Narcotizing dysfunction is a theory that as mass media inundates people on a particular issue, they become apathetic to it, substituting knowledge for action. It is suggested that the vast supply of communication Americans receive may elicit only a superficial concern with the problems of society. This would result in real societal action being neglected, while superficiality covers up mass apathy. Thus, it is termed "dysfunctional" as it indicates the inherent dysfunction of both mass media and social media during controversial incidents and events. The theory assumes that it is not in the best interests of people to form a social mass that is politically apathetic and inert. The term narcotizing dysfunction was identified in the article "Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action", by Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and Robert K. Merton.
Mass media's overwhelming flow of information has caused the populace to become passive in their social activism. Because the individual is assailed with information about a huge range of issues and problems and they are knowledgeable about or able to discuss these issues, they believe they are helping to resolve these issues. As more time is spent educating oneself on current issues, there is a decrease in time available to take organized social action. Courses of action may be discussed, but they are rather internalized and rarely come to fruition. In short, people have unwittingly substituted knowledge for action. People's consciences are clear, as they think they have done something to address the issue. However, being informed and concerned is not a replacement for action. Even though there are increasing numbers of political messages, information, and advertisements available through traditional media and online media, political participation continues to decline. People pay close attention to the media, but there is an overexposure of messages that can get confusing and contradictory so people do not get involved in the political process.
The term narcotizing dysfunction gained popularity from its use in the 1948 article "Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action", by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton. In Lazarsfeld and Merton's article, it appears as the third function of mass media's problematic social effects, alongside social status conferral function and the enforcement of social norms.
- Baran et al. pp.179-80 quotation:
one of the first media effects to be studied in some depth using functional analysis was the narcotizing dysfunction, the idea that as news about an issue inundates people, they become apathetic to it... These findings were disturbing because they suggested that even when media are effective at surveying the environment and calling attention to societal problems (a manifest function), ... media coverage might "narcotize" [the public] so that they become apathetic and decide that they are powerless to do anything (a latent dysfunction).
- Eşitti, Şakir (April 2016). "Narcotizing Effect of Social Media" (PDF). Rethinking the Contributions of Social Media to Democracy and Social Movements. Cankiri Karatekin University Journal of Institute of Social Sciences. 7 (1): 1023. ASOS f187234. Retrieved August 7, 2018.
...social media can act against political participation & grass roots mobilization because social media & other internet based technologies "discourage face-to-face communication"
- Lazarsfeld PF, Merton RK. "Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action" (PDF).
- Merton, Robert King; Lazarsfeld, Paul Félix (1957) [1st pub. in The Communication of Ideas: A Series of Addresses, 1948]. Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action. Bobbs-Merrill Reprint Series in the Social Sciences, S163. Bobbs-Merrill. OCLC 29423152.
- Grant, August E. (2014). e-Study Guide for: Understanding Media Convergence. ISBN 9781467247054. Retrieved August 8, 2018.
- Eşitti, Şakir (2016-04-01). "Narcotizing Effect of Social Media". Çankırı Karatekin Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi. 7.
- Whitaker, Rik; Ramsey, Janet; Smith, Ronald D. (19 December 2008). MediaWriting: Print, Broadcast, and Public Relations. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780203886700 – via Google Books.
- Baran, S.;Davis, D: Mass Communication Theory (fifth edition) (Wadsworth, 2009).
- Lazarsfeld, Paul Felix, and Robert King Merton. Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action. Bobbs-Merrill, College Division, 196AD.