The Third Person Effect

men reading newspapers on a train

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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German loudspeaker operations, WWII

“The statue of liberty is kaput.”

“That’s disconcerting.”

Seems silly, of course.

But when you’re cut off from the world and there is no way of verifying the information, this could be really demoralizing.

In the digital era, the possibilities are endless.


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The Best Years of Our Lives

in a bar or diner best years of our lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

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PFC John F. Prince, USMC, Battle of Tarawa 1943 (Bellerose, New York)

bellerose new york john f. prince marines
image

I recently learned that the remains of Private John F. Prince, a Marine from my hometown who died in the Battle of Tarawa during World War II, finally came home a couple of weeks ago.


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Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ for US troops (1943)

Through one of the internet’s many rabbit holes, I came across this video from 1943 of Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ on the ‘Command Performance‘ program. She is introduced here by Bob Hope.

‘Over the Rainbow’ as a theme seems a universe away from ‘Courtesy of the Red White and Blue‘ so I dug a little further. ‘Over the Rainbow’ debuted in The Wizard of Oz in 1939. It came to be thought of as a symbol of the United States by US troops (Barnet, Nemerov, and Taylor, The Story Behind the Song). Their book makes it seem like it was the go-to anthem during World War II, much like Toby Keith’s song became popular in the years following the September 11th attacks. I haven’t been able to track down any more information on it, though.

‘Over the Rainbow’ would later be named the #1 song in a film of all time by the American Film Institute.

Enjoy.


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