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 communications Americans receive may elicit only a superficial concern with the problems of society, while importance of real action is neglected, and this superficiality may cover up mass apathy. Thus, it is termed "dysfunctional" as it assumed it is not in the best interests of the people who compose modern complex society to form a social mass that is politically apathetic and inert. The term narcotizing dysfunction was coined in the article Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action, by Paul F. Lazarsfeld, and Robert K. Merton.
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. People have confused knowing about an issue with doing something about it. 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.
Research on understanding media effects have gone through 3 phases during the 20th century. From the 1920s to 1940s researchers believed the media had a powerful effect on its audience. This assumes the audience is passive and uncritical of the media’s messages. This phase is characterized by the Hypodermic needle model or Bullet Theory. This theory was used to explain how World War II propaganda changed behavior – convincing men to join the service, housewives to change food habits, and improving the morale of new soldiers. From the 1940s through the 1960s, researchers believed that people were more influenced by their friends and family than the media. The minimalist effects theory includes narcotizing dysfunction because the audience withdraws from real issues and becomes passive. In this phase instead of the media telling people what to think, it tells the audience what to think about (sets the agenda). From the 1960s to today, researchers believe that the media can have both powerful and limited effects on society, depending on situational factors. The media may impact the development of attitudes, beliefs, and values, and it may be more influential on some personalities than others.
- 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).
- Merton, Robert King; Lazarsfeld, Paul Félix (1957) [1st pub. in Mass culture Free Press:1957]. Mass Communication,popular Taste and Organized Social Action. Bobbs-Merrill Reprint Series in the Social Sciences, S163. Bobbs-Merrill. OCLC 29423152.
- Baran, S.;Davis, D: Mass Communication Theory (fifth edition) (Wadsworth, 2009).