Third-person effect

Media & Technology

Corbu et alia (2020)

Do we tend to underestimate the impact of fake news on ourselves?


As explained by Corbu et alia (2020), “the rapid development of social media platforms and the boundary-free, loose communication that they facilitate has contributed to the spread of news and information that is intended to mislead readers and, thus, to affect their understanding of the social, economic and political reality.” In particular, “the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Elections and the Brexit campaign in Europe have opened the floor to heated debates about fake news and the dangers that these phenomena pose to elections and to democracy, in general.” According to these researchers, what is “even more dangerous is people’s perception… that others are more prone to be affected by fake news than themselves. Thus, many people are still unaware of the degree to which fake news affects them, because they are overconfident in their potential to disentangle true from false information.”

This refers to a phenomenon first coined by Davidson (1983) as the “Third-Person Effect”. In its broadest formulation, this hypothesis predicts that “an individual who is exposed to a persuasive communication via the mass media will see this communication as having a greater effect on other people than on himself or herself.” More specifically, “in the view of those trying to evaluate the effects of a communication, its greatest impact will not be on ‘me’ or ‘you’, but on ‘them’—third persons.”

In addition to providing preliminary empirical confirmation of this phenomenon through studies conducted on “small groups” and “under informal conditions” in the late 70s and early 80s, Davidson (1983) indicated three potential and interrelated origins of the Third-Person Effect.

Self-Enhancement: The Third-Person Effect could be rooted in a psychological necessity to maintain a positive self-concept. Indeed, the third-person effect is predominantly studied in cases in which the perceived media influence would be undesirable. Thus, the Third-Person Effect could relate to a phenomenon known as “Illusory Superiority”, whereby “when people estimate their relative position on a number of attributes, they typically report that they possess positive characteristics to a higher, and negative characteristics to a lower, degree than the average other or most others” (Hoorens, 1993).

Cognitive Distance: This is particularly true in the case of intelligence. Davidson (1983) noted that “experts are particularly likely to overemphasize the effects of the media” on others (non-experts). More generally, it is perceived “cognitive distance” between ourselves that has been found to be positively associated with the Third-Person Effect.

Social Distance: Davidson (1983) also theorized that “the concept of reference group may prove useful in explaining the third-person effect”, which does not operate on a simple dichotomy between oneself and others, but rather on a spectrum based on degree of similarity between people “like me” and “different from me”. In this case, the third-person effect could be a type of social comparison, and due to a self-serving out-group bias, in which one’s own group is evaluated more favorably than out-groups (Conners, 2005). Thus, Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner, 2004), might offer an appropriate explanation of the Third-Person Effect. Indeed, a core tenet of this theory is that, to achieve and maintain a positive self-concept, individuals use different strategies to establish the “positive distinctiveness” of the groups they derive their social identity from (in-groups). This is done, for instance, by means of biased social comparisons with out-groups. 

Davidson (1983)’s original formulation of the Third-Person Effect did not refer (for obvious reasons) to the Internet. However, his analyses seem particularly relevant to “fake news”, which Lazer (2018) later defined as a type of fabricated content that mimics news media content. Indeed, Davidson (1983)’S interest in the third-person effect first arose in the context of military and political propaganda. Likewise, many of his early studies tested participants’ estimate of the influence of political communication on their own and other people’s electoral behavior.

Participants and Procedures

National diverse sample of 813 adults from Romania.

This particular study will require some modifications to be replicated for an IA (see “IA Tip” below). Indeed, the researchers simply asked different questions through a survey conducted in August 2018, with the intention to test several hypotheses, including:

  • Self-estimates of one’s own ability to detect fake news are higher than estimates about others’ ability to detect fake news.
  • The third-person effect is stronger when people compare themselves with distant rather than with close others.
  • Higher levels of education are associated with stronger third-person effects regarding the ability to detect fake news.

To measure any potential “third-person effect” in respondents’ estimates of people’s ability to identify disinformation, the researchers asked them to answer the following question on a 5-point scale: “How confident or not are you that you / your friends and family / people in general are able to identify news or information that misrepresents reality or is even false?”


As can be seen from the table above, the first two hypotheses were clearly confirmed: participants displayed a third-person effect, which was stronger when people compared their fake news detection ability to that of distant rather than to that of close others.

What is more, education level was found to be one of the main predictors of this third-person effect, which could support the idea that cognitive distance plays a role in this phenomenon.

IA Tip

In line with IB guidelines, we recommend that students only compare two conditions in their experiment and obtain a single measurable result for each participant in each condition. Doing otherwise would complicate inferential statistics without any benefit as far as the IA is concerned. 

When modifying this study, students should make sure to manipulate the independent variable, for instance by presenting participants with a number of headlines and asking them to predict (on a scale) either their own or other participants’ ability to detect true and “fake” news. Doing so would also ensure that the investigation is ethical and not deceptive.


Corbu, N., Oprea, D.-A., Negrea-Busuioc, E., & Radu, L. (2020). ‘They can’t fool me, but they can fool the others!’ Third person effect and fake news detection. European Journal of Communication, 35(2), 165–180.