The Mean World Syndrome is the name of a theory by communications professor George Gerber. It describes a phenomenon in which the violent contents of media cause a viewer to believe that the world is scarier than it actually is.
I got to thinking about that theory the other day while watching TV. The premise behind the Mean World Syndrome, it seems, could be applied to all media, not just the violent stuff. After watching Pixar’s “UP,” for example, I am now much more open to the notion that if you somehow get your hands on enough helium, you’ll be able to float your house halfway around the world.
A little farfetched? Perhaps. But let’s take a look at some other examples to compare and contrast the effects of the media actually reflected in reality.
If media reflected reality, one in every 10 American citizens would be a government spy—or similar top-secret agent—who carries out each mission with a personal axe to grind. High-speed chases that do not attract actual police attention would be the norm, and exploding vehicles and abandoned hotels would be as common as fireworks on the Fourth of July.
A vast majority of the population would have access to top military combat training, and would be talented in improvised bomb-making and impeccably precise shooting from sniper lookouts, all while having access to unlimited firearms, most of which are illegal or too new to be on the market.
Also, your enemies would always be formidable, yet never able to actually hit any target at which they are aiming.
Not to mention, all of this would take place with you speeding around in your pristine vintage sports car without getting a single scratch.
If media reflected reality, I would have gotten a letter delivered by an owl inviting me to a mysterious school 10 years ago.
If media reflected reality, there’d be a whole lot more dancing and singing than even the most music-theater-loving of us could handle.
If media reflected reality, every single one of us would be able to cook flawlessly in our five-star, restaurant-style home kitchens, taking yesterday’s leftover tuna salad and turning it into a gourmet three-course banquet.
Additionally, we’d have to have either a wacky hairdo or quirky accent.
If media reflected reality, every major hospital in the nation would have a department devoted to treating a single patient a week. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would be poured into this department, which would be made up of one doctor and his three or four trainee minions, all of whom must solve an incredibly complex, high-stakes medical case in under an hour.
The patient would never tell the truth, and the first thing the doctors would always diagnose is a tumor of some sort, which it never actually would be because that would be too easy. The patient must always be revived via defibulator or tracheal intubation at least once.
The main doctor would be rude, crude, gruff, unshaven, addicted to pain medication, and would rarely visit his patients, all while breaking almost every medical and cultural rule in the book. Yet, he would never get fired by the hospital administrator, and would always be supported by the hospital attorney.
The doctor also would be allowed to search patients’ homes without consent to gain valuable, but unlikely, clues into that patient’s diagnosis.
If media reflected reality, seemingly normal and high-functioning young ladies would rationalize it’s really OK to date a vampire or werewolf, or follow a flute-playing man with goat feet into a mysterious forest.
If media reflected reality, city police departments would regularly hire outside agencies with unorthodox methodology to help solve crimes. Their services might include scaring ghosts away, psychically uncovering a spelling bee scandal or divining the location of a snarl of electrical equipment known to cause paranormal activity.
If media reflected reality, overweight men would be married to beautiful women, despite the fact that the man does absolutely nothing to help around the house and constantly says idiotic things. He might have some sort of oddball job—columnist, perhaps—that allows him to spend most of his time recreating or watching sports, while the wife cooks, cleans, does the laundry, balances the checkbook, watches the kids and runs errands.
It’s also likely that the man’s dysfunctional family lives nearby and complains about having too much fruit.
Suffice it to say, if media reflected reality, reality would be so entertaining we wouldn’t need the media.