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The third-person effect (TPE) was introduced into communication research by W. Phillips Davison in 1983 and states that people overestimate the impact that mass media content has on others – so-called ‘third persons’ – while they underestimate the influence that media has on themselves.
This does not mean that media are actually influential at all; the TPE is a purely perceptual phenomenon. In addition, it includes a behavioral component, meaning that people might take action on the basis of the presumed media influence on others, e.g., argue for regulation or censorship of apparent negative media content. Davison’s basic assumption has already been confirmed by a series of more than 100 empirical studies with different topics (e.g., advertising effectiveness and violent or pornographic media content.
One of the most important moderators for the effect turns out to be the so-called distance corollary: The more distant or different others are from oneself, the larger the third-person effect becomes. The third-person effect is also influenced by the perceived intensity of the third person’s exposure to the related media message. 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 (firstperson effect). Besides, perceived knowledge, age, high education, and low media usage lead to a greater third-person effect.
‘Optimistic bias’ has been seen as one of the causes for TPE. As people have a more positive picture of themselves than of others and because media impact in general is perceived to be negative, people might ascribe such effects more to others than to themselves. Another explanation for TPE is the concept of self-enhancement. However, these psychological causes are still not fully investigated (Quiring et al. 2007).
- Davison, W. P. (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 1–15.
- 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.
- Sun, Y., Pan, Z., & Shen, L. (2008). Understanding the third-person perception: Evidence from a metaanalysis. Journal of Communication, 58, 280–300.