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Youth Perceptions of their School Violence Risks
Penn State University
In order to gauge youth perceptions of school violence, the study
links two perceptual bias literatures: third-person perception and
optimistic bias. The intersection of the two literatures may be
especially beneficial in understanding how adolescents process and
interpret mass media public health messages and subsequently engage
in risk behaviors or self-protective behaviors in health contexts.
Findings from a survey of 350 urban adolescents indicate shared
predictors of third-person perception and optimistic bias (age,
self-esteem) as well as differences (knowledge).
Youth Perceptions of their School Violence Risks
Children and youth are bombarded daily by a broad array of violent
messages in the media. Recaps of the World Trade Center attacks and
news footage of school shootings depict devastation and human loss,
while action films and televised crime dramas depict violence as the
norm, even part of the solution. Even MTV, a staple of youth TV
consumption, counters violent images in music videos with personal
documentaries about school violence. The mixed messages leave
adolescent viewers to decide for themselves what is accurate, what is
real and what it all means. Their perceptions and interpretations may
have real-world consequences.
Two distinct literatures provide insight into such adolescent
misperceptions. Communication studies offer third-person perception;
health psychology offers optimistic bias. Linking the literatures
within the context of school violence may provide better
understanding of adolescent perceptions of violence.
Davison introduced the third-person perception concept in 1983, with
a straightforward hypothesis: Individuals believe they are less
influenced than are others by media messages. Nearly two decades and
over 50 published articles later, third-person perception is well
documented but not yet fully understood.
Multiple studies suggest optimistic bias (Weinstein, 1980) is a
promising explanation for third-person perception (Brosius & Engel,
1996; Duck & Mullin, 1995; Duck, Terry & Hogg, 1995; Gunther, 1991;
Gunther & Hwa, 1996; Gunther & Mundy, 1993; Rucinski & Salmon, 1990).
Optimistic Bias predicts that people believe they are less vulnerable
than are others to health risks. The similarities to the third-person
perception hypothesis are obvious. Few studies empirically test
such a relationship. Chapin (2000) reported a small inverse
relationship between first-person perception and optimistic bias
among urban minority at-risk youth. First-person perception emerges
in studies that use pro-social messages (in this case, safer sex
message); participants believe it is positive to be influenced by
such messages, so third-person perception is reversed with people
believing they are more influenced than others by the messages.
Chapin concluded that third-person perception and optimistic bias
each contributed uniquely to understanding participants' perceptions
and sexual risk-taking behaviors and urged further research linking
the literatures. The current study furthers the linkage by utilizing
negative media messages (media violence), which are more common in
the third-person perception literature.
Purpose of the Study
The current study serves several purposes: (1) Linking third-person
perception and optimistic bias, (2) understanding contributing
factors to both perceptual biases, and (3) applying the concepts to
the school violence context.
School violence is an ideal context for the study, given the
longstanding interest of communication scholars in the relationship
between media violence and youth behavior, the interest of health
psychology scholars in understanding and reducing youth violence, and
the current public concern over high profile school murders.
H1 Students believe they are less influenced than are others by
violent media (Third-person perception).
H2 Students believe violence is less likely to happen in their school
than other schools in the U.S. (optimistic bias).
H3 Third-person perception will increase as optimistic bias increases.
Perception and Demographics
Contrary to predictions by proponents of the adolescent
invulnerability hypothesis, third-person perception seems to decrease
with age (Chapin, 2001; Chapin, 2000; Salwen & Dupagne, 1999; Youn,
Faber & Shah, 2000). Increased experience with the media may explain
Educational differences have been of some interest to third-person
perception scholars, with the more educated participants exhibiting
greater degrees of third-person perception, while also believing
their less educated peers are especially at risk of media influence
(Mutz, 1989; Peiser & Peter, 2000; Youn, Faber & Shah, 2000). In
contrast, Shah, Faber and Youn (1999) reported no significant
relationship between education and third-person perception. The same
study was the only one to focus on gender, reporting that women were
more likely than men to exhibit third-person perception regarding the
effect of gambling advertisements on peers.
The last demographic variable utilized in the literature is income
(S.E.S.). Salwen and Dupagne's (1999) meta-analysis of the literature
found no support for such a relationship.
The influence of demographics on optimistic bias is less clear. In
an early literature review and community sample, Weinstein (1987)
reported little or no relationship between optimistic bias and age,
education, gender, or income. Weinstein's community sample did not
include any adolescents, however, and the review was limited to
studies that Weinstein acknowledged were over-reliant on white
college student samples.
Since this early synthesis of the literature, results have been
mixed. Numerous studies show optimistic bias, like third-person
perception decreases with age (Arnett, 2000; Job, 1990; Job, Fleming,
& Morgan, 1992; Quadrel, Fischoff, & Davis, 1993). Quadrel and
colleagues' (1993) sample tested both adults and adolescents, finding
adults and their children believed the adults were less prone to a
variety of risks. Chapin (1999) found no significant relationship
between optimistic bias and age.
Over-reliance on college student samples has limited the ability to
explore a relationship between optimistic bias and education.
Consistent with the third-person perception literature, Klacynski &
Fauth (1997) found that more educated participants exhibited greater
degrees of optimistic bias.
The optimistic bias literature has addressed gender effects more
fully than has the third-person perception literature, consistently
finding males more prone to optimistic bias than females for risks
ranging from automobile accidents to cancer (Chapin, 1999; Hampson,
1998; Whalen, Henker, O'Neil, Hollingshead, Holman, & Moore, 1994).
Finally, income (S.E.S.) also seems to increase optimistic bias
regarding health risks (Farber, 1992; Williams, Currie, & Wright, 1997).
H4 Third-person perception and optimistic bias will be greater for
males than for females.
H5 Third-person perception and optimistic bias will increase as age decreases.
Perception and Knowledge
Knowledge about a context area is a staple of the third-person
perception literature. Even perceived expertise in an area encourages
greater self/other distinctions in perceived media influence (Atwood,
1994; Chapin, 2001; Chapin, 2000; White & Dillon, 2000). Only one
study (Hoorens & Ruiter, 1996) failed to find a predicted
relationship between knowledge and third-person perception.
Similarly, multiple studies have also reported a positive
relationship between optimistic bias and knowledge (Al-Najjar,
al-Azemi, Buhaimed, Adib & Behbehani, 1998; Bane, 1998; Frewer,
Howard, Hedderley, & Shepherd, 1998), with one exception reporting no
significant relationship (Ferguson, 1997). In both literatures, the
old adage "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" seems to hold
true. Given the knowledge/awareness emphasis of most public health
campaigns, further research in the area may significantly contribute
to message design.
H6 Third-person perception and optimistic bias will increase as
Perception and Self-Esteem
Less is known about self-esteem in both literatures. Among David and
Johnson's (1998) 144 female journalism student participants, students
in the high self-esteem group (median split) exhibited higher degrees
of third-person perception regarding the influence of idealized body
images in the media on eating disorders. Similar results were
reported previously in a variety of research contexts (Duck, Hogg, &
Terry, 1995; Gunther, 1992; Gunther & Thorson, 1992). High
self-esteem may be used as a protective shield against perceived media effects.
Drawing from the third-person perception literature, Chapin (2000)
found self-esteem also positively related to optimistic bias. The
existing literature is limited, but consistent (Smith, Gerrard, &
Gibbons, 1997), with higher self-esteem allowing people to believe
they are at reduced risk of health hazards.
H7 Third-person perception and optimistic bias will increase as
The students who participated in the study attended public and
private schools in a single county in urban Pennsylvania (N = 350).
Students ranged in age from 13 to 19 (M = 15.6, SD = 2.3), were 60%
female and 80% Caucasian. Students took part in one-day violence
awareness sessions offered by a non-profit domestic violence center.
All sessions took place in school and were conducted by a licensed
counselor in the presence of teachers. Differences in findings
attributable to race or public vs. private school attendance were not
Third-person perception was measured with two items following a
discussion (priming) of violence in the media: How much do you think
_____(YOU, OTHER STUDENTS YOUR AGE IN THE U.S.) are influenced by
violence in the media? Consistent with the literature, responses
were on a 7-point Likert-type scale (0 = not at all; 6 = extremely
influenced). Subtracting SELF-ratings from OTHER ratings resulted in
a measure of third-person perception, with a positive score
indicating the belief that others are more influenced by media
violence (third-person perception).
Optimistic bias was measured with a single item: Compared to OTHER
SCHOOLS IN THE U.S., the chances of violence happening in my school
are: (-3 = much less; +3 = much greater). A mean of zero would
indicate no difference between perceived chances of school violence.
Knowledge was measured with an instrument designed by counselors at
the non-profit center to determine students' awareness of school
violence and dating violence. Ten items regarding violence facts and
statistics were collected prior to the session, then immediately
discussed. Scores ranged from one to 10, indicating the number of
items answered correctly. All items loaded onto a single factor, and
the resulting scale demonstrated moderate internal consistency (a = .58).
Self-esteem was measured with the 10-item Rosenberg scale. The scale
has been widely used and accepted for over two decades. All items
loaded onto a single factor, and the resulting scale demonstrated
high internal consistency (a = .86).
The first two hypotheses predicted third-person perception and
optimistic bias among the group. A single-sample t-test was used to
test H1. Consistent with H1, students believed that they (M = 2.7, SD
= 1.6) were less influenced than were others (M = 4.5, SD = 1.5) by
media violence, t (259) = .18.1, p < .000. The positive mean
difference (1.8) indicates third-person perception. H1 was supported.
The findings are consistent with the literature.
A single-sample t-test was also used to test H2. Consistent with H2,
students believed that violence was more likely to happen in other
schools in the U.S. than in their school, t (252) = -7.9, p < .000.
The negative mean (M = -.7, SD = 1.4) indicates optimistic bias at
the group level. H2 was supported. The findings were consistent with
H3 predicted that third-person perception would increase as
optimistic bias increased. Table 1 summarizes zero-order correlation
analysis, showing the relationship emerged as predicted. Students who
believed they were less influenced than were others by media violence
were also prone to believe that violence wasn't likely to happen in
their school. H3 was supported. The finding is consistent with the
An independent-sample t-test was used to test for gender
differences. Contrary to the prediction that third-person perception
and optimistic bias would be each greater for males than females, no
significant difference was found. H4 was not supported. The
literature is filled with mixed results, with about half the
published studies finding the predicted difference and half failing
to produce significant results.
As predicted, Table 1 indicates that both third-person perception
and optimistic bias decrease with age. H5 was supported. The findings
are consistent with the existing literature.
Results were split for knowledge. Prior knowledge of school and
relationship violence was associated with decreased levels of
third-person perception, but not related to optimistic bias. H6 is
supported for third-person perception, but not for optimistic bias.
The split it not surprising, given that content specific knowledge is
a mainstay of the third-person perception literature and is
relatively new to the optimistic bias literature, producing mixed results.
As predicted in H7, Table 1 indicates that both third-person
perception and optimistic bias increase with self-esteem. H7 was
supported. The findings are consistent with the existing literature.
Predicting Third-Person Perception and Optimistic Bias
Standard multiple regression was used to identify the best
predictors of third-person perception and optimistic bias. Table 2
compares the predictors of each. Analysis of residual plots indicates
that assumptions regarding normality, linearity, and homoscedacity were met.
Age was the best predictor of both, followed closely by self-esteem.
The split between third-person perception and optimistic bias and
their relationship with knowledge offers the only distinction in
strikingly similar models, suggesting media viewers apply existing
knowledge to perceptions of violent content yet fail to base
perceptions of their own safety on known facts.
The study served several purposes. It links the third-person
perception and optimistic bias literatures, further bridging a gap
between communication studies and health psychology. The intersection
of the two literatures may be especially beneficial in understanding
how adolescents process and interpret public health messages and
subsequently engage in risk behaviors or self-protective behaviors in
health contexts. The study was among the first to examine
third-person perception or optimistic bias within the important
context of school violence. Few studies have linked third-person
perception to health campaigns; results of the current study suggest
gains are to be made by further investigation in this area.
The study furthers understanding of contributing factors to both
perceptual biases. Age appears to increase perceptual bias, perhaps
due to the absence of negative consequences. Reasonable people know
they shouldn't drink and drive, but each time they get behind the
wheel after consuming alcohol without having an accident or receiving
a fine, the misperception that these consequences won't ever happens
is likely to increase. Likewise, such individuals may disregard
drinking and driving PSAs because the messages do not apply to them.
The growing literature on self-esteem should be of special interest
to educators who target students with low self-esteem as potential
risk-takers, suicide risks, and potential perpetrators of school
violence. Adolescents on the high end of the scale seem to be at
elevated risk as well.
The finding that adolescents don't depend on rational thought
(knowledge) to guide risk-taking behaviors is not new. The expression
"a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" seems to apply here. Like
high self-esteem, a knowledge base, not paired with realistic
perceptions of potential risks to self, may serve as a shield to
preserve self-concept, while still engaging in risky behaviors.
Students who are told by a peer that they are going to bring a gun to
school and shoot people the following day, routinely fail to report
the threat to parents or to school officials and subsequently show up
for school as scheduled, safe in the belief that "bad things don't
happen here." Decreasing the perceptual biases may be the first step
in reducing the risks or at least increasing precautions.
Results reported here are based on a convenience sample of students
in urban Pennsylvania, recruited by a non-profit domestic violence
center. Differences in schools that choose to participate in such
programs may skew results toward greater or lesser perceptions of
violence. Findings may also not be generalizable to other areas of
the country. Cooperative arrangements between universities and
non-profit organizations create unique opportunities, but also
limitations; in this case, limited space on pre/post tests for
measures limited the scope of the investigation, and
counselor-constructed measures (knowledge) met the organization's
needs to guide sessions, but resulted in measures with only moderate
internal consistency for research purposes.
The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Stacy de las
Alas and Grace Coleman of Crisis Center North, and Amira Johnson of
Penn State University to this project.
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Zero-Order Correlations among Third-Person Perception (TPE),
Optimistic Bias (OB), and Study Variables.
2 3 4 5
TPE .18** -.18** .16* .15*
OB --- -.18** -.01 .14*
Age --- .09 .01
Knowledge --- .12
* Because optimistic bias is indicated by a negative mean, signs for
OB have been reversed in the table for ease of interpretation.
Summary of Linear Regression Analysis for Variables Predicting
Third-Person Perception and Optimistic Bias
Third-Person Perception Optimistic Bias
Adjusted r2 = .04 Adjusted r2 = .02
n = 300 n = 300
Predictor B SE B ß B SE B B
Age -.11 .04 -.13** -.10 .04 -.13**
Self-Esteem -.03 .01 -.12** -.03 .01 -.12**
Knowledge -.21 .10 -.10* .03 .09 .02
Optimistic Bias .00 .06 .00 ----------------------------
Third-Person Perception ---------------------------- .00 .04 .00