The tendency for individuals to perceive a greater impact of media messages on others than on the self, Davison (1983) argues, has led to a number of policy decisions in which élites have exercised control of mass media messages in order to ‘protect’ vulnerable others. The third-person effect has been well-documented in experimental research with little attention to its theoretical underpinnings, or its antecedents or consequences. This article argues that the third-person effect can be understood through attribution theory, especially through the concepts of self-serving bias and effectance motivation. Second, it demonstrates that the third-person effect is influenced by certain social structural factors, media use patterns, and perceived harm of content. Finally, while perceptions of harm are related to perceptions of influence, influence does not play a role in predicting support for external control of media content, while perceived harm has a significant impact.

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