The Sleeper Effect: Definition & Psychology

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  • 0:00 Definition of the…
  • 2:01 How the Sleeper Effect Works
  • 3:02 Implications and Applications
  • 4:18 Is the Sleeper Effect Real
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Once you know about the sleeper effect, you can understand a lot more about how persuasion works. This lesson will introduce you to the sleeper effect, how it works, and what researchers think about it.

Definition of the Sleeper Effect

If you're interested in persuasion and understanding how a person's attitude might change over time, then you will want to know about the sleeper effect. A concept in psychology, it describes the way a message, when paired with some sort of discounting cue, has a delayed impact on the recipient.

A useful, concrete example is advertising. Have you ever seen a TV ad that plays again and again? Maybe it was an ad for a breakfast cereal or a car that appealed to you. However, as you saw the same and the next day, and then again the day after that, it might have started to lose some of its excitement and appeal. In fact, you probably started to get tired of that cereal brand or car even before you tried it for yourself. This is normal; research shows that exposure to the same message multiple times leads to a decrease in the message's efficacy. Most viewers gradually return to their original attitude about the subject of the persuasion - in this case the commercials' products.

On the other hand, maybe you have seen an ad accompanied by a disclaimer. In psychology, we call this sort of disclaimer a discounting cue. The cue could be a warning about the side effects of a preservative in the cereal or a defect in the car's air bag. Yet another example would be a message at the end of a political ad showing that the opposing candidate funded the ad. Any disclaimer or reason leading you to doubt the credibility of the message's source is a discounting cue. These cues make you skeptical about the ad's message, and you consequently won't allow it to seriously persuade you. However, even with the presence of a discounting cue, over time you and most other viewers will be affected by the ad and come to accept its message. This delayed persuasion is the sleeper effect. A good way to remember it is to think of the ad's message as sleeping inside of you while the disclaimer is awake; little by little, the ad's underlying message wakes up and wins you over when the discounting cue falls to sleep!

How the Sleeper Effect Works

We are not completely sure how the sleeper effect works, but some psychologists have hypothesized that it has to do with forgetting. According to this hypothesis, with repeated exposure to the same message, we simply forget about the discounting cue over time, even while we remember the underlying message. Another related hypothesis has to do with dissociation. Here, researchers believe that rather than forgetting the discounting cue altogether, we disconnect ourselves from it and prioritize the initial message, taking its meaning more seriously once it isn't readily associated with the discounting cue.

While recent research on these theories seems to support the hypotheses to some extent, the terms are too absolute in nature. Most viewers or listeners are unlikely to forget or dissociate from the discounting cue entirely, and certainly not quickly. Instead, we tend to do so gradually over time. There is a slow process going on in our brains as one message fades in strength while another grows in importance.

Implications and Applications

The sleeper effect has significant applications for advertising. Advertisers should focus on the persuasiveness of their message and should remember that even a necessary discounting cue will likely be forgotten over time. Anyone focused on discounting an advertiser's message should consider ways to argue against the message that will be longer lasting than a simple disclaimer.

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