Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I say I Built This! What are you going to do about it?

Let me start off by saying that I have never been in an accident. I don’t think I am the best driver in the world, but I’d say that I’m probably better than most drivers. However, if you were to do a poll most people would say the same. But then you might say “Chris, how is that possible? Part of being better than most drivers means that you are in the minority of above average drivers. So how can the majority of people be in a minority?” Well skeptical reader, that is because most people believe they are better than other drivers whether or not they actually are. It’s a phenomenon demonstrating this idea of the “third-person effect.”  

Not to be confused with the third-person shooter, Mass Effect
Now when it comes to media, which the third-person effect actually refers to, the way I would best summarize it would be the words of someone else, W. Phillips Davison (the guy who wrote the book…or rather the paper on it). “People will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behaviors of others.” For instance, I know that that ad on TV is just trying to convince me to buy their product, but most people aren’t as astute as I am so it would not surprise me if people actually believed that Bounty really is more absorbent than your leading brand. Then you might say “Chris, just because people believe something about others doesn’t mean that media is causing an effect on the public.” Well, incredibly astute, yet awfully impatient, skeptical reader, the effect is in the reaction people have to these media messages. Think about the current presidential election. When the Republican campaign took the “you didn’t build that” sound bite from one of Obama’s speeches, you may have thought, “well that was taken completely out of context.” But that didn’t stop the Obama campaign from going out and clarifying his remarks in that clip. The larger of society may have not been affected by that clip, as shown by a lack of change in the polls following the speech, but the opposition was fearful enough that such a message could influence voters that they felt compelled to retaliate. The effect is in the response.

"We" as in myself, my investors, and the government with those roads and power plants.  
It begs the question, how much does our retaliation go? In the past, people certainly have seen bars and even death for speaking out against the government. Are we so afraid of the power of subversive media messages that we will use forceful coercion to mitigate this perceived influence? Perhaps we need to take a look at our society and see how to mitigate our anxiety towards dissension rather than the dissenters themselves.

But I hate to leave you on a depressing existential questioning of the role of the mass media, so here is an Onion article about the exaggerated effects of a media message if they were true. Enjoy.


  1. Very entertaining read! I love your examples, but I like the first one a bit better. It shows that the third person effect isn't just prevalent in the media - it is an actual psychological phenomenon.
    With regard to your "depressing existential question," do you think that intervention by a higher power [eg. government] would be necessary if these reactions and retaliations escalate off each other?

  2. I know we already discussed your post in class, Chris, but again I found this amusing (particularly the Onion piece) and thoughtful. I'm afraid it's not just "in the past" that people have faced imprisonment and retaliation for suspected dissent, however, and nowadays suspicions are all too easily confirmed (see the case of a Chinese dissident who was jailed after Yahoo! provided the Chinese government with evidence of his email/forum use). This also complicates Kay's follow-up question, because in this case what higher power do we turn to in order to mitigate such actions (e.g. the global community)?