Impersonal effects is an increasingly influential paradigm in media effects research. It argues that media are powerful in shaping our perceptions of what anonymous others are feeling and experiencing, and that such perceptions, in turn, influence our attitudes and behaviors in a variety of areas. The effect suggested by the theory is, thus, indirect: exposure to media affects the audience’s perception of the collective conditions or the opinions and attitudes of people they do not know personally. Cognitive and attitudinal responses to these perceptions are the measurable changes constituting the effects.
Origins of Impersonal Effects
Claims and speculations regarding impersonal effects date back to De Tocqueville (1956, 1st pub. 1835), who argued that newspapers help isolated audiences see and feel each other, and facilitate the perception that single, individual experiences are sometimes collective, and thus political. However, conceptualization and empirical investigation of impersonal effects are relatively recent (Brosius & Bathelt 1994; Mutz 1998; Gunther & Storey 2003).
The term “impersonal influence” was coined by Diana Mutz (1998), who demonstrated significant differences between people’s perceptions of their own conditions and their assessments regarding the collective conditions. People tend to perceive that they are better off than others and that the collective conditions are worse than they are in reality (as documented by statistical indicators). According to Mutz, these perceptions are affected by media coverage. For example, an impersonal influence occurs when media coverage causes people to think that crime is rising, even when public records show that there has been no increase in the crime rate. Impersonal influence theory argues that, in their behaviors, “people are responding to a media constructed pseudo-environment rather than their immediate personal experiences or those of friends and acquaintances” (1998, 6).
Mutz demonstrates, for example, that exposure to newspaper coverage of unemployment trends and to media reports about unemployment rates are associated with audience perceptions of unemployment at the collective (state and national) level. The methodology used to demonstrate such impersonal influence effects is correlational, but also experimental and quasi-experimental. Evidence further demonstrates that media-facilitated perceptions regarding collective-level conditions are more important for political decision-making than people’s perception of their individuallevel conditions. Furthermore, when media coverage of impersonal, collective-level conditions in a certain area is heavy, and when the coverage coincides with personal-level judgments, the weight of these experiences in shaping political attitudes, such as presidential approval, increases.
Theory of Impersonal Effects
The theory of impersonal influence shares several assumptions with other theories of the mass society. Audiences are perceived as relatively disconnected from each other, and media replace traditional mediating mechanisms in providing people with information about their surroundings. Developments in the content of news over the past century have increased the frequency with which people encounter information about remote and generalized others. Thus, impersonal influence theory also corresponds with technological theories: mass media provide the technology through which indirect associations can be established and impersonal collective information can be obtained.
Much of the effect of media on audience perceptions of what others are feeling and experiencing takes place because of the perception that media are influential. Impersonal influence encompasses what is known as the third-person effect (Davison 1983) or “the influence of presumed media influence” (Gunther & Storey 2003). According to this line of research, people’s perceptions of media influence lead them to adjust their attitudes and behaviors in accordance with the perceived effect.
In a landmark article, Davison (1983) discussed the possibility that the perceived influence of Japanese propaganda materials in World War II, targeted at Afro-American soldiers, had an impact on the white officers’ decision to withdraw the Afro-American unit from the front. He also speculated that perceptions regarding media impact underlie the association between news reports and fluctuations in the stock markets: that such reports are perceived by investors to cause others to sell (or buy) certain categories of shares; therefore they themselves sell (or buy) in anticipation of the others’ action. In addition, Davison suspected that when media report about irregularities in the supply of consumer goods, some people rush to the stores because they believe the media reports will influence others who will try to stock up “before the hordes remove all goods from the shelves” (1983, 13; see Tewksbury et al. 2004 for a test of this hypothesis in the context of media reports about the millennium bug panic).
The consequences of believing that media have a strong impact on others could lead to several generalized outcomes (Gunther et al. 2006). Prevention refers to the impulse to thwart an apparently harmful message. For example, it is well established that people who believe that harmful media content (e.g., violence or pornography) exerts an influence on audiences are more inclined than others to espouse censorship (Perloff 2002).
Accommodation reactions refer to any other behavioral adjustment, including compliance with or defiance of perceived social norms that are presumably shaped by media. One example of the compliance category would be adolescents who, believing that pro-smoking messages make their peers regard smoking in a more positive light, start to smoke themselves (Gunther et al. 2006). In this case, as in other compliance cases, individuals engage in an activity because they feel that media cause other people to view the activity in a positive way. Defiance, the second category of accommodation, describes a situation in which individuals who believe that media influence the opinions and behaviors of others react against those perceived trends (Tsfati & Cohen 2005). When survey respondents felt that political advertising might persuade others to vote for the wrong candidates, they were more likely to report they intended to vote, supposedly to mitigate the negative influences by trying to sway the election in favor of their preferred candidates.
Withdrawal is the third type of response. In this case, believing that media foster a social norm can cause people not to do something they would have done otherwise because they think other people would not like it. Noelle-Neumann’s (1993) “spiral of silence” process falls into this type of behavioral consequence of the presumed media influence. Her theory describes people not speaking their mind because they feel that media influence others to have divergent opinions.
Oblige, the fourth and final type of behavioral consequence of perceived media influence, takes place when people feel obligated to respond to the fact that others are affected, regardless of their personal compliance or noncompliance with the norm. Such an effect occurs especially when these individuals are serving or protecting dependent others. For example, doctors who perceived that direct-to-consumer (DTC) prescription drug advertising had negative effects on their clients were more likely to refuse to prescribe these DTC drugs.
While the theory of impersonal influence offers an innovative pathway to investigating indirect media effects, there are still doubts about the causal direction implied in the theory. Perhaps people’s attitudes and behaviors shape their perceptions of the collective conditions or of media impact, not the other way around. Yet another theoretical shortcoming relates to the fact that the theory sometimes provides conflicting predictions. We cannot predict exactly what kind of perceived effects will lead people to defy or comply with perceived social norms. Theories of normative influence on behavior should probably be useful in clarifying this issue and the theoretical mechanism underlying impersonal influence.
- Brosius, H., & Bathelt, A. (1994). The utility of exemplars in persuasive communication. Communication Research, 21, 48 –74.
- Davison, W. P. (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 1–
- De Tocqueville, A. (1956). Democracy in America (ed. R. D. Heffner). New York: Mentor. (Original work published 1835).
- Gunther, A. C., & Storey, J. D. (2003). The influence of presumed influence. Journal of Communication, 53, 199 –215.
- Gunther, A. C., Bolt, D., Borzekowski, D. L. B., Liebhart, J. L., & Dillard, J. P. (2006). Presumed influence on peer norms: How mass media indirectly affect adolescent smoking. Journal of Communication, 56, 52 – 68.
- Mutz, D. (1998). Impersonal influence: How perceptions of mass collectives affect political attitudes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion – our social skin, 2nd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Perloff, R. M. (2002). The third-person effect. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 489 –506.
- Tewksbury, D., Moy, P., & Weis, D. S. (2004). Preparations for Y2K: Revisiting the behavioral component of the third-person effect. Journal of Communication, 54, 138 –155.
- Tsfati, Y., & Cohen, J. (2005). The influence of presumed media influence on democratic legitimacy: The case of Gaza settlers. Communication Research, 32, 794 – 821.
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