How a dodgy source will persuade you better - the sleeper effect cover image

How a dodgy source will persuade you better - the sleeper effect

Dorian Minors • June 5, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

Do you believe in subliminal messaging? The idea of secret messages influencing our thoughts without our knowledge is a scary idea. Fortunately the research indicates that although it might have some effects, it won't make you do anything you didn't plan to do anyway. At least subliminal messaging has the decency to be subtle. The 'sleeper effect' is far more insidious. Like the Merle to The Walking Dead's Daryl; just busts down the door and changes your mind whether you want it to or not.

It can last for months

The sleeper effect is how every man and his dog can start a blog and have an influence on your mind (including me!) The sleeper effect is how every man and his dog can start a blog and have an influence on your mind (including me!)

The 'sleeper effect' was first noted by the American military (well, Carl Hovland on the military's behalf), trying to see if propaganda had the desired effect in WWII. It didn't. The propaganda had no obvious effects on the soldier's attitudes. It wasn't until much later than anything interesting happened. Over two months in fact. Nine weeks following the viewing, the soldiers who had seen the propaganda had a significantly different attitude about the war than those that hadn't. Does this mean the propaganda worked? Hovland reckoned so. He said the brain eventually forgot where the information came from (propaganda) but not the message and so the message eventually got through. Or that the message and the source simply became dissociated over time. Since then the psychological community has been back and forth about the issue for  obvious reasons:

It only works if three elements line up

The fact of the matter is that researchers have vacillated between finding the sleeper effect and not finding it for over fifty years now. The most

That's how I ended up with this heap of junk. Trust me to think going away and thinking about it was a good thing. From here on out, I'm throwing caution to the wind! (Editor's note: it's probably a far better idea to 'go away and think about it' in almost every situation) That's how I ended up with this heap of junk. Trust me to think going away and thinking about it was a good thing. From here on out, I'm throwing caution to the wind! (Editor's note: it's probably a far better idea to 'go away and think about it' in almost every situation)

persuasive research (see what I did there?) seems to indicate that for the sleeper effect to work, there has to be three elements:

  1. The message has to be initially powerful. It has to make a significant impact on the viewer emotionally so that the mind remembers the message very well.
  2. It has to come from a clearly distrustworthy source. This one seems counterintuitive but the logic goes that we don't process the fact that the source is distrustworthy very well. Over time that degrades and the message remains.
    • It's most effectice if we learn that the source isn't trustworthy AFTER we learn the message, that way the message makes more of an impact first
  3. Finally enough time needs to pass for the source to be dissociated (or forgotten) but not enough that the messages influence disappears before the message is reinforced. Otherwise you're relying solely on the internalisation of the message which may not be enough to change the attitude in the long term (i.e. you might change the attitude but can you maintain that change?)

What that means for us

Well, the sleeper effect is pretty fragile. It breaks if those three elements don't align perfectly (or at least the research seems to lose it). So:

Speaking of secret messages, want to know about hypnotism? Find out the truth about four common myths here. Or for something that has a much more noticeable effect, why don't you learn why small talk is so awkward (and how to fix that). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.