Third-Person Effect Theory: The Media Only Influences Others

Third-person effect in psychology is a theory that people think they are less influenced than third parties by persuasive messages in the media.

Third-person effect in psychology is a theory that people think they are less influenced than third parties by persuasive messages in the media.

The third-person effect is a psychological finding that people think others are influenced by mass media messages more than they are themselves.

In fact, it is one of the most intriguing things about the psychology of persuasion, how many people say that persuasion attempts have little or no effect on them but probably work on third parties.

Indeed, the theory is sometimes known as the third party theory.

Other people, oh sure, adverts, work on them.

But not you and I, we’re too clever for that.

Attractive woman holding a bottle of beer?

Hah! How stupid do they think we are?

We know what they’re doing and we wouldn’t fall for such cheap tactics.

Would we?

Third-person effect examples

So pervasive is this feeling that only ‘other’ people are influenced by things like adverts that many studies on the third-person effect have explored the idea, with an initial surge in the 1980s and 90s.

Psychologists wanted to see how much people thought they were influenced by persuasive messages like adverts and compare it with actual attitude changes, if any.

Typically these third-person effect studies first got participants to watch an advert, read a newspaper article or other medium containing a persuasive message.

Then they were asked how much it had influenced them and how much it might influence other people.

Since the experimenters measured actual persuasion and knew from previous research how influential the messages were, they could compare people’s guesses with reality.

What they found, in study after study on the third-person effect, was that participants thought others would be influenced by the message, but that they themselves would remain unaffected.

When psychologists looked at the results, though, it was clear that participants were just as influenced as other people.

This was dubbed the ‘third-person effect’.

When the third-person effect is stronger

Reviewing the research in this area, Perloff (1993) found that studies on political adverts, defamatory news stories, public service announcements and many more all showed a robust third-person effect.

Similar conclusions were reached by Paul et al. (2000), who looked at 32 separate studies on the third-person effect.

Perloff also found that when people don’t agree with the message or judge its source as negative, the third-person effect became even stronger.

The third-person effect is also stronger when messages aren’t directly relevant to people.

In other words people are likely to be influenced more than they think on subjects that are currently of little or no interest to them.

An everyday example would be seeing an advert for a car, when you’re not in the market for a new car.

We’d probably guess it has little or no influence on us, but this research suggests we’d be wrong.

Take back control

The third-person effect is unusual because it goes against the general finding that we overestimate other people’s similarity to ourselves.

This is what psychologists call the false consensus effect: we tend to assume that others hold more similar opinions and have more similar attributes and personalities to ourselves than they really do.

The third-person effect, though, goes in the other direction.

When it comes to influence, instead of thinking other people are similar to us, we think they’re different.

There are two facets of human nature that support this exception:

  • Illusion of invulnerability. People prefer to believe that they are, on average, less vulnerable than others to negative influences, like unwanted persuasion attempts. We all want to protect our sense of control over our lives. One way we do that is to assume that ads only work on other people.
  • Poor self-knowledge. Although it’s an unpalatable idea, we often don’t know what’s really going on in our own minds (see the hidden workings of the mind). Not only does this make scientific psychology a tricky enterprise, it also means that many of our intuitions about the way our own minds work are scrambled and subject to biases like the illusion of invulnerability. The effect of persuasive messages is a good example of this.

People often react to this sort of research by saying it’s disheartening, which it is.

It’s not a happy thought that we don’t know how easily we are influenced because we don’t really know what’s going on in our own minds.

However, sticking our heads in the sand and pretending influence attempts don’t work is likely to increase our vulnerability.

On the other hand, if we acknowledging our lack of insight into our own thought processes, we can raise our defences against the power of advertising and messages of influence, and take back control for ourselves.


How To Convince Someone: 20 Principles Of Persuasion

How to convince someone using these 20 principles of persuasion, all based on established psychological research.

How to convince someone using these 20 principles of persuasion, all based on established psychological research.

Perfection is hard to achieve in any walk of life and convincing someone to do anything is no different.

Convincing or persuading someone relies on many things going just right at the crucial moment; the perfect synchronisation of source, message and audience.

But even if perfection is unlikely, we all need to know what to aim for.

Here are the most important points for crafting the perfect persuasive message designed to convince someone of anything, all of which have scientific evidence to back them up.

1. Multiple, strong arguments

The more arguments, the more persuasive, but overall persuasive messages should be balanced, as two-sided arguments fare better than their one-sided equivalents (as long as counter-arguments are shot down).

2. Use relevance to convince

Persuasive messages should be personally relevant to the audience.

If not, they will switch off and fail to process it.

3. Universal goals

In creating your message, understand the three universal goals for which everyone is aiming: affiliation, accuracy and positive self-concept.

4. Likeability

Ingratiating yourself with the audience is no bad thing—most successful performers, actors, lawyers and politicians do it.

Likeability can be boosted by praising the audience and by perceived similarity. Even the most fleeting similarities can be persuasive.

5. Authority convinces

People tend to defer to experts because it saves us trying to work out the pros and cons ourselves (read the classic experiment on obedience to authority).

6. Attractiveness

The physical attractiveness of the source is only important if it is relevant (e.g. when selling beauty products).

7. Match message and medium

One useful rule of thumb is: if the message is difficult to understand, write it; if it’s easy, put it in a video.

8. Avoid forewarning

Don’t open up saying “I will try and persuade you that…”

If you do, people start generating counter-arguments and are less likely to be persuaded.

9. Go slow to convince someone

If the audience is already sympathetic, then present the arguments slowly and carefully (as long as they are relevant and strong).

If the audience is against you then fast talkers can be more persuasive.

10. Repetition is persuasive

Whether or not a statement is true, repeating it a few times gives the all-important illusion of truth.

The illusion of truth leads to the reality of persuasion.

11. Social proof

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again—despite all their protestations of individuality, people love conformity.

So tell them which way the flock is going because people want to be in the majority.

12. Attention

If the audience isn’t paying attention, they can’t think about your arguments, so attitudes can’t change.

That’s why anything that sharpens attention, like caffeine, makes people easier to persuade.

And speaking of attention…

13. Minimise distraction

If you’ve got a strong message then audiences are more swayed if they pay attention.

If the arguments are weak then it’s better if they’re distracted.

14. Positively framed

Messages with a positive frame can be more persuasive.

15. Disguise the persuasions

Messages are more persuasive if they don’t appear to be intended to persuade or influence as they can sidestep psychological reactance (hence the power of overheard arguments to change minds).

16. Psychologically tailored

Messages should match the psychological preferences of the audience.

E.g. some people prefer thinking-framed arguments and others prefer feel-framed arguments (see: battle between thought and emotion in persuasion).

Also, some people prefer to think harder than others.

17. Go with the flow

Persuasion is strongest when the message and audience are heading in the same direction.

Thoughts which come into the audience’s mind more readily are likely to be more persuasive.

18. Confidence convinces people

Not only your confidence, but theirs.

The audience should feel confident about attitude change.

Audience confidence in their own thoughts is boosted by a credible source and when they feel happy (clue: happy audiences are laughing).

19. Be powerful

A powerful orator influences the audience, but making the audience themselves feel powerful increases their confidence in attitude change.

An audience has to feel powerful enough to change.

20. Avoid targeting strong beliefs

Strong attitudes and beliefs are very difficult to change.

Do not directly approach long-standing ideas to which people are committed, they will resist and reject.

Strong beliefs must be approached indirectly.

Change minds

You should be aware that many of these factors interact with each other.

For example when the message is strong but the source is dodgy, the sleeper effect can arise.

Argument strength is also critical.

The basic principle is that when arguments are strong, you need to do everything to make people concentrate on them.

When they’re weak, it’s all about distracting the audience from the content and using peripheral routes to persuade, such as how confidently or quickly you talk.

Weaving all these together is no mean feat, but look at most professionally produced persuasive messages and you’ll see many of these principles on show.

Incorporate as many as you can for the perfect persuasive message that will really convince someone of anything.


Talking Fast May Be A Sign Of Intelligence And Has Other Advantages

Talking fast may make people appear more intelligent, although the evidence is mixed — research reveals if there are other advantages.

Talking fast may make people appear more intelligent, although the evidence is mixed — research reveals if there are other advantages.

Beware the fast-talker, the person with the gift of the gab—the friendly salesman, the oily politician—running through the ‘facts’ faster than you can keep up. Rat-a-tat-tat.

What does all that fast talking do to us? Does it have advantages?

Are we more persuaded by their apparent confidence and grasp of the subject?

Or, are we less persuaded because all the information comes at us too fast to be processed?

Advantages of talking fast

When psychologists first began examining the effect of speech rate on persuasion, they thought the answer was cut-and-dried.

In 1976 Norman Miller and colleagues tried to convince participants that caffeine was bad for them (Miller et al., 1976).

The results suggested people were most persuaded when the message was delivered at a fully-caffeinated 195 words per minute rather than at a decaffeinated 102 words per minute.

At 195 words per minute, about the fastest that people speak in normal conversation, the message became more credible to those listening, and therefore more persuasive.

Talking fast seemed to signal confidence, intelligence, objectivity and superior knowledge.

[However, another study in a different context has found that speaking slowly is linked to sounding intelligent, so the link is far from proven.]

Going at about 100 words per minute, the usual lower limit of normal conversation, was associated with all the reverse attributes.

These results, along with a couple of other studies, lead some researchers to think that speaking quickly was a potential ‘magic bullet’ of persuasion.

Perhaps we should watch out for people who speak quickly—who knows what we might agree to.

Advantages of talking slowly

By the 1980s, though, other researchers had begun to wonder if these results could really be correct.

They pointed to studies suggesting that while talking faster seemed to boost credibility, it didn’t always boost persuasion.

The effects of talking fast might not all be positive; for example, when someone talks quickly it can be hard to keep up with what they are saying, so the persuasive message doesn’t have a chance to take hold.

By the 1990s a more nuanced relationship between speech rate and persuasion emerged.

Stephen Smith and David Shaffer, for example, tried to convince one group of student participants the legal age for drinking should be kept at 21 (Smith & Shaffer, 1991).

Another group they tried to persuade the age should not be 21 (this was shortly after the legal age for drinking in the US was raised to 21).

Fast, slow and intermediate speech rates were employed and this time a telling twist emerged.

When the message was counter-attitudinal (you’ll not be amazed to hear that college students don’t like the idea they can’t legally drink in bars), fast talking was more persuasive than the intermediate, with slow talking being the least persuasive of all.

Exactly the reverse effect was seen when the message was pro-attitudinal.

When preaching to the converted, it was slow speech that emerged as the most persuasive.

The question became: why does the effect reverse when the audience is hostile to the message?

Here’s what seems to happen.

When an audience starts hearing a message it doesn’t like (no beer for you), but slowly, it has time to come up with counter-arguments, so less persuasion occurs.

However when the speech is quicker there’s less time to come up with these counter-arguments, so more persuasion.

It works the other way around when the audience does like the message.

When the message comes in too quickly, there isn’t time to evaluate and agree with it more.

But, when it comes in slow, there’s plenty of time to evaluate the arguments, agree and be even more persuaded that you should be able to drink in bars.

Talking slowly has also been linked sounding more attractive along with speaking in a lower tone.

Beware the fast talker

So it seems we might well have reason to fear fast talkers if they are delivering a message we’re not inclined to agree with.

It seems the fast pace is distracting and we may find it difficult to pick out the argument’s flaws.

Similarly, when faced with an audience desperate to agree, the practised persuader would do well to slow down and give the audience time to agree some more.

All this assumes the audience is interested in the topic in the first place.

If it isn’t relevant, people are likely to judge it based solely on much more peripheral matters, like how fast they are talking.

So once again, when talking to a disinterested audience, the fast talker is likely to be more persuasive.


How To Use Your Voice To Influence Others In Seconds (M)

The voice can communicate prestige and status quite simply.

The voice can communicate prestige and status quite simply.

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You Are 50% More Persuasive Than You Think (M)

When contemplating asking others for something, we fear rejection or exposing our own supposed inadequacies.

When contemplating asking others for something, we fear rejection or exposing our own supposed inadequacies.

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9 Ways Persuasion Can Be Resisted

Persuasion can be resisted through inoculation, being forewarned, reactance, reality checks and more.

Persuasion can be resisted through inoculation, being forewarned, reactance, reality checks and more.

What runs through your mind when someone tries to persuade you?

Say they start telling you about their preferred make of car, the right area to live in or why you should vote this way or that.

How do you react?

And what if you are actively trying to persuade other people; do you know what is going on in their heads?

What internal mechanisms are swinging into action as you start to try and convince them?

Here are the top 9 ways that the mind resists persuasion and how to both break them down or sustain them.

1. Inoculation

Medical inoculations work by giving you a little of the disease so that your body can get used to it and fend off a full attack in the future.

Psychological inoculations against persuasion work the same way.

When people have already been prepared with counter-arguments they find it easier to fend of persuasion attempts.

  • When persuading: what counter-argument will people already know? Avoid the ‘usual’ arguments in your persuasion attempt. Instead use a new angle they haven’t thought about before.
  • When resisting persuasion: expose yourself to different types of arguments and counter-arguments you will likely face. When you know what’s coming it’s easier to defend yourself psychologically. Look for indirect persuasion attempts: perhaps it’s the same old argument made in a slightly different way.

2. Forewarned is forearmed

When we can see the persuasion attempt coming, it’s much easier to marshal our defences.

Blatant advertising, party political broadcasts and the rest: our defences are up so it’s harder to get through.

  • When persuading: don’t signal your attempt in advance. Try to divert attention from the persuasion attempt by hiding it within an apparently innocuous message. Emphasise how you are ‘just talking’ or ‘only discussing’ something.
  • When resisting persuasion: try to spot persuasion attempts that are wrapped up in social pressure or as entertainment. For example: “A little won’t hurt. Come on, we’re all doing it!” or: “Find out more about [insert politician here]’s secret love child! Tonight on [insert TV network here]”.

3. Reactance

People don’t like being told what to do or having their freedom restricted.

It can even lead to a ‘boomerang effect’ where telling people not to do something makes them want to do it more.

  • When persuading: avoid restricting people’s freedom; instead make them feel they have options and room for manoeuvre and this can work to your advantage (see: affirming the right to choose).
  • When resisting persuasion: think about whether the persuasion attempt is restricting your freedom. If it is then should you go along with it? Alternatively, is the person emphasising how free you are in order to persuade you?

4. Reality check

After being persuaded, people often perform a sort of reality check.

Have I agreed to something I didn’t mean to? Would I have agreed if I knew then what I know now?

If not, then cancel the whole thing!

  • When persuading: don’t give people the time for a reality check. Under time pressure people find it difficult to think.
  • When resisting persuasion: take a time-out afterwards to think about whether you would still agree to it. Watch out for time pressure or limited deals—these are designed to short-cut rational processes and make us jump right in.

5. Counter-arguing and bolstering

It’s the most natural defence of all: thinking about why they are wrong (counter-arguing) and you are right (bolstering).

  • When persuading: strongly held beliefs are difficult to attack. Try being sneaky and sidestepping them. Minimise your point to make it less threatening or make the relationship seem more collaborative (“Hey, I’m just trying to work out the truth as much as you buddy.”)
  • When resisting persuasion: think about who else agrees with you. This bolsters your position by using social confirmation. Be wary of camouflaged attempts to persuade.

6. Resistance breeds more resistance

When people successfully defend themselves against an attempt at persuasion, their original position gets stronger.

Say I’m trying to talk you into dying your hair blue and you think you’ll look ridiculous.

Unless I put forward a better case than, “Because it’ll be funny”, you’ll be even more against it afterwards.

  • When persuading: make your first attempt to persuade a strong one, don’t go in half-hearted or you could just increase resistance in the long-run.
  • When resisting persuasion: if you know the persuasion attempt is coming and you have counter-arguments ready then your resistance will only make you stronger.

7. Attack authority

Persuasion attempts often use the argument from authority, kind of like: “I’m your father so I know best.”

But like any child, we want to rebel so we attack authority.

  • When persuading: make sure your credentials are rock-solid. If they’re not, find someone whose authority is unquestioned. People naturally defer to those who have (or appear to have) authority.
  • When resisting persuasion: attack the source of the message. Use negative emotions like anger or irritation and attribute them to the so-called authority figure. Be extremely suspicious of anyone who relies purely on authority to influence.

8. Being sharp and alert

Resistance is easiest when we feel sharp and alert.

That’s when you are better able to raise counter-arguments, sustain your position, spot persuasion attempts coming and so on.

  • When persuading: when people are tired, their defences are down. If they are alert now, can they be worn down or their resistance blunted by a frontal attack? And, can you reduce their motivation to resist?
  • When resisting persuasion: beware tiredness. Never go shopping when you’re really hungry, buy a car when you’re desperate or talk to a salesman when you’re half-distracted. Recognise times when you’re likely to be weak and closet yourself until the energy levels are replenished.

9. Not listening

Sometimes the easiest ways of resisting persuasion are the simplest.

You walk away, turn off the TV or block out the drone of other people’s point of view by humming the theme to The A-Team.

  • When persuading: do you have their full attention? If not, then it’s hard to be effective. Once they are focused on you, start with the most interesting part of the argument to draw them in.
  • When resisting persuasion: are you really ignoring it? We are more easily swayed than we think. Most guess that it’s other people who are influenced by adverts or political messages, not ourselves. Don’t just turn it down, turn it off.


Grifters: The 7 Psychological Principles That Con Artists Use

How grifters and con artists trick people into handing over billions each year, sometimes again and again.

How grifters and con artists trick people into handing over billions each year, sometimes again and again.

Good grifters or con artists are excellent intuitive psychologists.

Just like magicians, these swindlers and dishonest gamblers understand enough about how the mind works to exploit its vulnerabilities.

Our fascination with grifters is insatiable and, despite being criminals, they are frequently portrayed by Hollywood in a flattering light, in films like The Sting, Catch Me If You Can and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy.

Of course the reality is nowhere near as romantic, especially if you’ve fallen for one of the cons.

Frank Stajano, a security expert at Cambridge University, has been working with Paul Wilson, a scam artist and author of BBC TV’s The Real Hustle to identify the 7 major psychological principles used in short cons to part people from their cash (Stajano & Wilson, 2009; PDF, 308K).

1. Grifters use distraction

Attention is like spotlight, which means when it’s pointing in one direction it pretty much ignores everything else.

Except people don’t realise how little information coming in from the outside world we actually process.

Naturally you don’t notice what you don’t notice, plus the mind is designed to fill in the gaps for us.

But con artists do know and almost every con uses some kind of distraction.

The classic example is ‘Three-card Monte‘ sometimes called ‘Find the Lady’, a rigged card game in which the aim is to find one card out of three after the grifter shuffles them around.

At the heart of this hustle is the orchestration of a crowd of onlookers who the mark (that’s you and me) thinks are all fellow punters, but who are actually in on the game.

Marks are distracted by the situation in the street—the banter, laughter and excitement—and don’t realise the whole thing is a setup: no matter what the mark thinks they know, there is no way to win.

The grifter is always one step ahead.

Stajano and Wilson call Three-card Monte ‘polite mugging’.

2. Social compliance

The classic study showing how compliant we are, especially when told to do things by an authority figure, is known as the Milgram experiment.

Grifters know all about this and happily exploit our automatic deference to authority figures.

People will hand over credit cards to people they think are waiters, car keys to people they think are car park attendants and give access to their house to people they think are from the water board.

The best known online example is a ‘phishing attack’  where people give fraudsters their bank details in response to an email that purports to be from their bank.

3. Con artists rely on the herd principle

People are sheep: they can’t help following each other.

The classic study, known as the Asch conformity experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s showing that people will deny evidence from their own eyes to fit in with others.

In the Three-card Monte con, the crowd of shills around the game creates the herd for the mark to follow.

Online there are all kinds of tricks people can use to make others think there is a herd when actually there is only one person.

The practice of ‘astroturfing’ means creating multiple online identities to fake grass-roots support for a politician.

In peer-to-peer networks the multiple identities created by people trying to influence them are known as Sybils.

Whether online or offline, though, group psychology exerts an enormous influence over us.

4. Con artists exploit other’s dishonesty

Fear is the mind-killer.

Con artists know that people are fearful and play on this fact.

Some cons involve selling goods to marks that are used for illegal purposes.

For example one scam described by Stajano and Wilson involves selling people ‘cancelled banknotes’, actually just pieces of paper which have been spray-painted, then telling marks they have an amazing gadget which will clean off the ink and make the notes usable again.

Marks are discouraged from reporting the scam because they would be implicating themselves and the grifter wins both ways.

5. Grifters use deception

People are easily tricked, even when they think they are being careful.

Grifters take advantage of the fact that most people go along with their expectations of what will happen in any given situation.

If the grifter’s behaviour fits the situation then people will accept what they say.

One classic is ‘van dragging’ where grifters target a warehouse from which they want to steal the goods being delivered.

They hang a sign saying the door is broken and those delivering should call a number.

The con artists, hiding nearby, answer and steal all the goods from the delivery driver, all the while complaining that they’ve called the locksmith and he hasn’t turned up yet.

The delivery driver often helps the grifters load their van.

6. Grifters leverage need and greed

Once grifters know what people want, even if it doesn’t exist, they are in a position to manipulate them.

They will play on people’s desperation; unfortunately the more desperate people are, the easier they are to con.

A classic short-con that works people’s greed is the ‘ring reward rip-off’.

A female grifter enters a bar and shows-off a new ring to the barman (the mark) claiming it cost thousands (actually it’s a cheap fake).

The female grifter leaves to be replaced by a male accomplice.

The female grifter then rings the barman to say she lost her ring. The male grifter then claims to have found it but asks if there’s a reward.

Over the telephone the female gives a price but the barman realises he can make a profit so tells the male con artist a much lower price.

The barman hands over the money and, of course, neither of the grifters are seen again.

This con relies on the barman’s greed or it won’t work. In reality it works surprisingly often.

7. Time pressure

Classic studies of how people make decisions under time pressure demonstrates what grifters already know: when there’s no time to think people rely on short cuts and emotional responses to a situation.

So grifters make sure the mark is under time pressure so they will respond in a predicable fashion, i.e. by being greedy, or giving in to the herd principle, or by bending to the will of an authority figure.

Who are grifter’s marks?

And if you think no one falls for these tricks then think again.

A recently published UK report found that each year 3.2 million people in the UK fall for mass marketed scams (OFT, 2009).

That’s 5 percent of the population, each year.

Collectively they lost £3.5 billion. £3.5 billion.

The OFT report investigated those who had been conned and reached some insightful conclusions:

  • Counter-intuitively victims of cons tended to put more effort into analysing scams than non-victims. Victims admitted they saw the scam as a long-odds gamble but were prepared to take the risk.
  • Victims often failed to discuss the scam with anyone else, as if they knew others would confirm their worst fears.
  • Between 10 percent and 20 percent of people were repeat victims, getting caught up in scams again and again despite being burned before.
  • Victims are not generally poor decision-makers, but are often professionals or successful business people.

The best advice is that given at the end of the TV programme The Real Hustle: if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

→ Read on: like con artists, magicians know how to exploit our mental vulnerabilities, discover 3 critical techniques in the psychology of magic.


A Negative Emotion That Does Changes People’s Behaviour After All (M)

The emotion is used to sell products, encourage people to be healthy and by politicians to control the masses. 

The emotion is used to sell products, encourage people to be healthy and by politicians to control the masses. 

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How To Build Rapport: Verbal vs Nonverbal Techniques (M)

“It was interesting how willing random strangers were to tell me their deepest, darkest secrets.” ~ Dr Eric Novotny

"It was interesting how willing random strangers were to tell me their deepest, darkest secrets." ~ Dr Eric Novotny

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Why Pauses In Speech Grab People’s Attention (M)

People recognise words better after a pause and speakers naturally insert pauses just before they say something important.

People recognise words better after a pause and speakers naturally insert pauses just before they say something important.

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