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Third Person Effect: An excerpt from You Are Not So Smart


You Are Not So Smart book coverThe Third Person Effect, an excerpt from the new book You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself, by David McRaney

The Misconception: You believe your opinions and decisions are based on experience and facts, while those who disagree with you are falling for the lies and propaganda of sources you don’t trust.

The Truth: Everyone believes the people they disagree with are gullible, and everyone thinks they are far less susceptible to persuasion than they truly are.

I can see right through that politician’s lies. People are such sheep. People are so stupid. People will believe anything. I prefer to lead, not follow.

Have you ever thought like this? Would it blow your mind to know everyone thinks this?

If everyone thinks they aren’t gullible and can’t be swayed by advertising, political rhetoric, or charismatic con artists, then someone must be deluding themselves. Sometimes it’s you.


A great many messages among the countless ones bombarding you every day are considered dangerous because they might sway other people or fester in their minds until they act out on the suggestions coming out of all manner of sources from violent video games to late-night pundit programming. For every outlet of information, there are some who see it as dangerous not because it affects them, but because it might affect the thoughts and opinions of an imaginary third party.

Studies from the beginning of psychology up until today have revealed many ways in which people truly are affected by hidden persuasion. Richard M. Perloff in 1993 and and Bryant Paul in 2000 reviewed all the studies since researcher W. Phillips Davison first coined the third person effect in 1983. Davison noticed some people saw certain messages in the media as a call to action, not because of what was being said, but because of who might hear it. He pointed to the third person effect as the source of outrage from religious leaders over “heretical propaganda” and the ire of political rulers over some speech out of a “fear of dissent.” Furthermore, Davison saw that censorship arising out of a belief that some messages which might harm “more impressionable minds.”

You don’t want to believe you can be persuaded, and one way of maintaining this belief is to assume that all the persuasion flying through the air must be landing on other targets. Otherwise how could it be successful? Those advertisements for cheeseburgers are for fatties with no self-control, you think, until you are ravenous and are forced to choose between one fast food place and another. Those alcohol billboards are for trendy hipsters, you assume, until you are at the office Christmas party and the guy at the open bar asks you what you want. Public service announcements about texting while driving are for people who don’t live the kind of life you do, you think, until you find yourself feeling a twinge of shame when you reach for the phone to respond to an email while waiting on the light to turn green.

When you watch your preferred news channel or read your favorite newspaper or blog, you tend to believe you are an independent thinker. You may disagree with people on the issues, but you see yourself as having an open mind, as a person who looks at the facts and reaches conclusions after rational objective analysis. You tend to think you are not like the people who live in your town, go to your school, work at your business and so on. You are unique. You dance to the beat of a different drummer. You fail to realize just by living in your town, attending your school, and working at your job you are the kind of person who would do those things. If you weren’t, you would be doing something else. You might say, “Well, I have to be here. I have no choice,” but you ignore how many of your peers are probably using the same excuse.

The third person effect is a version of the self-serving bias. You excuse your failures and see yourself as more successful, more intelligent and more skilled than you are. Research into the self-serving bias shows subjects tend to rate themselves as more skilled than their coworkers, better drivers than the average person, more attractive than people their age and likely to live longer than the people they grew up with.

When the third person effect leads you to condone censorship, take a step back and imagine the sort of messages people on the other side might think are brainwashing you, and then ask yourself if those messages should be censored too.

Buy You Are Not So Smart on Amazon.com

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