The Media Impacts Others—Not Me!

Exploring the third-person effect in perceived media influence

Posted Dec 25, 2019

We are bombarded with media. It's everywhere. And the whole point of it is to influence our attitudes and behaviours in some way.

Heck, I mean, this article is media discussing the impact of media. And if the research I am about to discuss is right (it is), the vast majority of you will leave feeling like the article you read had more of an effect on others reading it than it has on you. 

The third-person effect describes people's tendency to think they themselves are less influenced by various forms of media (product advertisements, political advertisements, news) than others are. The effect tends to be especially pronounced when the "other" is an outgroup member than when it is an ingroup member. That is, people are well aware media impacts people; they don't deny that entirely. But they are likely to think it affects people unlike them the most, people like them less so, and themselves not much at all. 

Research by social psychologists at the University of Kent found that the effect is largely explained by self-enhancement. In particular, people who are seen as easily persuadable are viewed more readily as naive and low in need for cognition (the extent to which someone desires to think). Thus, people distance from thinking they themselves are susceptible to media influence as a means of preserving and enhancing their self-esteem. The ingroup is seen as less influenced than the outgroup because ingroups are more like the self than outgroups, and as such, are more a source of self-esteem.

The effect is consistent with evidence that people generally think they are less influenced by other people than others are (the alone-in-a-crowd-of-sheep effect). This is quite remarkable really, when you consider how much people need other people.  

Human beings are bombarded with media. We live surrounded by other people, largely dependent on on each other for our mental health and even our survival. Yet, we tend to not see how much we are actually influenced by social factors.

I suspect—as I alluded to earlier—many of you are reading this thinking, "But I really, genuinely am not impacted by others, and I am certainly not a conformist." 

That's kind of the point, really. Industry relies heavily on persuading us all to do what they want. But then the vast majority of us walk around not thinking that applies to us.