The Third-Person Effect
by Ethan Glover, Sat, Sep 16, 2017 - (Edited) Wed, Jan 10, 2018
There was a service unit consisting of Negro troops with white officers on Iwo Jima Island in the Pacific. The Japanese learned about the location of this unit and sent planes over with propaganda leaflets. These leaflets stressed the theme that this was a white man's war and that the Japanese had no quarrel with colored peoples. They said, more or less, 'Don't risk your life for the white man. Give yourself up at the first opportunity, or just desert. Don't take chances.' The next day that unit was withdrawn.
This is a story told by W. Phillips Davidson in the paper 'The Third-Person Effect in Communication.' (Archived PDF) It's a story that begins the formal discovery of what is now known in psychology as the third-person effect. In the case of that service unit, there is no evidence that the propaganda had an effect on the troops at all. But it still scared the officers and caused them to withdraw and reshuffle their personnel.
Why didn't they know that their troops didn't buy into obvious propaganda from the enemy?
The same sociologist who studied this event was later researching the role of the West German press on the formation of Bonn's foreign policy. When he asked journalists how much influence they thought newspapers had on the thinking of their readers, the answers came down to something like:
The editorials have little effect on people like you and me, but the ordinary reader is likely to be influenced quite a lot.
Again, years later, this sociologist got involved in a local political campaign. When he saw a leaflet from the rival campaign, he was impressed. He figured it would sway a lot of votes, so he created leaflets of his own to match the quality. Later, it was found that neither set of leaflets had any effect at all.
The third-party effect says that audiences of persuasive communication overestimate the effect it has on others and underestimate the effect it has on themselves.
This effect is something that can be used as a tool for those who know how to use it. In the case of the Japanese propaganda in WWII, they could have expected it to have no effect on the troops. Rather, they may have expected it to have an effect on command decisions. As was the case.
This is exactly what Operation Huguenot, conducted by Allied forces, was all about. It was known that Germany was spying on US radio communications. With that knowledge, the US would drop small hints of German pilots deserting from the Luftwaffe force to join the allies. (Even though no such desertions were taking place.) There was never an expectation that this would cause troops to desert. Rather, the goal was to get command to be suspicious of their troops, send out fewer pilots and decrease troop morale.
When there is a major storm in the forecast, it's common for people to rush to the store and stock up on essentials. When you ask people why they do this, they often say it's because they expect others to and that they want to get what they need before the hoarders empty the shelves.
The Maryland State Board of Censors, established in 1916 had, among other things, been filtering "smut" from movies available in the state. When the board disbanded in 1981, there were cries that the morals of "others" would decline. But no one ever claimed it would decline their morals. One of the people on the board sad that in the course of 21 years she had looked at more naked bodies than 50,000 doctors. Yet, she could describe no adverse effects.
When talking about politics, I often stick to how things effect me personally. I then project that onto other individuals. Does allowing people to have guns put me in danger? No. Does it put you in danger? No. So why does it make sense to want to ban them? Because it would put others in danger? Who?
The third-person effect is important to think about. Those on the left have an issue with wanting to protect others from their own bad decisions. Not that anyone elsewhere on the spectrum is immune. But right now with groups like Antifa and the social-justice left talking about the effects racist groups have in America, I can't help but wonder. Do these groups have an effect? Or do we just like to talk about the effect they might be having on others?