According to the impersonal impact hypothesis, the mass media influence individuals’ perceptions of risk to others (societal-level risk), but not perceptions of risk to themselves (personal risk). Implicit in this hypothesis is the notion that individuals can compartmentalize various perceptions of risk, differentiating between societal-level judgments, or beliefs about the larger community with respect to a given risk, and personal-level judgments, or estimations of their own vulnerability to that risk (Tyler & Cook 1984).
Although the disjuncture between first and third persons in impersonal impact also is seen in the third-person effect, two key points are noteworthy. Not only is the perceived risk in the third-person effect the media message itself, but also, unlike the impersonal impact hypothesis, the third-person effect does not require consumption of the media message. Indeed, the third-person effect posits that people believe media to have greater effects on others than on themselves (Davison 1983). Impersonal impact also is conceptually distinct from impersonal influence, a term Mutz (1998) used to describe how anonymous others and individuals outside one’s immediate life-space can influence one’s attitudes, cognitions, and behaviors. Within this domain of research, the media’s role is as a conduit of information regarding others’ attitudes, behaviors, and cognitions.
Studies of impersonal impact are quite robust, illustrating that exposure to media messages shapes individuals’ perceptions that a problem will occur in general; however, these same individuals will not perceive themselves to be afflicted by this problem. This trend has emerged across numerous contexts including social risks such as crime, drunk driving, firearms; environmental risks including fires, tornadoes, floods, and radioactive waste; and health risks such as AIDS and skin cancer. Methodologically, survey research and experimental design are the two most common tools used to test this hypothesis.
Some scholars believe that media messages may not have any “personal” impact because individuals tend to see themselves as less susceptible to risk than others. This unrealistic optimism exists regardless of exposure to media coverage of risk: individuals think negative events are much less likely to happen to them, and positive events much more likely to occur. Also, individuals are unwilling to acknowledge the risk unless they are aware of behaviors that might reduce the risk at hand, and media coverage of risk tends to provide different types of information. Given journalistic practices, news stories are more likely to report on events rather than the likelihood of those events occurring. Reporters also appeal to human interest by including exemplars (e.g., interviews with individuals, anecdotes) that may or may not accurately represent reality or base-rate information (Fiegenson & Bailis 2001). Even if the story reports risks, individuals tend to process messages consistent with existing cognitions and attitudes.
In contrast to media messages, interpersonal communication concerning a particular risk can influence personal-level judgments. After all, interpersonal communication often is with like-minded others who have similar life experiences and can be more persuasive than the media in getting one to take action. This similarity between the individual and a like-minded source of communication may enhance the processing of messages. Also, because certain information, such as that derived from personal experience with a given risk, is deemed more relevant than media reports of that risk, it is processed and assimilated into one’s schema more easily. Not surprisingly then, assessments of personal risk would be based on the calling forth of direct experience (Shrum & Bischak 2001).
Despite the prevalence of support for the impersonal impact hypothesis, more recent research has generated evidence of media impact on personal-level judgments. Collectively, these studies support the differential impact hypothesis, which posits that under some conditions, the media will influence perceptions of risk to oneself. For instance, in line with media system dependency theory, media effects are stronger when other information sources (e.g., interpersonal communication) are insufficient. Consistent with previous findings, one study showed that exposure to newspaper stories about skin cancer increased estimates of societal risk, and that interpersonal talk about skin cancer increased perceptions of risk to oneself. However, newspaper exposure increased perceptions of personal risk of skin cancer only among those who depended heavily on newspapers for health information (Morton & Duck 2001).
Another factor that might facilitate the personal impact of media messages involves the vividness of the message. Vivid information is emotionally interesting and dramatic, and typically includes numerous images. The nature of vivid information therefore makes the story (and the risk) more likely to be recalled when individuals are asked for estimates of risk. Also, the dramatic fashion in which this type of information is conveyed may encourage the media consumer to identify with the portrayed victim, and perceived similarity tends to reduce the gap between perceptions of societal- and personal-level risk. In support of this theorizing is evidence that exposure to entertainment media and communication with peers, professionals, and parents – not exposure to news media – influenced undergraduates’ perceptions of personal risk of AIDS (Snyder & Rouse 1995).
Findings that support the impersonal impact hypothesis and the differential impact hypothesis have great theoretical and practical implications. On the theoretical front, this body of research suggests that the mass media/interpersonal communication divide can indeed be bridged, and the two can and do work in tandem to influence perceptions. Moreover, individual-level characteristics need to be factored into the study of effects.
Although media impact on risk perceptions provides scholars with a theoretically interesting area of research, the more significant question revolves around how media and perceptions of risk influence risk-related behaviors. Research on the impersonal impact hypothesis has profound implications for the construction of health campaign messages. Campaign planners will need to decide how to format their messages – for example, determine whether to use dramatically presented information, and whether a particular celebrity sponsor will be effective. These considerations, among others, will go into crafting specific messages for specific audiences the campaign is trying to target. Planners also will need to ascertain which media messages will generate interpersonal discussion, and which will likely lead to perceptions of personal risk and, ultimately, to behaviors that will reduce the risk at hand.
- Davison, W. P. (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 1–15.
- Fiegenson, N. R., & Bailis, D. S. (2001). Air bag safety: Media coverage, popular conceptions, and public policy. Psychology, Public Policy, and the Law, 7, 444–481.
- Morton, T. A., & Duck, J. M. (2001). Communication and health beliefs: Mass and interpersonal influences on perceptions of risk to self and others. Communication Research, 28, 602–626.
- Mutz, D. C. (1998). Impersonal influence: How perceptions of mass collectives affect political attitudes. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Shrum, L. J., & Bischak, V. D. (2001). Mainstreaming, resonance, and impersonal impact: Testing moderators of the cultivation effect for estimates of crime risk. Human Communication Research, 27, 187–215.
- Snyder, L. B., & Rouse, R. A. (1995). The media can have more than an impersonal impact: The case of AIDS risk perceptions and behavior. Health Communication, 7, 125–145.
- Tyler, T. R., & Cook, F. L. (1984). The mass media and judgments of risk: Distinguishing impact on personal and societal level judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 693–708.