Communication Third-Person Effect
by
Yariv Tsfati
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0082

Introduction

Audience perceptions regarding media influence have been extensively studied since the 1980s. Originating with a landmark article by W. Phillip Davison, the term “the third-person effect” (TPE, later on also referred to in the literature as the “third-person perception,” or TPP) relates to people’s tendency to perceive that mass-media messages have only minimal influence on them but greater influence on other people—the “third persons.” Much research has been dedicated to documenting such perceptions in various contexts and to exploring the psychological mechanisms behind them. Later research also focused on documenting the consequences of the third-person perception. This branch of research was dubbed the “behavioral component of the third-person effect” or “the influence of presumed media influence.” Findings confirmed that perceiving that media influences other people matters for the audience as well as for social life. The research tradition that has emerged based on this insight is considered one of the most fruitful and influential contemporary traditions studying media processes. The third-person effect has been examined in a large array of countries (including the United States, Singapore, Germany, Australia, Israel, Nepal, Korea, and Taiwan, among others) using various respondents (student samples, general-population samples, voters, journalists, parents, politicians, and others) and in a variety of contexts including advertising (political advertising, consumer advertising, fashion models, direct-to-consumer drug advertising, and health communication campaigns), drama (televised dramas and telenovelas), political news media (news coverage of campaigns, peripheral places and groups, media panics), defamation trials, and a diversity of antisocial media (violent media content, misogynic rap music, pornography, and other sexual media). Similarly, a variety of dependent variables were examined as the consequences of the third-person effect in the “behavioral component” studies, including voting, support of censorship, intentions to buy certain products, violent political protest, residential mobility, political inefficacy, smoking initiation, sexual behaviors, minority alienation, physicians’ drug recommendations, physician interactions with patients, and parental monitoring practices. The works cited in this bibliography, which focuses on overarching themes in the larger body of literature, span only a fraction of these contexts of study. A recent survey by Bryant and Miron ranked the third-person effect fifth on a list of “most popular theories” in contemporary communication research. The fact that review essays have been published in volumes and journals dedicated to both public opinion and to research on media effects and processes demonstrates that research on the third-person effect is situated within these two research traditions and tackles some of the most essential theoretical questions that lie at the core of these traditions: How do people respond to and process media messages? Are people’s answers to public-opinion survey questions biased? And in what ways do survey-response biases matter, if at all, for public life? With the immense popularity of research on the third-person effect, a growing critique of this tradition is that it lacks sufficient theoretical progress and essentially replicates a set of relatively easily obtainable findings.

Early Insights and Findings

In the 1980s research about the third-person effect started receiving attention in communication and public opinion journals. The following works are examples of this early research. All of them are very readable and present simple, easy-to-understand research. Each work has become widely cited, for different reasons: Davison 1983 for being the first to document the third-person effect, Perloff 1989 for demonstrating that the third-person effect is in fact a biased perception, Mutz 1989 for connecting the third-person effect with the spiral-of-silence tradition, Lasorsa 1989 for examining the third-person effect in the context of entertainment and for starting to probe the mechanisms underlying it, and Cohen, et al. 1988 for showing that this biased perception is stronger when it relates to more remote “others.”

  • Cohen, Jeremy, Diana Mutz, Vincent Price, and Albert Gunther. 1988. Perceived impact of defamation: An experiment on third-person effects. Public Opinion Quarterly 52:161–173.

    DOI: 10.1086/269092E-mail Citation »

    This article was the first to extend third-person-effect research into a new context (the perceived impact of defamation) and to examine the conditions under which the gap between perceived influence on self and others increases or decreases. Larger gaps were found for remote others—a finding later dubbed “the social distance corollary of the third-person effect.”

  • Davison, W. Phillips. 1983. The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly 47:1–15.

    DOI: 10.1086/268763E-mail Citation »

    In this seminal article, Davison suggests that people exposed to persuasive communication typically think that such communication has much greater influence on other people than on themselves, and he coined the term “the third-person effect” to describe this phenomenon. While the article was full of convincing anecdotes and examples, it contained little empirical evidence, mainly documenting the perceptual component of third-person perception.

  • Lasorsa, Dominic L. 1989. Real and perceived effects of “Amerika.” Journalism Quarterly 66:373–378.

    E-mail Citation »

    The study was among the first to document the bias in perceived effects and to consider self-perceived knowledge (as well as real knowledge and expertise) as part of the explanation.

  • Mutz, Diana C. 1989. The influence of perceptions of media influence: Third person effects and the public expression of opinions. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 1:3–23.

    DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/1.1.3E-mail Citation »

    This well-written piece offers a theoretical connection between third-person-effect research and spiral-of-silence theory in the context of public opinion regarding divestment of financial interests in South Africa.

  • Perloff, Richard M. 1989 Ego-involvement and the third person effect of televised news coverage. Communication Research 16.2: 236–262.

    DOI: 10.1177/009365089016002004E-mail Citation »

    Connects the third-person effect to research about the hostile-media perception and provides early evidence that the third-person effect is in fact a bias: involved respondents perceived news coverage to be biased against them, and also believed that neutral audiences would be persuaded by this hostile coverage to support the opposing position.

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