The third-person effect was introduced into communication research by W. Phillips Davison in 1983. The term conceptualizes his impression that people overestimate the impact that mass media content has on others – so-called “third persons”:
In its broadest formulation, this hypothesis predicts that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. (Davison 1983, 3)
People not only overestimate media impact on others, but they also deny that the mass media have an impact on themselves. This does not mean that media are actually more influential on others than on oneself, or even that the media are influential at all. The crucial point is the difference in the perceived or presumed media effect on others and on oneself. The third-person effect is a purely perceptual phenomenon. It is sometimes also called third-person perception.
Davison’s basic assumption has already been confirmed by a series of more than 100 empirical studies. Only two studies failed to do so. Although the idea initially seemed to be quite simple, its empirical study led to further questions, such as (1) how general the phenomenon is, (2) what conditions increase or decrease the size of the it, and (3) what psychological or cognitive phenomena might cause it.
Perceptual And Behavioral Components
In addition to the already mentioned perceptual component, the third-person effect includes a behavioral component. According to Davison (1983, 3) the behavioral component asserts that the difference between self-perception and the perception of others may also have consequences for affected persons’ behavior, particularly of those in a leading position:
the impact that they expect this communication to have on others may lead them to take some action. Any effect that the communication achieves may thus be due not to the reaction of the ostensible audience but rather to the behavior of those who anticipate, or think they perceive, some reaction on the part of others.
For example, a politician, from his or her point of view, may overestimate the influence of a negatively biased media report and, as a consequence, decide to retire, although the actual response on the negative report may have been marginal. The following research overview will show to what extent both components of the third-person effect have been confirmed empirically.
The Reverse Third-Person Effect
When asking about the perceived impact of mass media on others and on oneself in general, the third-person effect turns out to be quite robust. However, under certain conditions the respondent’s self-perception and perception of others are identical. Sometimes the effect of the mass media on oneself is even estimated as being higher than the effect on others. This is referred to in the literature as the “reverse” third-person effect or as the “first-person effect.” A reversal of the presumed media influence often can be observed in combination with media content that apparently has a positive impact on recipients. While, for instance, cigarette ads produce a third-person effect, anti-smoking campaigns produce a reverse third-person effect; that is to say, people will assume they will be affected more than others. It obviously depends on the (lack of) desirability of being influenced by a specific media content whether a third-person effect or a reverse third-person effect is found.
Studies On The Third-Person Effect
We found more than 100 empirical studies in our recent literature review of all articles related to the third-person effect in international communication journals (Quiring et al. 2007). The perceptual component of the third-person effect has been examined on a very broad basis since it was first identified by Davison (1983). In addition, there are numerous unpublished conference papers and theses. Particularly since the early 1990s, a number of communication scientists, social psychologists, and pollsters have engaged in third-person effect research. Besides moderator variables and causes of the third-person effect, the possible consequences of such perceptions, particularly the behavioral component, have moved more and more into the center of attention (Perloff 1999, 355 f.).
Third-Person Effects And The Type Of Media Message
The perceived influence of mass media has been addressed within various thematic contexts. Some of the authors studying third-person effects concentrated on effects of print or television advertisements, among them political ads, ads presenting common consumer goods or luxury articles, and public service announcements. Other studies referred to the presumed negative impact of violent or pornographic media content. Some others have surveyed the perception of media influence in general or have used real media contents, such as special TV shows, as stimuli. Most of the authors limit their examination to a certain kind of mass media. Nevertheless, seen as a whole, all common mass media genres – including the Internet and even rap music – have been covered. Apart from this thematic diversity, the studies can also be differentiated according to whether the researchers manipulated the crucial media message and whether they did or did not present this media content to the participants.
Results On The Perceptual Component Of The Third-Person Effect
The Third-Person Effect: An Artifact?
In most of the early investigations, survey instruments placed the question concerning others’ perceptions first, immediately followed by the question concerning self-perception. The notion that the order of questions (primacy or recency) could be responsible for the occurrence of the third-person effect inspired some authors to include the question sequence as an experimental factor. However, the results of these studies proved that the third-person effect occurred independently of the sequence of questions. Another possibility also was considered: the third-person effect may have been produced because questions concerning self-perception and others’ perception were asked in one and the same questionnaire. To test this possibility, a number of respondents were asked to state only their first-person or their third-person perception (David et al. 2004). However, the difference in perception was still observable on the aggregate level. These results indicate that the third-person effect is indeed based on perceptual differences between self and others.
Distance and Perceived Others’ Attributes
As well as the third-person effect in general, the following specific relationship can be taken for granted: when being asked to estimate media effects on others, the more distant or different these others are from oneself, the larger the third-person effect becomes. In particular, the third-person effect is smaller when “others” are described as “neighbors” compared to the description “people in one’s country.” This distance to others has been specifically varied in the questionnaire by many authors. Apart from social distance, psychological, geographical, and political distance were considered. In most of the studies, the researchers themselves pre-determined the scope of distance. Nevertheless, an increasing perceived distance has also led to larger differences between self-perception and perception of others. The third-person effect also is influenced by the perceived intensity of the third person’s exposure to the related media message. For example, respondents who ascribe to others frequent contact with violent or misogynistic songs assume that those others are more strongly influenced. Likewise, if others are perceived to have a lower standard of education than oneself, the third-person effect becomes larger. This observation could possibly be explained by the perception of a sizable cognitive distance between self and others.
Desirability of the Effects
When media effects are described as positive and personally or socially desirable, the third-person effect not only decreases in size, but it can also develop into a reverse third person effect. In this regard, desirable media effects are often found in connection with public service announcements such as those against drinking and driving, for the use of seatbelts, etc. The desirability of media effects has been manipulated in (quasi-)experimental designs through the choice of specific media contents or question wording. When, for instance, media influences are not referred to as “being influenced” (undesirable) in the questionnaire but as “being stimulated” (desirable), the third-person effect decreases. Usually, the desirability of effects is postulated in advance by researchers of the third person effect. But the described interrelation also is evident when the respondents make their own statements on the desirability of media effects.
The Respondents’ Attributes and Demographics
Davison (1983, 9) assumed that the respondent’s perceived own knowledge on a relevant topic could play a role in third-person effect research. This assumption has been confirmed by various analyses: people who consider themselves knowledgeable on a certain issue feel invulnerable in regard to media reporting on this issue, resulting in a higher third-person effect. However, the moderating effect of (political) knowledge is related to the subjective estimation of one’s own knowledge. When actual issue knowledge is measured, the relationship disappears. Besides perceived knowledge, age, high education, and low media usage lead to a greater third-person effect.
Results On The Behavioral Component Of The Third-Person Effect
Relatively few studies have focused on the behavioral consequences of the perceived difference between oneself and others. Although the relationship between either self-perception or perception of others on the one hand and behavioral intentions on the other has been addressed and analyzed rather often, the behavioral consequences of the third-person effect have only been examined in 25 of the studies at hand. These studies have three main weaknesses. First, the results are not quite consistent: 15 studies confirmed the direct influence of the third-person effect on the respondents’ behavior; 10 failed to do so. Unfortunately, examination of these studies’ parameters did not help to identify specific conditions that might explain the occurrence or absence of behavioral consequences of the third-person effect. Second, the explanatory power of these results is very limited: rather than real behavior, behavioral intentions are addressed, mostly the disposition to regulate or censor apparent negative media content. Third, intervening variables concerning the behavioral component have rarely been investigated.
Theoretical Explanation Of The Third-Person Effect
Despite the stability of the phenomenon and its comparatively simple testing procedure, it is still relatively unclear what causes might underlie the third-person effect. Various explanatory models have already been discussed without finding a plausible and empirically confirmed theory of the origin and classification of the effect.
The concept of optimistic bias (also known as “unrealistic optimism” or “biased optimism”) describes how people have a more positive picture of themselves than of others. Among other implications, this is manifested in a distorted expectation for the future: while people attribute negative experiences like diseases, accidents, or unemployment to others more often than to themselves, they think they will more likely have positive experiences; they face the future with optimism (Weinstein 1980). The structural affinity to the third-person effect is obvious. Both phenomena are based upon a difference between self-perception and perception of others. Considering that media impact in general is perceived to be negative and therefore ascribed to others rather than to oneself, one could regard the third-person effect as a special case of optimistic bias. This means that the connection between the concepts consists in the desirability of being influenced by mass media. As mentioned above, lesser socially or personally desirable media content leads to a greater third-person effect. Admitting that such messages have an impact on oneself means a loss of one’s own autonomy in thinking and acting. As a consequence, one can classify them as a danger or risk. Such a “threat” by the media can be regarded as a negative event in terms of the optimistic bias hypothesis. The optimistic bias hypothesis could offer an explanation for people assuming greater effects on others than on themselves. However, this connection has so far not been confirmed empirically. Actually, a recent study shows a zero correlation between third-person effect and optimistic bias (Quiring et al. 2007).
Explaining the third-person effect through people’s tendency toward self-enhancement also pertains to the desirability of media contents. The concept claims that people sustain and communicate a picture of themselves that is as positive as possible. A positive picture of oneself corresponds with assessing oneself as immune to undesired media effects but as open toward (socially) desirable effects. The results of experimental studies seem to support this assumption: lower self-esteem and missing opportunities for self-affirmation lead to a larger third-person effect.
According to Tyler and Cook (1984), human judgments can be based on a societal level and on a personal level. Judgments on a societal level are formed relying on interpersonal communication or information transmitted by the mass media, particularly when the object of judgment is beyond personal experiences. Personal judgments, on the other hand, are based on primary experiences. Discrepancies can occur between the two judgment levels when thinking about the same problem: while people are prone to think they will never suffer from cancer themselves, they may think this event is very probable for others. Recalling different background information when forming personal and societal judgments may be responsible for the third-person effect. It appears that mass media are credited with having great impact on the societal level, while the individual denies that the media have any influence on him or her. To support the explanation of the third-person effect by means of the impersonal impact, one can refer to the results on the third persons’ distance, which moderates the discrepancy between perceived media effects on oneself and others. The more distant those others are from oneself, the more likely it is that judgments are built on the societal level.
Hostile Media Phenomenon
The hostile media phenomenon describes a generalized negative attitude toward mass media (Vallone et al. 1985). People believe that media reports are biased against their own opinion, even if content analyses failed to show any bias at all. The authors found that pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students both believed that mass media reported against their own position. It was also observed that the respondents expected such media reports to have a great impact on other recipients, who were formerly neutral regarding the specific conflict. They could be convinced of the subjectively wrong side by the “hostile” media. It can thus be expected that respondents’ third-person effect becomes larger, the more they accuse the mass media of being biased. Again, this connection has not been sufficiently confirmed empirically.
Attribution theory has also been considered as a potential explanation of the third-person effect in some studies. This theory refers to the fact that people always seek to rationalize ex post their own and others’ behavior by looking for causes. In doing so, people trace back their own (undesirable) actions to the particular situation or to the circumstances. In contrast, the behavior of others is often associated with stable personality traits. The tendency to underestimate situation-based influences (external factors) on the behavior of others and to overestimate their personal characteristics (internal factors) is also known as the “fundamental attribution error”. Relating this fallacy to the third-person effect would mean that – for oneself – one considers factors that may lessen the influence of a media message (such as the appearance and the credibility of the communicator, as well as the specific usage situation). The impact on others, on the other hand, is solely deduced from their exposure to the message. This causes the personal view that one is less vulnerable that others to those contents.
The Effects Of Presumed Media Effects
Not reality itself, but rather its perception and interpretation determine how people act. This simple principle can be very well applied to the third-person effect and is generally known as the Thomas theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas 1928, 572). For human behavior, it is thus not so important how much we or others are actually influenced by the mass media; more important is how much we (collectively) believe we are affected by the media. This appraisal may well affect real behavior, or at least behavioral intentions. This provides a subject for study: one may analyze under what conditions and in what areas (other than the much-researched area of censorship of media contents) the third-person effect encourages or prevents certain actions. For instance, the installation of monitoring cameras in public places could be endorsed if one presumes that media violence exerts much more negative influence on one’s fellow humans than on oneself. Another example would be over-purchasing a certain food under the assumption that it might possibly become scarce just because of a negative media report and its presumed influence on others. There is probably a great number of similar possible connections between the third-person effect and societal or political behavior. Further third-person effect research should concentrate on situations in which the perceptual phenomenon gains behavioral relevance.
- David, P., Liu, K., & Myser, M. (2004). Methodological artifact or persistent bias? Testing the robustness of the third-person and reverse third-person effects for alcohol messages. Communication Research, 31, 206–233.
- Davison, W. P. (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 1–15.
- Perloff, R. M. (1999). The third-person effect: A critical review and synthesis. Media Psychology, 1, 353–378.
- Quiring, O., Huck, I., & Brosius, H.-B. (2007). On the causes of third-person perception: Empirical tests of previous speculations. Paper presented at the 57th Annual Conference of the ICA, San Francisco, CA, May 24–28.
- Thomas, W. I., & Thomas, D. S. (1928). The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. New York: Knopf.
- 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.
- Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577–585.
- Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 806–820.