The Cynical Phenomenon That Leads People To Believe The World Is More Dangerous Than It Actually Is

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scared woman around mean people

If you watch television long enough or scroll through social media, you will likely come across all the bad things the world has to offer. Child abductions, mass shootings, and violence-related content permeate mass media showing up on every platform.

Heavy exposure to so much negativity can lead you to believe that, everywhere you turn, there will be evil afoot. This mental state is called "mean world syndrome," and it is a phenomenon that causes you to believe the worst about the people and environment around you.

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What is mean world syndrome?

The term "mean world syndrome" is a form of cognitive bias where the effect of media, particularly hours of television watching, causes you to believe the world is much more dangerous than it actually is.

The term was coined by communications professor, George Gerbner, in the 1970s, and it asserts that exposure to media violence can increase fear, pessimism, and anxiety in people.

TikToker Thomas Mulligan shared a video with an example of mean world syndrome, telling the story of a woman named Barbara who spent an extensive time watching television. She eventually became filled with assumptions and fears about the world and people around her.



In 1968, Gerbner founded the Cultural Indicators Project (CIP) to analyze the effects of television on how people viewed the real world. The study found that overtime, violence and bad news result in "cultivation theory," where ideological messages seen on TV skew viewers' perceptions about real life.

Heavy television viewers were susceptible to taking on the beliefs similar to those they saw on TV, despite experiencing differently in their lives. That media influence resulted in characteristics like isolation and depression, suggesting a connection between how much people watch television and how much they fear being victimized.

The research projects unearthed some of the beliefs associated with mean world syndrome. People start to think that crime rates are higher than they truly are, and that most people cannot be trusted and are looking out for their own interests.

In addition, stereotypes about certain groups of people develop and they become desensitized to the trauma of others.

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How does mean world syndrome affect us?

The pervasive exposure to violent acts via television starts early and has a detrimental effect on society as a whole. Seeing these things on a daily basis causes people to live in a "meaner world" and act in a way that supports that mindset.

It results in apprehensiveness about people whose views do not align with yours and a general paranoia about them.

When people are scared and dependent on the media to guide their lives, they can be manipulated, controlled, and supportive of measures that are not necessarily in their best interests.

We see this perpetuated every day in shootings of unarmed people, hate crimes, and followers standing up to defend people in leadership who are clearly in the wrong. They have been programmed to espouse certain views and may be willing to go to extensive measures to make sure they defend against a potentially imaginary threat.

There are physical, mental, and emotional impacts of mean world syndrome, too. Confusion and a "fight or flight" emerge, prompting people to either become hermits in their homes, fearful of venturing out, or to display their own violence and anger as a form of protectionism.

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How To Fight Mean World Syndrome

Mean world syndrome can be fought by first understanding what it is, then challenging our "automatic thoughts." These are things that we have inadvertently conditioned our minds to believe over time, conclusions we jump to with little or no effort.

Ask yourself questions and look for evidence to support these thoughts. Be willing to let them go when none is found.

Limiting your social media and television time is critical to controlling what goes into your psyche. You should have a good balance of positivity and reality so you can offset negative things you see with uplifting news.

Be aware that reporting about what is going on in the world can be biased and it doesn’t have to be outright, in-your-face bias. Most stories are portrayed in a way that the storyteller can get behind.

We all have different experiences and should consider what we have witnessed in our real lives as a counterbalance when listening to the views of other people.

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NyRee Ausler is a writer from Seattle, Washington, who specializes in content about self-care, self-love, self-enlightenment, interpersonal relationships, and personalities. She strives to deliver informative and entertaining news you can use to help navigate life.