VIEWING HABITS According to Henry J. Perkinson (1997), in contemporary society, over 90 million people view television daily, and the average American home has its TV set on for more than seven hours each day. Furthermore, the typical United States citizen spends one half of his/her leisure time viewing the "Boob Tube". Perkinson also claims that from the age of five to eighteen, an American child watches fifteen thousand hours of television programming. That amount is 30 percent more than the number of hours spent in school. Considering the ubiquitous nature of mass media in American culture, it is important to note the social psychological impact of this exposure to television viewers. Rarely do day- time or primetime programs depict situations in life in an accurate and realistic fashion. It is due to this distortion and lack of diversity on television that has led civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, to protest against the stereotypical portrayal of characters on certain television shows. These shows fail to realistically depict the lives of African Americans, women, homosexuals, and the elderly -- among other minority groups.

SOCIAL IDENTITY According to social psychological literature, the mere categorization of people into groups is sufficient to increase attraction to in-group members and may lead to the devaluation of outgroup members (Tesser, 1995). This minimal group paradigm consists of an "us" group with a common identity, and a "them" group that is perceptually different. According to the social identity theory proposed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner (1986), individuals tend to 1) categorize people using labels, 2) identity with certain groups (in-groups), and 3) compare and contrast our groups with other groups (outgroups) -- typically with a favorable bias towards our own. The previously mentioned outgroup homogeneity effect may lead to biased explanations for actions and behaviors. These behaviors, like stereotypes, may be either positive or negative. For example, Asians may be stereotyped as being disciplined, hard-working people who excel in mathematics, while African Americans or homosexuals may be viewed in a more negative light. In television shows that portray Blacks solely as criminals, the entire population may be seen as inferior, law violating thugs; in relation to programs like Ellen and Will & Grace, homosexuals may be characterized as either comical or flaky individuals. The explanations in-group members contrive to account for the behaviors of outgroup members are dubbed the ultimate attribution error. The error consists of attributing negative outgroup behaviors to personality flaws and disposition; positive behavior is typically ignored. Since the latter are not consistent with in-group expectations, they are consequently disregarded.

STEREOTYPES The word "stereotype" became part of the modern vernacular due to Walter Lippman (1992). Stereotypes serve as a short cut in perceiving and processing information from the complex world around us. This evaluation of others focuses on three aspects of impression formation. First, people see others as group members before responding to them as individuals (and this is done so only when necessary). Second, newly acquired information tends to be stored and organized in relation to salient group characteristics. Finally, stereotypes result in biased information processing in terms of memory --> availability heuristics.
Stereotypes affect the manner in which people interact with others of a different race or ethnicity, age group, religious background, or sexual orientation. Gender stereotypes are also prevalent within mass media.According to a study conducted by Nancy Signorielli, Douglas McLeod, and Elaine Healy (1994), female characters on MTV appeared less frequently, possessed beautiful bodies, wore skimpy clothing, and were portrayed as objects. Considering that 60 percent of American households receive MTV as a part of their cable packages, it is important to analyze its content and the effect of such gender role stereotyping on its audience.

BODY IMAGE The "normal" female body image touted by MTV conflicts with the physique of the typical American woman. On a general scale, the majority of citizens in this country are overweight; this should plainly illustrate that televisions distorts facts. Moreover, this ultra-thin, body image of women on television may have detrimental effects on younger female viewers. These impressionable girls may develop low self-esteem, not to mention eating disorders, as a result of such images. Primetime television shows that cast anorexic-looking women include Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Melrose Place.

SUMMARY It is difficult to draw causal relationships between body images on MTV and primetime with larger societal problems such as discrimination and eating disorders. However, it is plausible to state that stereotypes perpetuated by the entertainment industry contribute to biased perceptions of minority groups. In order to combat this distorted "reality" presented by broadcasting companies, it is necessary to create measures that counter the stereotypes on television.


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This tutorial was produced for Psy 324, Advanced Social Psychology, Spring 2000 at Miami University.  All graphics are from the public domain, used with permission, or were created by the authors.  Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).   Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 23:37:42. This document has been accessed 1  times since 1 May 2000. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman