By October 4, 2010 20 Comments Read More →

The Sleeper Effect

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“Persuasion is often more effectual than force.” — Aesop

If you hear something multiple times is it true? … Do you find yourself believing something that originally you didn’t believe because you didn’t trust the source?

This might help explain it.  The sleeper effect is a delayed attitude change.  Technically, the sleeper effect is a phenomenon where a message that you originally discount, because of a “discounting cue,” becomes more persuasive over time.  It happens like this: you hear something from a low-credible source, you dismiss the idea, but over time you start to believe it or become persuaded.

I first learned about the sleeper effect in a Social Psychology class in college.  It didn’t really click for me at the time.  Now it makes perfect sense.  The danger is we start believing things that aren’t true.  Over time our memory simply disconnects the low-credibility source from the message.

Here’s an example.  I first heard that sneezing is like an orgasm from the movie The Lonely Guy, starring Steve Martin.  It’s from a movie, so it’s easy to dismiss.  Then over time, I hear the idea come up again but with variations like sneezing seven times in a row, so then I start to wonder (I’ve never actually seen anybody sneeze seven times in a row.)  This article on sneezing myths puts it to rest … sneezing is like an orgasm only in that they both produce powerful bodily convulsions.

A simple way to catch yourself from the sleeper effect is to ask yourself, “What’s that based on?”

Photo by Olgierd Pstrykotworca.

20 Comments on "The Sleeper Effect"

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  1. “I first learned about the sleeper effect in a Social Psychology class in college. It didn’t really click for me at the time. Now it makes perfect sense.”

    Is this an example of the sleeper effect? :)

    Thanks for this post, I always knew intuitively about this effect, but never knew its name — cool! :)

  2. Steven H says:

    “I first learned about the sleeper effect in a Social Psychology class in college. It didn’t really click for me at the time. Now it makes perfect sense.”

    It sounds like learning the sleeper effect had a sleeper effect on you! Haha!

    I also learned about this in my social psychology class. I think part of it is we don’t remember where we first heard the information, so the next time we hear it, we recognize it as “true,” because we remember hearing it once before even though we can’t identify the source. As things become more familiar, we tend to think of them as accurate descriptions of our world.

    Our minds are very fallible, so we have to be careful! Good advice!

  3. alik levin says:

    …or … “How can that be true?”

  4. Keith Davis says:

    Hi JD
    Sleeper effect… not heard of it before.
    Thought at first that you were referring to the effect of reading one of my posts. LOL

    Sounds as though it falls into the category of “there’s no smoke without fire.”

    Worth knowing about and worth watching out for.

  5. Lance says:

    Great point JD – how often to we start to believe something just because we’ve heard it (or some variation) enough.

    What’s it based on – I like that approach…

  6. Patricia says:

    In my communications class I learned about the sleeper effect and if you can add something to the low registering statement it gets even more belief attached to it….like music in ads and the way that the radio pundits emphasize a different word and repeat it and repeat over and over…

    Movies are great because they add the visual too – well and the music..powerful medium.

    IT Girl sneezes 17 times in a row every morning when she gets up from her allergies (well until we discovered tea tree oil in the bedding laundry) I think she would say that sneezing makes convulsions but also produces a release of pressure….which can feel very good!

    Did you see David McCandless’ talk on TED about how we truly can understand the truth when we can chart/design it and make it visual?

    I put it up on biking architect a couple of weeks ago…he is a journalist who has become an information designer I think his business is called infoglut? but I am not sure

    Great post

  7. Avani Mehta says:

    Interesting but so true. Have you heard of the conformity experiments? They too are quite incredible. Even though you know your answer is right, you might start thinking it’s wrong if ‘the group’ says it so. If not believe it’s right, you will atleast keep it to yourself if the group believes in something else.

    The Asch Conformity Experiment on this is pretty interesting http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYIh4MkcfJA.

  8. JD says:

    @ Luciano — As I was writing it, I was thinking, “Hey, is this sleeper in action?” Then, I realized the key to a true sleeper effect is a discounting cue. In my case, it was actually a credible source, but I just didn’t have a concrete example to relate to. Now it seems examples are popping up all over the place :)

    @ Steven — I think you hit a key point … things that resonate or seem familiar tend to *feel* like they are true, whether or not they are logically true.

    @ Alik — The key in this case is validating back to the source.

    @ Keith — “There’s no smoke without fire” is a perfect example where we can be lulled into false beliefs.

    @ Lance — I think there’s even another concept at play that I forgot about … the Law of Familiarity, which is basically, people act on familiarity.

    @ Patricia — I can’t believe how many commercial jingles I have in my head. They’re old, but they seem forever lodged in little slots in my mind.

    That’s quite a sneezing flurry.

    I haven’t seen the TED talk, but I think I need to check it out.

    @ Avani — I have and yes they’re incredible — the power of social proof. In one of my trainings, we learned that if you have to go against the crowd, rather than get in a debate, simply lead with, “I see it differently … I see xyz.” It sounds simple, but simply by leading that way both avoids conflict, while setting an example, that others see it the way you do might follow.

  9. Kate says:

    Hi JD,
    While I have never heard the term ‘sleeper effect’ before, I am familiar with the concept. I think whether something is true or not, if often takes a few exposures for it to permeate our consciousness. Like you say, we then just need to work out whether the info is correct….which is the difficult part!

  10. rob white says:

    Thanks for the insight, JD. I have found this to be true on both ends of the stick. Sometimes we believe something is true because everybody says it is… over time we gain perspective and realize we are just being persuaded by the world-voice. I believe it is helpful to practice a sort of “spiritual cynicism”… that is, question everything the world-voice is force feeding us.

  11. J.D. Interesting post and topic. I wasn’t familiar with the Sleeper Effect, but I have definitely seen it in action. I do agree with you to that you have to take a look at what you believe and make certain that it is not just something you have bought into overtime, but rather something that feels right to you. Very interesting thoughts and post.

  12. Oh my goodness — I’ve sneezed like 57 times in a row before! I swear, in cedar allergies time. I counted them! But, um, er, well, the other thing it’s been compared to here in this post, not 57 times in a row. :)

    :)

    I do think that the only real things that come to light for me over time are those having to do with increased love and understanding for other beings, love is a Major Sleeper, I find!!

    xo

  13. vered says:

    So endless nagging, which is essentially repeating the same message/ demand over and over again, can be justified by science! :)

  14. JD says:

    @ Kate — Interestingly, in NLP there’s a meta-program — the convincer pattern. If you know somebody’s convincer pattern it saves a lot of time. For example, I used to waste so much energy trying to “convince” one of the managers in a single session. Later on, I figured out, he just needs to hear the same thing spread over three separate sessions. My success was night and day.

    @ Rob — My Dad was always good at reminding me to question “everybody” and “they.” It was never good enough to say, “everbody says” or “you know what they say” … His response was always, “Who’s everybody?”, and “Who are they?”

    @ Sibyl — Now that I’m aware of it, I’ve noticed that there are some beliefs where I have an “emotional” default response *and* a “rational” response, if I think my way through it … similar to “perception” vs. “reality.” Luckily, I’m in a data-driven environment, where I get to see the benefits of good data and sources in action.

    @ Jannie — That sounds like an unfair advantage in a sailboat race :)

    Love as a sleeper reminds me of Peaceful Warrior … “The people who are hardest to love, are usually the ones who need it the most.”

    @ Vered — Yeah, science is good like that. I think it’s like the force, there’s always a dark side :)

  15. Fascinating article – I have heard of the effect where we will change our mental model to match our behaviour, as we cannot stand incongruity if we are behaving in a manner that doesn’t suit our thinking – I wonder if the sleeping effect is a similar form to that model?

  16. Ferry says:

    Aaah, now at least the phenomenon has a name. :D
    This post explains it from the awareness perspective so you’re able to recognize it and defend yourself against it.

    But I also see this as a conformation of something I was discussing with a colleague this week. In my work as consultant it’s sometimes neccesary to convince clients of taking a different (better) path then they’re used to taking. Quite often the discounting cue’s on their part are based on false assumptions, beliefs and habits.
    ‘That’s like we’ve been doing it for years around here’ probably sounds familiar. :)

    I learned it’s sometimes better to park the subject if that’s possible and hint about it a few more times later on. Sometimes people just need to get used to an accept the idea that their discounting cues might be all wrong or simply superseded over time.
    Trying to convince them in a fierce discussion usually only backfires and can hurt relations quite bad.

  17. Frank says:

    I had never heard of the sleeper effect but after reading through this post I am aware of the effects it has had on my life. I wonder how could you use this method for your benefit? Does it have anything to due with repetitous confirmation of the persuasion message? Or is one instance enought to create this effect? I will do some further reading on it but I thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  18. JD says:

    @ Michelle — I bet that plays a role. In this case, we’re holding a thought, we’ve disconnected it from the original source, and now our mind needs to rationalize it.

    @ Ferry — Knowing is definitely more than half the battle.

    Yeah, that sounds familiar :)

    You’re right — pushing up front creates more resistance, and then it turns from a rationale issue to an emotional one and then folks can decide to go against you or the idea.

    The other thing is that for many people their “buy in” takes time. In fact, I’ve found this is the norm, more than the exception, so giving things time to bake or gel can help.

    @ Frank — The key distinction is that it’s a a persuasive message paired with a strong discounting cue to supress the attitude change. It’s less about the repetition and more about the delayed attitude change.

    Here’s the real interesting part. Normally, attitude change decays over time, but with the sleeper effect, the attitude change is not just delayed, it’s more persuasive over time … as if slow and steady wins the race or he who laughs last, laughs best :)

  19. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. if you want to see someone sneeze 7 times .. then come on over .. can’t promise when though!! & it will be noisy with jerky movement especially at head level!!

    But it’s true isn’t .. what you’re saying about the sleeper effect .. often as we hear something once, then it re-occurs .. somewhere along the line if we’re really interested .. then we’ll check it out.

    I know I mull things over .. and I also check things out!

    Thanks – Hilary

  20. JD says:

    @ Hilary — It sounds like a perfect YouTube video :)

    The irony is that without the sleeper effect, persuasion doesn’t stick as strong. With the sleeper effect, it’s delayed but sticks stronger. I think that’s why repetition is especially important, when there is no sleeper effect, and for the sleeper effect, it’s funny how our minds can work against us (my assumption is that we discount it up front precisely because we have good reason — the discounting cue.)

    What I’m paying more attention to now is this … whether a belief I have is in my mind, or in my gut, and whether they are the same. I suspect that with the sleeper effect, some beliefs can slip by the rationale mind and bake themselves in … even at the unconscious level.

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