on how children view and process the media, which was a way for them to prove that media is a direct way to inject opinions and/or ideas into their audience’s heads (Lamb 32). These studies went through a lot of criticism for not displaying enough scientific evidence towards their proposal. All throughout the 1930’s these studies were judged but also considered (Lamb 32). By then end of the decade, the researchers began to express that they too were feeling as if their results weren’t enough to prove any kind of theory at all.

Go here for more information about the Hypodermic needle theory.


These are just three of many theories of communication. It’s important to understand what they are because they can have a profound impact on our lives, especially as we continue to consume more media than ever before. Cultivation Theory is as prevalent as ever since the medias constant barrage of tragic stories is creating a more cynical world. The Spiral of Silence theory is interesting because it doesn’t have a real impact on people when they use the internet, since they feel more comfortable speaking openly. That doesn’t mean they aren’t afraid of speaking out in group settings though. The Hypodermic Needle Theory may be more important than it’s ever been. In the past blatant propaganda was used to influence a passive audience. In today’s digital world, anyone can post anything and pass it off as the truth and more often than not, the passive audience will believe it to be the truth. If people don’t want to be manipulated by media creators, they need to understand the major theories of communication so that they can form their own opinion.

Works Cited

Coenen, Lennert and Jan Van den Bulck. “Cultivating the Opinionated: The Need to Evaluate Moderates the Relationship between Crime Drama Viewing and Scary World Evaluations.” Human Communication Research, vol. 42, no. 3, July 2016, pp. 421-440.

“Cultivation Theory.” Communication Studies, 5 May 2012, http://www.communicationstudies.com/communication-theories/cultivation-theory.


Lamb, Brett. “The Hypodermic Needle Theory.” Lessonbucket, 12 Apr. 2013, http://lessonbucket.com/media-in-minutes/the-hypodermic-needle-theory/.

Lee, Hyegyu., Tsuyoshi Oshita, Hyung J. Oh, and Thomas Hove. “When Do People Speak Out? Integrating the Spiral of Silence and the Situational Theory of Problem Solving.” Journal of Public Relations Research 26 (2014): 185-189.

Li, Weichong and Yanshu Sun. “Re-examining the Spiral of Silence Theory in the Chinese Social Context of Weibo.” Intercultural Communication Studies, 26.1 (2017): 80-108.

Morgan, Michael, et al. “Yesterday’s New Cultivation, Tomorrow.” Mass Communication & Society, vol. 18, no. 5, Sep/Oct 2015, pp. 674-699.

Myrick, Jessica Gall and Suzannah D. Evans. “Do Psas Take a Bite out of Shark Week? The Effects of Juxtaposing Environmental Messages with Violent Images of Shark Attacks.” Science Communication, vol. 36, no. 5, Oct. 2014, pp. 544-569.

Spinda, John S. “Keep it Local or Keep it Out? An Examination of the Spiral of Silence and Local Alcohol Option Laws in Kentucky.” Kentucky Journal of Communication, 33.2 (2014): 44-65.



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Introduction to Media Studies Copyright © by Jessica Shaw, Hannah Sheehan, and Nick Pulliam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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