The Third-Person Effect

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Chapter 18

The Third-Person Effect
RICHARD M. PERLOFF Cleveland State University
What effect do the media have on you? Does news change your mind about issues? Do commercials sway you? Does television violence make you more aggressive? Not really, you say. You make up your own mind, form your own ideas about politics and products, and you’re not much fazed by TV crime shows, though goodness knows, you’ve watched your share of them over the years. Okay—Do me this favor, estimate the impact that news, commercials, and television violence have on other people. That is, guess how they influence other individuals who tune them in. Say what? You think that news, advertising, and TV violence have a strong effect on other people? That others buy into what they see on the tube? Do we have a problem, Houston? Is there an inconsistency here? According to the third-person effect hypothesis, there is. If you are right that other people are influenced by media, then it certainly stands to reason that you too should be affected. On the other hand, if you are correct that you’re not affected and everyone else presumably claims the same lack of media influence, then you exaggerate the impact of media on others. “In either case,” as James Tiedge and his colleagues (1991) note, “most people appear to be willing to subscribe to the logical inconsistency inherent in maintaining that the mass media influence others considerably more than themselves” (Tiedge, Silverblatt, Havice, & Rosenfeld, p. 152).1 Welcome to the domain of the third-person effect—a complex, labyrinthlike area in which perceptions become reality, reality is enshrouded by perceptions, and perceptions hinge on the very important factor of whether you are considering the media’s impact on other people or on yourself. As uses and gratifications did in the 1970s, the thirdperson effect hypothesis turns conventional media effects theorizing on its head. Instead of looking at media effects on beliefs, it examines beliefs 1 On the individual level of analysis, it is theoretically possible for an individual (e.g., a prescient person from a foreign land) to correctly assert that a particular media message will have a strong effect on native citizens, but not on himself. The problem occurs on the aggregate level, where large numbers of people engage in the self-other discrepancy; it is on this level of analysis that third-person effects are more difficult to defend on logical grounds.




about media effects. Rather than assuming that media affect perceptions, it assumes that perceptions can shape media. For this reason, the third-person effect (TPE) has generated substantial research interest in recent years—approximately 100 journal articles and convention papers and in 1998 a CBS News poll that probed whether respondents believed that other people were more interested in news reports of President Clinton’s sex life than they were. Only 7% of respondents indicated that they were fascinated by news stories on Clinton’s sex life; 37% confessed they were mildly curious; and 50% claimed that they were not interested at all. Yet when asked to judge most people’s interest in the stories, respondents reacted much differently. Twenty-five percent of the same sample said most people were fascinated, 49% claimed most people were mildly curious, and only 18% believed that most people harbored no interest at all (Berke, 1998). The third-person effect is a relatively new concept, as social science constructs go. It was invented in 1983 by sociologist W. Phillips Davison in a clever article that drew on intuition and public opinion theory. The third-person effect is an individual’s perception that a message will exert a stronger impact on others than on the self. The “third-person” term derives from the expectation that a message will not have its greatest influence on “me” (the grammatical first person), or “you” (the second person), but on “them”—the third persons....
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