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The sleeper effect is a psychological phenomenon that deals with persuasion. It is a delayed increase in the impact of a message that is accompanied by a discounting cue.
The sleeper effect
When people are normally exposed to a highly persuasive message (such as an engaging or persuasive television ad), their attitudes toward the advocacy of the message display a significant increase.
Over time, however, their newly formed attitudes seem to gravitate back toward the position held prior to receiving the message, almost as if they were never exposed to the communication in the first place. This pattern of normal decay in attitudes has been documented as the most frequently observed longitudinal pattern in persuasion research (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).
In contrast, some messages are often accompanied with a discounting cue (e.g., a message disclaimer, a low-credibility source) that would arouse a recipient’s suspicion of the validity of the message and suppress any attitude change that might occur with exposure to the message alone. Furthermore, when people are exposed to a persuasive message followed by a discounting cue, people tend to be more persuaded over time; this is referred to as the sleeper effect (Hovland & Weiss, 1951; Cook & Flay, 1978).
For example, in political campaigns during important elections, undecided voters often see negative advertisements about a party or candidate running for office. At the end of the advertisement, they also might notice that the opposing candidate paid for the advertisement. Presumably, this would make voters question the truthfulness of the advertisement, and consequently, they may not be initially persuaded. However, even though the source of the advertisement lacked credibility, voters will be more likely to be persuaded later (and ultimately, vote against the candidate in the advertisement).
This pattern of attitude change has puzzled social psychologists for nearly half a century, primarily due to its counter-intuitive nature and for its potential to aid in understanding attitude processes (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). In addition, it has been the most widely studied phenomenon in persuasion research (Kumkale & Albarracín, 2004; see also Cook & Flay, 1978). Despite a long history, the sleeper effect has been notoriously difficult to obtain or to replicate, with the exception of a pair of studies by Gruder et al. (1978).In order to demonstrate that a sleeper effect can be obtained reliably when subjects (a) note the important arguments in a message, (b) receive a discounting cue after the message, and (c) rate the trustworthiness of the message communicator immediately after receiving the discounting cue.
Controversy surrounding the existence of a "sleeper effect"
One of the more challenging aspects that the sleeper effect posed to some researchers in early studies was the sheer difficulty in obtaining the effect (e.g. Capon & Hulbert, 1973; Gillig & Greenwald, 1974).
After attempting to replicate the effect and failing, some researchers went as far as suggesting that it might be better to accept the null hypothesis and conclude that the sleeper effect does not exist (Gillig & Greenwald, 1974).
However, Cook and his associates (Cook, Gruder, Hennigan, & Flay, 1979) responded by suggesting that previous studies failed to obtain the sleeper effect because the requirements for a strong test were not met. Specifically, they argued that the sleeper effect will occur only if:
- (a) the message is persuasive;
- (b) the discounting cue has a strong enough impact to suppress initial attitude change;
- (c) enough time has passed between immediate and delayed post-tests; and
- (d) the message itself still has an impact on attitudes during the delayed post-test.
Experimental studies conducted did, in fact, provide support for the sleeper effect occurring under such theoretically relevant conditions (Gruder, Cook, Hennigan, Flay, Alessis, & Halamaj, 1978). Furthermore, the sleeper effect did not occur when any of the four requirements were not met.
Past hypotheses on how the sleeper effect occurs
Because the sleeper effect has been considered to be counter-intuitive at face value, researchers since the early 1950s have attempted to explain how and why it occurs.
Forgetting and dissociation
According to the forgetting hypothesis, a discounting cue associated with a message initially decreases acceptance of the message. As time goes by, one may observe a delayed increase in persuasion if the recipient forgets the cue but recalls the merits of the message (Hovland et al., 1949). To test this hypothesis, Hovland and his colleagues (Hovland & Weiss, 1951; Kelman & Hovland, 1953; Weiss, 1953) initiated a series of experiments in which participants received messages attributed to either trustworthy or untrustworthy sources and then completed measures of opinions as well as of recall of the message content and the source. Overall, messages with credible sources produced greater initial persuasion than messages delivered by non credible sources.
In a subset of conditions that caused participants to question the credibility of the source in the film, participants later reported a slight increase in persuasion (much to the researchers’ surprise). After examining the results, they initially hypothesized that forgetting of the discounting cue (in this case, the non-credible source) was driving the effect. Over time, however, the impact of the messages presented by credible sources decayed, whereas the impact of the messages presented by non credible sources either remained the same or increased slightly. Despite support for the sleeper effect at the level of attitude change in this series of studies, the recall measures indicated that recipients could still remember the non credible sources of the messages at the time of the delayed follow-up.
This is when the forgetting hypothesis was replaces by the dissociation hypothesis. Now according to the dissociation hypothesis the sleeper effect does not need to imply that the discounting cue becomes permanently unavailable in memory. A weakened association between the cue and the message may be sufficient for the sleeper effect to take place. As the association weakens over time, rendering the cue less accessible in relation to the communication topic, there may be a delayed increase in persuasion as long as the message arguments are still memorable. To this extent, factors that facilitate retention of the message content should create settings conducive to the sleeper effect.
According to this reasoning, the sleeper effect occurs because the association between the discounting cue and the message in one’s memory becomes severed over time; hence, when the message is recalled for purposes of producing an attitude, the source is not readily associated.
Something that Hovland and his team ignored that is important is why over time, the discounting cue becomes less accessible than the message even when both pieces are similarly effective at the onset! To answer this question Greenwald, Pratkanis, and their team (Greenwald et al., 1986; Pratkanis et al., 1988) implemented a result-centered approach to identify the conditions under which the sleeper effect does and does not occur. Pratkanis lead a series of seventeen experiments in which he presented the discounting cue either before or after the message and found that the sleeper effect mostly emerged when the cue followed the message but not when the cue was first. In order to explain his findings , Pratkanis and his team members proposed a modified forgetting hypothesis, which suggested that the sleeper effect takes place because the impact of the message and the cues decay at different rates. Based off of this suggestion the message and the cue act like two communications operating in opposite directions. The sleeper effect emerges when the impact of these communications is about equal, promptly following message exposure, but the impact of the cue later decays more rapidly than that of the message. However, the position of the discounting cue is essential to produce the effect because information presented first lasts longer, whereas more recent information dissipates more rapidly (Miller & Campbell, 1959). Thus, the sleeper effect should occur when the discounting cue appears at the end of a persuasive communication and stimulates a primacy effect of the message content. Years later, Pratkanis, Greenwald, Leippe, and Baumgardner (1988) offered an alternative hypothesis that differed from Hovland and his colleagues.
They argued that the conditions under which the sleeper effect is more likely to occur were not highlighted under the dissociation hypothesis. In addition, the requirements for a sleeper effect laid out by Gruder et al. (1978) did not detail the empirical conditions necessary to observe the sleeper effect.
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