“Only ordinary people believe it”: the perceived influence of media messages on the public

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In 1957, an American sociologist asked a number of journalists how much, in their opinion, their editorials influenced the thinking of their readers. A common answer was: ‘Editorials have little effect on people like you and me, but the ordinary reader is probably very much influenced’. Although they had no evidence to support their thesis, the journalists were convinced of this effect, to which they would be immune.

In 1983, due to other similar personal experiences, sociologist Walter Phillips Davison, who became Professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia University, defined this influence as the Third-Person Effect, i.e., the tendency to overestimate the influence of mass communication on the attitudes and behaviours of others, but not of oneself. The perception that the communication will have a strong impact on others, moreover, may lead the receiver of the message to act in a certain way, anticipating or reacting to the actions of third persons.

A historical example of the consequences of this effect was Operation Huguenot, a war strategy designed to undermine the efficiency of the German air force during World War II by suggesting that pilots were deserting and joining the Allies. Radio transmissions were broadcast announcing the safe landing of aircraft that had been shot down by the Luftwaffe, according to the report sent by German pilots to officers.

The German army, fearing that the pilots were sending false reports and deserting, tightened up its anti-disaster controls and instructed inspectors to look at everyone with a suspicious eye. This had a serious effect on pilot morale. Officers also began to be promoted on the basis of loyalty to the Third Reich, instead of efficiency.

In this case, the German pilots were the third persons, while the officers, worried about a possible increase in desertions, were pushed by the Allies to take harsher countermeasures against their own army.

This effect had therefore been known for years. It is the same effect that has always been used by those lovers who try to attract the attention of their beloved by pretending to be interested in another woman.

“Four small experiments”

In the following years, Davison conducted a series of tests, which he described as ‘four small experiments’ and certainly ‘not elegant’, to confirm the hypothesis of the third person effect.

The first experiment was a questionnaire about the influence of a broken promise by the governor of the state of New York in the upcoming election. Among the questions were two that investigated the influence on the vote of other voters and of oneself. Forty-eight per cent of respondents said that this non-promise would have more influence on others than on themselves, while only six per cent believed that others would be less influenced. The rest of the subjects claimed that there was no difference in effect or did not answer the questions.

The second experiment, which looked at the effect of television advertisements on children, also seemed to confirm the hypothesis. Ninety-six per cent of the subjects answered that other people’s children were influenced by television, while only 56 per cent said they had been prompted to ask their parents to buy them some toys advertised on TV when they were children.

The third and fourth experiments investigated the effects on voting in the 1980 presidential election. None of the 25 participants in the third experiment said that the outcome of the New Hampshire primary would greatly influence their vote in the presidential election, while 84% of them believed that the outcome would make the fortunes of one candidate or the other. In the fourth test, however, about two out of three participants believed that if Ronald Reagan had embarked on an aggressive foreign policy, the vote of others would have been more influenced than their own.

L' Effetto della Terza Persona (o Third-Person Effect) è la tendenza a sopravvalutare l’influenza della comunicazione di massa sulle attitudini e i comportamenti degli altri, ma non di se stessi. La percezione che la comunicazione avrà un forte impatto sugli altri, inoltre, può portare il ricevente del messaggio ad agire in un certo modo, anticipando o reagendo alle azioni delle terze persone.

Possible reasons and the bandwagon effect

Davison, in an attempt to identify a precise reason for this effect, stated that we are all experts in subjects that are dear to us, having information that others do not have. This type of information might not be factual or technical in nature, but might be related to experiences, preferences or aversions. Others, Davison points out, do not know what we know. Therefore, they are more likely to be influenced by the media.

In the world of politics, therefore, the thought could be declined in this way: “I will vote for him, because the newspapers have probably convinced the others that he is the best candidate, which I already know, so he has a better chance of winning”. However, the opposite effect could occur, called the bandwagon effect, i.e. the tendency to choose common or known opinions over less popular ones: “I don’t find much difference between the two candidates, but if others have been persuaded by the opinions of that party, then he must be the better candidate”.

The world of finance and consumer goods

It is not only in politics that the third-person effect can be found, but also in finance. When a piece of news occurs that could influence the markets, i.e. the third person, an investor might be driven to buy (or sell) certain shares, trying to anticipate the trend and aiming for maximum profit.

This effect is also well known in the sale of consumer goods. The slogan ‘While stocks last!’ aims at this: to instil in the customer the thought that others might be influenced by the message, leading them to buy the product as soon as possible, i.e. anticipating possible buyers. As soon as the supply of a certain product becomes irregular, there will always be people flocking to the shopping centres to stock up, as soon as the news of limited availability is broadcast. If you ask them why they are in such a hurry, they are likely to say that they were worried about the effect this news might have on others.

Davison concludes by inviting readers to research this effect further, suggesting that it may only be present in certain areas of persuasive communication.

Defining the degree of similarity of people could also influence responses. People defined as ‘like me’ or ‘different from me’ might be affected differently, directing their behaviour differently.

The final dilemma is this: are we overestimating the influence of media messages on others or are we underestimating the hold they have on us?

Carlo Sordini

Sources:

  1. Davison, W. P. (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1086/268763
  2. Davison, W. Phillips, 1957, “The mass media in West German political life.” In Hans Speier and W. P. Davison, eds., West German Leadership and Foreign Policy. Evanston, Ill.: Row Peterson
  3. Lerner, Daniel, 1949 Sykewar: Psychological Warfare Against Germany, D-Day to VE-Day. New York: George W. Stewart