The Third Person Effect

People tend to overestimate their confidence and ability in things and discount the same in others.

We see this most clearly in driving confidence and ability.

73% of Americans believe that they are a “better-than-average” driver.

Instantly, we know something must be wrong.

There is a similar phenomenon in psychology called the third-person effect.

“…people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. More specifically, individuals who are members of an audience that is exposed to a persuasive communication (whether or not this communication is intended to be persuasive) will expect the communication to have a greater effect on others than on themselves. And whether or not these individuals are among the ostensible audience for the message, the impact that they expect this communication to have on others may lead them to take some action. Any effect that the communication achieves may thus be due not to the reaction of the ostensible audience but rather to the behavior of those who anticipate, or think they perceive, some reaction on the part of others.”

The argument here isn’t that propaganda works. The argument is that there are many people who believe propaganda doesn’t work on them, but they have concerns that it works on others.

That concern may lead the same enlightened people to take action which ultimately makes the propaganda effective.

In Davidson’s paper, he cites a couple of examples from military history that takes advantage of this. One is very similar to the technique Saddam Hussein purportedly used during the Iran-Iraq War to ground the Iranian F-14 fleet.

The History of the Psychological Warfare Division, Supreme Headquarters, Alled Expeditionary Force (Bad Homburg, Germany, 1945) tells us about Operation Huguenot – a project for undermining the efficiency of the German Air Force by suggesting that German flying personnel were deserting in their machines to the Allied side.

The Psychological Warfare Division history tells:

“The dividends from this operation were expected not so much in the actual number of desertions as in the effect of the countermeasures which the German authorities would be induced to take against glying personnel… sharpening up of anti-desertion measures and instructions to field polict to keep a suspicious eye on everyone – a course which would have serious effects on morale. Also, the promotion of officers on account of reliability rather than efficiency (p. 53).”

The Third Person Effect in Communication

It wasn’t about actually getting Germans to defect. It was about getting the German military to take action – unnecessary, painful action – to prevent defections from taking place.

The lesson here, as is often the case when it comes to propaganda, is to exercise patience, discretion, humility, and trust.

Patience to not react just because something happens in the information environment.

Discretion to be selective about what levers we choose to pull if and when we do react.

Humility to acknowledge that we are all vulnerable.

Trust in each other that they can do the above as well.

No matter how smart we think we are, or how immune we may be to the effects of slick marketing, social media algorithms, or plain old-fashioned propaganda, we are all made up of the same stuff as the person next to us.

We’re all vulnerable. Understanding that is the beginning of beating it.

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