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The third person effect

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Most individuals recognize that persuasive messages, such as advertisements, might bias or shape the attitudes and beliefs of the audience. That is, they recognize that most individuals are suggestible. In contrast, individuals often assume their own attitudes and beliefs are impervious to these persuasive messages. They feel they are not as suggestible.

As a consequence, individuals tend to feel they are less susceptible to these messages than is an average or typical person. This tendency is called the third person effect and has been demonstrated repeatedly (for seminal work, see Davidson, 1983), in over one hundred studies (for a meta-analysis, see Paul, Salwen & Dupagne, 2000). The effect size is often moderate, and even larger in college students (Paul, Salwen & Dupagne, 2000).

In some instances, however, the third person effect diminishes. For example, when people feel very connected to their community, they often recognize they are as susceptible, or even more susceptible, to persuasive messages compared to other people (Byoungkwan & Tamborini, 2005).

Consequences of the third person effect

Disregard of health messages

Because of the third person effect, individuals assume they are not as susceptible to health warnings as are other people. Accordingly, they often disregard these warnings. In other words, the perceptual component of the third person effect--the assumption they are not suggestible--often translates to the behavioral component--a reluctance to change their behavior in response to the message.

For example, in one study, conducted by Wei, Lo, and Lu (2008), college students were asked to estimate the influence of news on the avian flu. Students tended to assume they would not be as susceptible to this news as other people, representing the perceptual component of the third person effect. This third person effect was especially pronounced if they seldom been exposed to this news. However, if individuals felt they may be influenced by these messages, they were more likely to initiate some action, such as seek more information about treatments such as Tamiflu. In contrast, the perceptual third person effect tended to thwart such action.

Body dissatisfaction

The third person effect can also amplify body dissatisfaction. To illustrate, as Choi, Leshner, and Choi (2008) showed, women do not feel their own attitudes towards different body shapes is affected by the media. However, they presume the attitudes of male friends towards different body shapes is shaped by the media, representing the third person effect. That is, they assume that men will become more likely to perceive slim bodies as attractive and prevalent.

Accordingly, and as confirmed by Choi, Leshner, and Choi (2008), this third person effect could amplify body dissatisfaction in women. As a consequence of this third person effect, women become more concerned their body shape will not align with the ideals of men.

Belief in censorship

This third person effect often coincides with a protective, almost paternalistic, perspective of other individuals. In particular, when participants report a pronounced third person effect, they are more likely to espouse censorship (e.g., Rojas, Shah, & Faber, 1996;; see also Salwen & Dupagne, 1999). That is, they tend to feel that other individuals are vulnerable and credulous--and thus need to be protected.

Involvement in the political process

The third person effect can foster some desirable behavior as well. For example, when the third person effect is pronounced, individuals are sometimes more likely to become involved in the political arena. They are more likely to vote, for example (Golan, Banning, & Lundy, 2008).

Specifically, the third person effect can evoke paternalistic assumptions. That is, because of the third person effect, people assume that other citizens are too suggestible and thus may be swayed by political advertisements. They feel these citizens are likely to be misguided. Accordingly, they feel the need to redress these biases by participating in the political arena (Golan, Banning, & Lundy, 2008).

Explanations of the third person effect

Self enhancement

Individuals often experience an urge to inflate their qualities or trivialize their limitations, to perceive themselves more favorably, called self enhancement. The third person effect might represent an attempt to fulfill this motive and perceive themselves as superior.

Consistent with this perspective, the third person effect diminishes when the message advocates some positive or desirable behavior. In one study, for example, some of the messages championed desirable inclinations, such as empathy and sympathy towards deprived individuals. The third person effect diminished when the message encouraged positive behavior (Duck & Mullin, 1995;; Gunther & Mundy, 1993;; Hoorens & Ruiter, 1996).

Presumably, to perceive themselves favorably, individuals like to feel they are inclined to act positively. This inclination might offset their usual motivation to appear insensitive to persuasive messages.

Conversely, as many studies show, the third person effect is amplified when the message promotes undesirable behaviors, such as pornography (Gunther, 1995), misogynistic lyrics (Eveland, Nathanson, Detenber, & McLeod, 1999), or unhealthy behavior such as substance abuse (Banning, 2001;; Youn, Faber, & Shah, 2000). In these instances, to fulfill self enhancement motives, individuals like to feel they are immune to messages that promulgate unsuitable behavior.

Differentiation from out-groups

According to social identity and self categorization theory, people not only like to perceive their community or social identity as desirable but also as distinct. That is, they want to feel their community or social identity differs considerably from other collectives. Overlap between their collective and other collectives evokes uncertainty, as individuals are not entirely certain how to behave.

According to Reid and Hogg (2005), the third person effect may also underpin this need of individuals to differentiate themselves from other collectives. To illustrate, in one study, university students were exposed to different TV programs or articles. Some programs were intended to appeal to university students, such as MTV. Other programs or articles were intended to appeal to a different collective, Wall Street bankers, such as a journal on investment.

Participants conceded they might be influenced by MTV more than would Wall St Bankers--the converse of a third person effect, sometimes called the first person effect. Furthermore, they believed they would be influenced by this program to the same degree as would other students, especially if they perceived themselves as prototypical of this collective. In contrast, they assumed they would be less influenced by a journal on investment than would Wall Street bankers.

Hence, the third person effect could represent an attempt of individuals to inflate differences between their own collective and other collectives. That is, individuals want to highlight they are not interested in messages, and thus will not be affected by advertisements, that are pertinent to other groups.

Factors that amplify or inhibit the third person effect

In a meta-analysis, reported by Paul, Salwen and Dupagne (2000), a series of factors that could moderate the third person effect were investigated. As this analysis showed, the third person effect did not seem to vary across nationalities or media.

However, some factors have been shown to influence the size of this third person effect. To illustrate, when the message revolves around a political issue, the third person effect escalates. Similarly, if the message seems ambiguous, this effect is also more pronounced.

Self construal

Furthermore, some individuals tend to conceptualize themselves as members of a broader collective, rather than as unique and independent people, called a collectivist self construal. Interestingly, when individuals adopt this collective orientation, the third person effect diminishes (Byoungkwan & Tamborini, 2005). In contrast, when individuals conceptualize themselves as detached or independent from their social collective, the third person effect is preserved or amplified.

When individuals adopt this independent construal, their principal motivation is to perceive themselves as more autonomous and assertive (Stapel & Van der Zee, 2006). They tend to magnify their autonomy and independence (Stapel & Van der Zee, 2006), which could diminish their perceived susceptibility to messages and thus amplify the third person effect.

Mood or applicability of the message

If self enhancement motives underpin the third person effect, moods or conditions that curb this motive could mitigate this effect. Consistent with this possibility, depression--a mood disorder that is associated with limited self enhancement--does indeed curb the third person effect, at least in specific circumstances (Taylor, Bell, & Kravitz, 2011).

Taylor, Bell, and Kravitz (2011) administered a survey to members of a depression support group. The questionnaire assessed their attitudes to direct marketing of antidepressants. Consistent with the third person effect, these participants tended to assume their attitudes towards this marketing would not be as positive as would the attitudes of other people with depression. Interestingly, if these participants experienced depression while completing the survey, this third person effect diminished.

Nevertheless, this study does not indicate that depression always curbs the third person effect. Instead, when individuals feel depressed, antidepressants seem more helpful. The message was more applicable, potentially curbing the third person effect.

Measures of the third person effect

To gauge the third person effect, researchers often ask employees pairs of questions, called couplets (e.g., Banning, 2001;; Cohen, Mutz, Price, & Gunther, 1988;; Davison, 1983;; Gunther, 1991). For example, participants may first be asked "How much do you think this ad has affected your opinion of the product" (e.g., Banning, 2001). Next, they are asked "How much do you think this ad would affect the opinions of other university students who see this ad?" (Banning, 2001). If the response to the second question is greater than is the response to the first question, a third person effect is assumed. If the response to the first question is greater, the pattern is called a first person effect.


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Last Update: 7/18/2016