Gaming the System
I must admit that, upon reading about the third-person effect, I immediately began to think about game theory. Although I fully confess to being relatively naïve in the school of thought, I have long been fascinated by the ways in which we make decisions based on incomplete information (see also my undergraduate love for heuristics).
Indeed, there seems to be a wonderfully (horrible? awesome?) kind of power in the ability to reliably predict how the manipulation of information can lead to particular patterns of behavior; in some ways, it is like being able to see into the future. And, although perhaps a tad overdramatic, to bend information to your will is to make and remake the world.
Although I certainly don’t wish to confuse game theory with the third-person effect, I can’t help but think that, on some base level, they share some similarities for we are, in both cases, assessing how others will react to a given piece (or set) of information and responding accordingly. Whether it is to promote media regulation, ordering a pre-emptive strike, or playing the market, it seems like some of the same core thought processes are occurring as we pit ourselves against the world.
The notion of distancing, however, is key as it seems to protect individuals from a measure of cognitive dissonance: it would be troublesome for one to assume that others (i.e., “the masses) are affected differentially if they resemble oneself! And yet the act of distancing creates an interesting thought exercise for the third-person effect operates on the idea that an unseen “average person” would react to media in a particular way—but if we are abnormal on one measure, we are, by sheer probability, surely average on another! Although we can circumvent this tendency through careful thought, it seems difficult for individuals to consider that they might in fact be one of the Other and reconcile this line of thinking with perceptions of one’s own identity.
In some ways, I wonder if this inclination relates to the actor/field approach that we discussed earlier, wherein one is able to observe (and therefore compare) the ways in which media affects others but is blind to this process with regard to oneself. Or maybe it is precisely because we are hyper-aware of our own cognitions that we tend to formulate alternate responses for ourselves.
Is another explanation for this the Western drive toward individualism? Would this same phenomenon present if we fundamentally understood ourselves as embodying a different sort of relationship to our community? Would we be more inclined to identify with the masses if we inhabited a more collectivist society?