It’s not me, it’s you: The Third Person Effect

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A well-documented phenomenon in communication science is the fact that individuals seem to think that others are more susceptible to media effects than themselves. We tend to assume that commercials, misinformation, or other manipulation by and via the media affect ‘the others’ more than ourselves. This is called the Third Person Effect (Davison, 1983).

Because of this, individuals also tend to overestimate the influence of the media on the attitudes and behaviour of others, and underestimate the influence on themselves. Both of these facts can be harmful: when individuals underestimate the influence of misinformation on their own attitudes and behaviour, they may become more susceptible to it. And when they overestimate the effects on others, this might lead them to take action based on their expectation of other people’s reaction to it.

Expertise plays also a relevant role in this process, especially an individual’s own (perceived) expertise as compared to others’:

“In a sense, we are all experts on those subjects that matter to us, in that we have information not available to others people. This information may not be of factual or technical nature; it may have to do with our own experiences, likes, and dislikes. Other people, we reason, do not know what we know. Therefore, they are more likely to be influenced by the media.” (Davison, 1983, p. 9)

Another relevant factor are in-group and out-group effects. Researchers have observed differences between in-group and out-group members (Jang & Kim, 2018), depending on the idea of ‘the others’, e.g. as an individual, an average person, ‘people just like me’ etc. (Conners, 2005). Jang & Kim (2018) also reported a positive relationship between media literacy and third-person perception, stating that media literacy education could minimize the potential harm of false information. The third-person effect is also related to self-enhancing tendencies such as the belief that one has a greater ability to learn from an experience than others, which seem to be cross-cultural (Johansson, 2005).

In the context of misinformation, this is an important issue: if people do not think they are influenced by false information (as opposed to others), “they may develop the false impression that information shared among them, regardless of their actual accuracy, is perceived true.” (Jang & Kim, 2018, S. 299) Previous results from EUNOMIA co-design research showed that misinformation was claimed to be dangerous because it might have great power over the population and influence their acts and/or decisions.

Sources

Conners, J. L. (2005). Understanding the Third-Person Effect. Centre for the Study of Communication and Culture (CSCC).

Davison, W. P. (1983). The Third-Person Effect in Communication. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 47(1), 1-15.

Jang, S., & Kim, J. (2018). Third person effects of fake news: Fake news regulation and media literacy interventions. Computers in Human Behavior, 80, 295-302.

Johansson, B. (2005). The Third-Person Effect. Only a Media Perception? Nordicom Review, 26(1), 81-94.

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