The Third Person Effect: Everyone Is Indoctrinated Except Me

This psychological distortion makes us think that we have our own special and unique criteria.

Third person effect

Each of us has an idea about himself, a self-concept. We also have an idea about the world, a way of representing the reality that surrounds us and the people with whom we interact. And we also have an idea about how we or others can capture or be affected by things. In this sense, we can observe that when it comes to displaying advertising, we generally consider that it has a different effect on ourselves than on the rest. This is what is known as the third person effect, which we will explain throughout this article.

The third person effect: what is it?

We call the third person effect a distortion in our belief system through which we consider that others are more influential than ourselves.

The effect in question observes that, seen an advertising element or subjected to a specific argument to an attempt at persuasion, we tend to consider that the effect it has on ourselves is low or non-existent while at the same time we consider third parties much more likely are affected by it and modify their beliefs. The effect in question was formulated by Davidson in 1983, observing people’s beliefs regarding the power of persuasion in advertising.

The name “third person” starts from the idea that we tend to think that not only we will not be affected by persuasion but also those who are close (friends, partner, family or people with whom we feel united in general), while that it will be people who are unknown to us or with whom we do not feel a link. In other words, we believe that neither the subject we call “I” nor the one we consider “you” will be easily persuaded, but those we usually call him / her with some imprecision we do consider more susceptible.

What are these beliefs due to?

The third person effect is an effect that appears regularly in most people and is not at all pathological. But once defined, it is worth asking the reason for this type of belief. And it is that on the one hand, this effect supposes an overvaluation of the own capacity to resist an attempt of persuasion, while on the other it supposes an undervaluation of the resistance capacity of others towards persuasion attempts.

In this sense, the same author who coined it (Davidson) considered that the cause of the third person effect was found in pluralistic ignorance, that is, considering that others will not be able to analyze the situation with the same level of understanding. ability than us, either due to lack of ability or lack of the same information. This will cause external persuasion attempts to affect them more than the subject itself.

Other authors, including some of a more psychodynamic nature, indicate that this effect is the product of individuation and the defense of self-concept: we believe we are less vulnerable than the rest as a mechanism to protect our own self-concept, in such a way that we unconsciously overvalue our abilities resistance.

Influencing factors

It should be noted that the third person effect does not appear in the same way and with the same intensity in the face of any persuasion attempt, there are various factors that influence the consideration we have regarding the ability of a message to generate a behavioral change.

One of the main influencing factors is the message, affecting aspects such as its level of consistency, generality and abstraction. An unclear message, formulated in a generic way and with little specificity and with a somewhat abstract theme, has a greater tendency to generate a third person effect. Interestingly, if the message turns out to be much more structured and specific, the consideration is reversed, the third-person effect no longer appears to move on to the first-person effect: we believe that third parties are not going to be as deeply affected or moved by the message as we are.

On the other hand, the sender of the message and our relationship or consideration for him or her is also an element that can have a great influence on the differentiated belief regarding their ability to convince us and the rest. In general, the worse we consider the issuing subject or institution, the greater the intensity of the third person effect.

For example, if we hate someone, we will consider that their messages will not have an effect on us or our environment, while we accept that third parties can be more easily convinced or deceived by lacking the same information regarding the issuer.

Finally, another element to consider is the emotional sphere and the interest of the subject himself with respect to the message itself. Greater emotional involvement or the existence of motivation or interest tends to suppose that the third person effect is not given or is given to a lesser extent, the aforementioned first person effect being more likely to occur.

Bibliographic references

  • Davison, WP (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 47: 1-15.
  • Paul, B .; Salwen, MB & Dupagne, M. (2000). The Third-Person Effect: A Meta-Analysis of the Perceptual Hypothesis. Mass Communication and Society; 3 (1): 57-85.
  • Falces, C: Bautista, R and Sierra, B. (2011). The third person effect: the role of the quality of the arguments and the type of estimation. Journal of Social Psychology, 26 (1): 133-139.

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