Development of a Cognitive Process Model to Explain the Effects of Heavy Television Viewing on Social Judgment

ABSTRACT - When consumer researchers think about "television effects," they typically think advertising effects. However, the focus of this paper is on the programs between the ads. The paper reviews the extant literature on the effects of television program viewing on social judgment and proposes a cognitive processing model that can account for these effects. The model is explained and evidence supporting key components of the model is presented. Discussion focuses on the implications of the model and proposes reasons why research on television program effects should be of interest to consumer researchers.


L. J. Shrum (1998) ,"Development of a Cognitive Process Model to Explain the Effects of Heavy Television Viewing on Social Judgment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 289-294.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 289-294


L. J. Shrum, Rutgers University

[Preparation of this article and the studies described herein were supported by a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, New York City, NY.]


When consumer researchers think about "television effects," they typically think advertising effects. However, the focus of this paper is on the programs between the ads. The paper reviews the extant literature on the effects of television program viewing on social judgment and proposes a cognitive processing model that can account for these effects. The model is explained and evidence supporting key components of the model is presented. Discussion focuses on the implications of the model and proposes reasons why research on television program effects should be of interest to consumer researchers.


When consumer researchers think about "television effects," they typically think advertising effects. However, in terms of total programming, advertisements represent only a small portion of television time (although it often does not seem that way), whereas the programs between the ads constitute a much larger portion of programming and certainly a much larger portion of our attention. It is the effects of the television programs themselves in which I am most interested and which constitutes the focus of this paper.

There are a number of reasons I would like offer as to why television program effects research might be of interest to the field of consumer behavior. One relates to the sheer frequency with which Americans view television: The average family watches over seven hours per day and the average individual watches over four hours per day (Nielsen 1995), making television programming arguably one of the most heavily consumed "products" in the United States. Second, marketers make extensive use of television programs as vehicles for carrying advertisements. It seems only appropriate and responsible that marketers should be concerned with the effects of these vehicles. Third, the issue of the effects of viewing television program content (particularly sex and violence) is central to efforts to regulate and even censor television programming, and thus has direct implications for public policy. Finally, understanding the mechanisms by which television produces its effect provides information on how persuasion and judgment may take place in naturally-occurring situations. Such information is important in establishing the external validity of laboratory studies.

The purpose of this paper is three-fold. The first is to acquaint researchers with some of the basic findings and theoretical underpinnings of television effects research that have been produced by other fields or disciplines. The second purpose is to outline a cognitive process model that can account for television effects on social judgment. Finally, the third purpose is to present an agenda for future research in this area of inquiry.


Although a significant amount of research has been conducted that has investigated the effects of television on behavior (e.g., effects of film violence on aggression), much of the television effects research conducted over the past two decades has focused more closely on cognitive rather than behavioral effects. The general premise of this research is that television programs present a systematic, consistent distortion of social reality. That is, the way life is portrayed on television is often not an accurate reflection of the real world, and these portrayals are very consistent in their distortions. It then follows that frequent, long-term exposure to these distortions will cause viewers to incorporate the television portrayals into their perceptions of social reality. Gerbner and his colleagues have coined the term cultivation to capture the essence of this effect: Television viewers "cultivate" the television point of view, and such cultivation is greater for those who view relatively more television (fo a review, see Gerbner et al. 1994).

Thus, the concept of television effects rests on two empirically testable propositions: 1) television representations of reality differ from objective reality, and 2) the viewing of these distortions affects social judgment in predictable ways. Specifically, the more people watch television, the more their beliefs about reality will resemble the world as it is portrayed on television.

Television’s Distorted Reality

Considerable research has documented the ways in which television presents a very consistent, highly formulaic, but very distorted picture of social reality. One topic of distortion is crime and violence. Overt acts of crime or violence occur about five times in an average television hour, and about 75% of prime time programs contain some form of violence. Moreover, the rate of portrayal of crime and violence on television programs is over ten times greater than the real world incidence of crime and violence (Gerbner et al. 1980a; Lichter, Lichter and Rothman 1994). These figures have changed little over the last 25 years (Potter 1996).

Television also distorts the representation of people. Male television characters outnumber female characters 3-to-1 (Gerbner et al. 1980b) and characters in the 25 to 45 year old age range are overrepresented, but young and old people are underrepresented relative to their real world frequencies (Gerbner et al. 1980a). Professionals--especially doctors, lawyers, and wealthy businessmen--predominate on television, as do the upper middle class. On the other hand, blue collar and "low status" occupations (with the exception of police officers) are significantly underrepresented compared to their real world incidence (Lichter et al. 1994).

Portrayals also often resemble common stereotypes. For example, minority characters (e.g., Hispanics and African-Americans) are much less likely than white characters to have graduated from high school or hold upper status occupations (Weigel, Loomis, and Soja 1980) and Hispanic characters are portrayed as criminals twice as often as white characters (Lichter et al. 1994). In terms of gender differences, male characters are portrayed as more powerful and successful than female characters and the occupations of women are typically less central to the plot than those of men. In fact, almost 40% of female characters do not have discernable occupations, compared to 18% for males. On the other hand, women are more likely than men to be victims of crime; they are also typically younger and more attractive than men (Signorielli 1989). The elderly face similar distortions: They are greatly underestimated relative to their real world representations, and when they do appear on television, they are more likely than any other age group to be treated with disrespect (Gerbner et al. 1980a).

Television also presents an affluent world. Consumption objects and behaviors associated with an affluent lifestyle are quite common (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997; Shrum 1997a, 1997b), and television characters often exhibit an orientation toward materialism (Wells and Anderson 1996). Further, as noted earlier, high status occupations such as doctors and lawyers are vastly overrepresented relative to their real world incidence, and such overrepresentation has been stable over the last twenty years (DeFleur 1964).

Effects of Viewing Television’s Distorted Reality

The next step in pinning down television effects is to ascertain whether the viewing of television content affects social judgment. The logic of this assertion is that prolonged viewing of television’s version of reality will affect viewers’ perceptions of how the real world works. Thus, one general hypothesis is that the more people watch television, the more their beliefs will resemble television’s version of reality.

Quite a bit of evidence has been produced that supports this contention. For example, heavy television viewing has been linked to greater perceptions of the prevalence of crime and violence (Gerbner et al. 1980b; Hawkins, Pingree, and Adler 1987; Shrum and O’Guinn 1993; Shrum 1996, 1997b), greater perceptions of prostitution, alcoholism, and drug abuse (Shrum and O’Guinn 1993), greater faith in doctors (Volgy and Schwartz 1980) and greater interpersonal mistrust (Gerbner et al. 1980b). Heavy television viewing has also been shown to be associated with a heightened perception of the prevalence of divorce (Carveth and Alexander 1985; Shrum 1996) and a negative view of the quality of life (Morgan 1984). Finally, heavy television viewing has been linked to perceptions of affluence and the prevalence of particular occupations and behaviors associated with an affluent lifestyle (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997; Shrum 1997a, 1997b).

Criticisms of Television Effects Research

The research findings just reviewed have been criticized on a number of grounds (McGuire 1986). For one, most of the research has been correlational, and thus has been criticized for its inability to pin down causality. For example, some have suggested that the observed relation between television viewing and perceptions of crime may be spurious due to correlations between some third variable and both television viewing and perceptions of crime (Hirsch 1980). Such third variables might include direct experience (people who have less education and/or income may watch more television and also live in higher crime neighborhoods, Doob and Macdonald 1979) and personality (those with an external locus of control may have more fear and watch more television, Wober and Gunter 1982).

A second criticism has focused on the lack of any theoretical reasoning for how this effect occurs at the individual level. Any previous articulation of process has typically taken the form of a general learning model. However, attempts to provide evidence supportive of such a model have proven unsuccessful (Hawkins et al. 1987; Potter 1991). Some have argued that until a cognitive model that can explain television effects is successfully developed and tested, it is difficult to be comfortable with the notion that television effects are real, particularly in light of the issues of causality raised earlier (Hawkins and Pingree 1990; Shrum 1995).


One of the primary reasons that the validity of television effects has been questioned is that the effect is not necessarily intuitive. The most common argument against television effects resembles the argument against unintended effects of advertisements. That is, viewers are aware that television is not accurate in its portrayals of social reality and they would therefore be unlikely to let it affect their social judgments. Moreover, at least with entertainment television (i.e., fictional, as opposed to factual representations such as news or documentaries), people do not have an information seeking goal, but merely desire to be entertained. The premise of the model I am proposing, however, suggests that regardless of motive, viewers do in fact accumulate information from the viewing of fictional television content and, whether they realize it or not, they use this information in the process of judgment construction.

Heuristic Processing Model of Television Effects

The model I am proposing is based on the general premise that the effects of television viewing on social judgment results from people's use of heuristic processing strategies (for a detailed discussion of processing strategies, see Chaiken, Liberman, and Eagly 1989). Heuristic processing requires little effort and uses few cognitive resources, and thus often serves as a data reduction technique to simplify judgments. As such, it tends to be used when either the ability or the motivation to process information is low. The heuristic model of television effects further suggests that people often specifically apply the availability heuristic (Tversky and Kahneman 1973) when constructing social judgments. The availability heuristic posits that people infer the prevalence of a construct from its accessibility from memory. The notion of heuristic processing in general, and the application of the availability heuristic in particular, generates a number of empirically testable propositions. For simplification, the examples of social judgment I use below pertain to the construction of prevalence estimates of things over portrayed in television programs (e.g., % of people involved in a violent crime, % of people who are doctors, % of people who have a private swimming pool, etc.)

Television Viewing Increases Accessibility of Relevant Exemplars. The first proposition is that television viewing increases the accessibility of relevant information in memory. The increased accessibility is partly a function of the frequency and recency of construct activation (Higgins and King 1981; Wyer and Stull 1989). In addition, qualities of television such as the vividness and distinctiveness of portrayals may also enhance accessibility (Higgins and King 1981). Because television over represents particular constructs relative to their real world representation (e.g., crime and violence, particular occupations, marital discord, affluence, etc.), heavy television viewers should have activated and stored these constructs more frequently and recently than light viewers. Moreover, because of the dramatic nature of television, the television information that is stored may be more vivid and distinctive, further contributing to its enhanced accessibility for heavy viewers.

A number of studies suggest that constructs often portrayed on television are more accessible for heavy viewers than light viewers. For example, Shrum and O'Guinn (1993) operationalized accessibility as the speed with which people constructed their estimates of the societal prevalence of particular constructs. They found that not only did heavy viewers give higher prevalence estimates than light viewers, they also constructed their judgments faster, suggesting that information was indeed more accessible from memory for heavy viewers. These results have been replicated for a variety of dependent variables, different operationalizations of television viewing, and multiple control variables (O'Guinn and Shrum 1997; Shrum 1996; Shrum et al. 1991).

Accessibility Mediates the Relation Between Viewing and Judgment. A strict test of the availability heuristic should show that the enhanced accessibility created by television viewing mediates the relation between that level of viewing and judgment (Manis et al. 1993). Shrum and O'Guinn (1993) provided part of the evidence of this process by showing that controlling for response time reduced the effect of television viewing to nonsignificance. Shrum (1996) used path analyses to provide a more precise test. Those results indicated that amount of television viewing influenced speed of response, which in turn influenced the magnitude of the estimates. Moreover, these relations held even when the relation between television viewing and the estimates was included in the regression equation.

Television Information is not Discounted. The heuristic processing model assumes that the highly accessible, television-related exemplars that are retrieved in the process of constructing a social judgment are indeed considered relevant. Otherwise, they would not be likely to form the basis of the judgment (Herr, Kardes and Kim 1991; Higgins and Brendl 1995, experiment 1). This assumption is critical partly because it is not intuitive. The availability heuristic suggests that when people are attempting to construct estimates of, say, the percentage of people who are involved in a violent crime or the percentage of the work force that consists of lawyers, they will retrieve examples and infer frequency of occurrence from ease of retrieval. The accessibility bias created by television viewing implies that heavy viewers will have more examples stored in memory. However, many of these examples will be "television examples," and it seems reasonable to think that people will discount these examples and use information from other, more veridical sources.

Indirect evidence that television information is not discounted is provided by the reaction time studies just described. If television information were discounted and alternative information considered, heavy viewers should take longer to construct their estimates because they have more examples to discount. However, a more direct test of discounting was provided by Shrum, Wyer, and O'Guinn (1998). In study 1, source characteristics (i.e., television) were primed in two separate conditions. In source-priming conditions, source was made salient by simply having participants provide information on their television viewing habits prior making their social reality judgments. In relation-priming conditions, source was primed by forewarning participants of a possible relation between television viewing and their judgments of social reality. Finally, in no-priming conditions, participants provided their social reality estimates prior to providing information about their television viewing habits. The priming manipulations were expected to increase the salience of television as a source of information and thus increase the likelihood that participants would source-discount. As expected, television viewing was related to judgments under no-priming conditions, but priming source characteristics eliminated this effect. A second study replicated this finding, and in doing so ruled out an alternative explanation that the interaction effects between priming and television viewing resulted from adjustments participants made based on their perceptions of their own viewing level and its possible effect on their judgments.

Systematic Processing Will Reduce/Eliminate the Effect of Television Viewing. Heuristic processing tends to occur when either the motivation or ability to process information is low. It seems likely that both of these conditions may apply to the construed on of social reality estimates: The questions are reasonably difficult, people may often be in a hurry to complete the questionnaire, and perhaps most importantly, no sanctions are present for poor answers. Any of these conditions may cause people to employ a heuristic processing strategy and consequently give little thought to the source of the information they use in constructing their judgments (Shrum 1995). On the other hand, inducing people to process systematically should cause them to scrutinize a great deal of information, to be less likely to be influenced by accessibility, and more likely to discount nonveridical information (Chaiken et al. 1989; Shrum 1997c). Thus, television should have little effect on judgments under systematic processing conditions.

A recent study supports this proposition. Shrum (1997b) varied the types of processing strategies people used in constructing their social reality judgments. Under heuristic-processing conditions, participants were induced to process heuristically by instructing them to respond with the first answer that came to mind. Under systematic-processing conditions, participants were induced to process systematically by employing an accuracy motivation manipulation (Chaiken et al. 1989; Thompson et al. 1994): Data were collected in very small groups, participants were told that the instructor would "grade" their answers in their presence and that they would have to justify their answers to the experimenter. A control condition received no processing manipulation. The results showed that the control and heuristic-processing conditions produced television effects that did not differ in magnitude. However, the systematic condition evidenced no effect of television viewing.


The research just presented provides support for a number of components of the heuristic processing model of television effects. One important aspect of the model is that it can account for how television information, even though it is not necessarily considered veridical, can still be used in the process of constructing social judgments. The model builds on several areas of research in social cognition that relate to the types of information that people use in the process of constructing their perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs. Specifically, people seldom make exhaustive searches of memory for information bearing on a particular judgment, but instead tend to use the information that is most accessible as their basis for judgment (Wyer and Srull 1989). Moreover, even if this information is not veridical, people may be unable to ascertain the source (and therefore the veracity) of the information or may lack the motivation to carefully scrutinize source characteristics of information retrieved from long-term memory (Johnson, Hashtroudi, and Lindsay 1993). It seems likely that confusion regarding source characteristics and their validity would be even greater when the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, as in the case of the "reality programming" that currently enjoys such popularity (e.g., Rescue 911, America's Most Wanted, etc., which either provide actual video footage or "reenactments").

The development of a cognitive process model that can account for television effects provides convergent validity that the effects are real. Additional validity is provided by the consistency between the model and other research on psychological processes. For example, the model is also consistent with research on persuasion. Television programs may in fact be viewed as "persuasive communications" in that they at least implicitly (though not necessarily intentionally) present a particular point of view. Research on persuasion suggests that peripheral information cues (e.g., liking for actor) will be used when information is processed under low involvement conditions (Petty and Cacioppo 1986), and it seems reasonable to assume that much of television is processed in a low involvement manner.

The entertainment nature of television and the way in which it is viewed may also contribute to its persuasiveness. In an effort to be entertained, viewers will likely suspend their disbelief of the truth of television portrayals. The question is whether viewers can then effectively rid themselves of the beliefs developed during this suspension. Evidence from several streams of research suggests that they cannot do so completely. For example, research has found that attitudes may remain resistant to "debriefing" techniques (i.e., instructions that information is invalid or should be disregarded) and invalid information may still be used in subsequent judgments (Wyer and Budesheim 1987; Wyer and Unverzagt). Thus, even after viewing fictional content, people may have difficulty disregarding the presumably nonveridical information that have received from television. Similarly, Gilbert has suggested that comprehension of any assertion involves an initial belief in its validity and that these initial beliefs cannot be completely "unbelieved," particularly when time pressure and cognitive load during information acquisition are high (Gilbert, Tafarodi, and Malone 1993). Thus, an initial suspension of disbelief may be difficult to eradicate. Note also that the conditions under which unbelieving are most difficult (high cognitive load and time pressure) are the very ones that induce heuristic processing.

Finally, the model is consistent with research on the sleeper effect, where the impact of a message that is accompanied by a discounting cue (e.g., a low-credibility source) increases over time due to the faster decay of source impact compared to message impact (Pratkanis et al. 1988). In terms of television viewing, people may focus more on the meaning and implications of television information that is retrieved and less on the source of the message.

The results of the research just presented have a number of implications that may be of interest to consumer researchers. For one, the studies make a convincing case that heavy consumption of television and its distorted presentation of reality may have detrimental effects. It seems likely that the frequent portrayals of negative circumstances may serve to desensitize viewers such that they may even come to believe that such actions are "normal." This notion is consistent with research that has shown that children are more likely to tolerate aggressive behavior in others after they have viewed televised portrayals of aggression (Drabman and Thomas 1974).

The model also has implications for how television effects may be mitigated or eliminated. Taken together, the studies on source priming and systematic processing suggest that fairly simple and straightforward interventions, such as media literacy programs, may be effective in eliminating the effects of television information.

On the other hand, there is just as much reason to believe that television portrayals can serve a prosocial function. In other words, it is not the act of watching television that influences social judgment, but the content of what is viewed. Thus, portrayals of positive characters and circumstances, particularly those that might counteract existing stereotypes, may prove useful.


There are still quite a number of research questions that remain unanswered. In terms of the heuristic processing model, no work has addressed issues of involvement at the time of encoding. The study that manipulated processing strategies addressed level of involvement at the time of judgment. However, the degree of viewers' involvement while they watch television may have effects on the encoding of source characteristics and may therefore affect the ability of viewers to source-discount at the time of judgment. For example, those who are highly involved in the viewing situation -(e.g., avid fans of a particular program) should be more likely to remember the source of a particular piece of information than those who are less involved.

The heuristic processing model applies for the most part to judgments that are made in real time using information from memory. However, there are many judgments, particularly attitude and belief judgments, that may already have been constructed. In such a case, when people are asked to report these judgments, they may simply recall the prior attitude rather than recomputing it (Lichtenstein and Stull 1985). In such cases, concepts such as the availability heuristic would not be applied. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the accessibility of the attitude may increase as a function of level of television viewing. For example, heavy viewers may have more occasion to update or reinforce particular attitudes than light viewers, thereby making the judgments more accessible. Note, however, that the attitude extremity (i.e., attitude score) may not differ between heavy and light viewers, only the accessibility.

There is some evidence for this pattern of effects. Hawkins and Pingree (1982) reviewed numerous television effects studies and concluded that the effect of television on judgment was most reliable when the judgments were estimates of frequency or probability, but differences in attitudes between heavy and light viewers tended to disappear in the presence of statistical controls. On the other hand, Shrum (1997a) found that the attitudes of heavy viewers were more accessible and held with more certainty than were the attitudes of light heavy viewers. These results suggest that television may serve to reinforce rather than change attitudes, which is consistent with Gerbner's view of long term television effects (Gerbner et al. 1994). Although more research needs to be conducted to ascertain the reliability of this effect, it has important behavioral implications. In particular, given that enhanced attitude accessibility tends to increase attitude-behavior consistency (Fazio 1995), it suggests that heavy viewers may be more likely to act on their attitudes than light viewers.

Finally, the research just presented focuses almost entirely on the effects of television viewing on cognition (perceptions, attitudes, beliefs) but has little to say about links between television viewing and behavior. Although it seems reasonable to establish a link between, for example, television viewing and attitudes, and then appeal to the attitude-behavior literature as an argument for inferring a link between television viewing and behavior, establishing direct links would be more impactful. It seems likely that many of the principles of memory and judgment that comprise the heuristic processing model could be applied to research on television viewing and behavior. In fact, Berkowitz (1984) has proposed similar mechanisms for understanding the influence of the mass media on behavior. He suggests that television acts as a priming mechanism and thus may not only make concepts directly observed on television more accessible at the time of judgment (i.e., a decision to behave in a particular way), but make also make associated concepts more accessible as well. Thus, within this conceptualization, direct imitation of a behavior is not necessary; observation of any aggressive behavior may prime other aggressive behaviors for activation under the appropriate circumstances.


In this article, I have discussed research that pertains to the effects of television programming on consumers. I use the term "consumers" here not simply because the audience is composed predominantly of consumer researchers, but because viewers do in fact consume television programming. In fact, it is unclear why television consumption is fundamentally any different than the consumption of any other product, if by consumption we refer to product use, as opposed to purchase. If one subscribes to this argument, then certainly the understanding of these "product effects" are legitimate consumer research questions.

I have also attempted to not only acquaint consumer researcher with the literature on television effects (in particular, the cognitive effects), but to also provide a detailed theory of how these effects occur. Once a thorough understanding of process is achieved, it Herr, Paul M., Frank R. Kardes, and John Kim (1991), "Effects seems likely that methods to manage detrimental effects and promote desired ones can be developed.


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L. J. Shrum, Rutgers University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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