Mass communication is something we're all affected by in one way, or another. Directly, or indirectly, information transmitted by today's communication mediums shape and direct a society's expectations and behaviors. The impacts of mass communication exert a cognitive effect on us as individuals, and as a social group. The cognitive theory examines how repeated exposure to the media changes human behavior.
Values--both personal and societal--are the focus within the cognitive theory of mass communication. The methods used to relay information are based on how values are formed, structured and directed within our minds. Research within psychology, marketing and communications all combine to give us an understanding of how media interacts with a society's value system. Based on structured methods that work on values, attitudes, emotions and behavior, the effects of mass communication can be pre-determined, and put to use.
A person's value system is built on pre-learned patterns of how to identify people and things in her environment, and how to interact with them. Patterns that carry an emotional overtone have the most impact on a person's value system. Cognitive theory refers to these patterns as Exemplars. These are the building blocks that make up a value system. Exemplars represent accumulated information blocks within a person's psychological make-up. Mass communication mediums like television and newspapers affect us on a daily basis. Cognitive theory views the information passed along through these sources as seeded with exemplars. Over a period of years, or decades, the media's portrayal of exemplars becomes a means by which value systems can be changed.
Media advertisers make use of exemplars within their advertising campaigns. Cognitive theory calls this the Priming method. Based on what's called a Landscape Model, advertisers can determine where best to promote a product within a television show, a newspaper, or a movie. Product placement within the framework of a story is based on where the product will most impact the viewers. In the case of movies, or sitcoms, the actors, situations and storylines we identify with become exemplars. Over the course of years, they become incorporated into our behavior patterns, and ultimately, our value systems. Mass communication, within this context, becomes a symbolic message that's used to alter our mental models.
Albert Bandura, a prominent psychologist throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and the founder of social cognitive theory, is quoted as saying: "TV is the source of the most broadly shared images and messages in history. It is the mainstream of the common symbolic environment into which our children are born and in which we all live out our lives." The effects of mass communication on the individual are seen as easily cultivated over years and years of exposure to the media. The effect of this long term exposure takes the shape of a worldview--or perspective--held by the individuals that make up a society. This principle is called the Heuristic Processing Model of Cultivation Effects. Not unlike the emotional overtones contained within exemplars, the heuristic model regards the media's use of emotionally charged information, or stories, as a way to effect how a person forms judgements about people, and situations.
Albert Bandura's theory on the cognitive effects of mass communication provides an understanding of how the media affects social change within a society. Symbolic communications--exemplars, priming, and cultivation--work as a subtext within the information conveyed to us through mass communication. By reproducing the events of our everyday lives, media becomes a social model, able to influence our ideas, values and behaviors; and ultimately, the society we live in.