Setting limits on offensive movie content: A variation of the third-person effect

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Pamela J. Shoemaker


Movie content, Third-person effect, Media effects, Sex, Violence, Media regulation

Subject Categories

Broadcast and Video Studies | Mass Communication | Social Control, Law, Crime, and Deviance


The MPAA's age-based ratings inform parents about the appropriateness of movies for their children. Critics charge that film ratings are ineffective, because decisions are based on what offends adults not what harms children. A related criticism is that the MPAA treats film sex and violence inequitably.

The third-person effect addresses people's belief that others are more affected by media than themselves. Here, in a variation of the "classic" design, subjects assessed harmful effects of movies on others, and, instead of doing the same for themselves, registered personal offensiveness. Subjects also set a minimum age for viewing a movie containing what they saw. In a 2 x 2 experiment, Rhode Island College undergraduates in introductory film classes saw one of four movie clips and completed a questionnaire.

Hypotheses addressed personal offensiveness to, perceived harmfulness of, and minimum age for viewing sex or violence. ANOVAS indicated that subjects were more offended by--and found more harmful--violence than sex. Also hypothesized, though not supported, was that subjects would set a higher minimum age for viewing sex than violence. It was predicted that women would be more offended by, perceive more harm from, and set a higher minimum age for viewing sex or violence than men would. Women were more offended by violence than men were, but did not perceive greater harm from or set higher minimum age limits for viewing either sex or violence.

One hypothesis addressed the "social distance corollary" of the third-person effect. Subjects perceived greater harm on children than adults, but followed different patterns for sex and violence. Finally, it was hypothesized that personal offensiveness to sex and/or violence would have a greater effect than perceived harmfulness of either on setting a minimum age limit for viewing movies containing material of each type. This was supported.

Findings suggest the importance in third-person effect research of considering people's personal offensiveness as distinct from, and more germane than, how harmful they find media content. Evidence indicates that people view sex and violence differently when exhibiting a restrictive behavior, and that context is an important factor that film ratings do not address sufficiently.


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