How Sleeper Effect Works

How Sleeper Effect Works

In communication, the impact of a message is always stronger upon its delivery than after a long time. Several studies support this phenomenon. In fact, it is natural to react on a message instantly and forget about it with time. Advertisers always capitalize on this. However, this does not happen in all circumstances. Delayed persuasion after the delivery of a message is what psychologists call sleeper effect. It goes against the natural law of communication as the receiver appreciates the message with time and not instantly.

Description of Sleeper Effect

The impact of a message largely depends on the messenger and the content of the message, besides the perception of the receiver. When delivering a persuasive message, accompanied by a discounting cue, this will affect the impact of the message on the target audience. The receiver tends to accept the message with time, as the discounting cues from the source fade.

Under normal circumstances, the impact of a persuasive message should drop over time. However, with this effect, the persuasiveness of a message will go up especially if it is from a less-credible source. A communicator may lose credibility because of a discounting cue. For instance, when a biased government spokesperson delivers a message on the improving state of the economy, the public is likely to discredit the message instantly. Nevertheless, because of sleeper effect, the public may accept the message with time as they delink the content of the message with the deliverer.

In terms of research, there is limited and inconsistent evidence to show that indeed, the influence of a persuasive message increases over time. Some psychologists agree that even though the persuasiveness of a message from a less credible source does not increase with time, then at least the impact decline of the message slows. How then can one overcome this delayed persuasion? One of the approaches is to make the message catchy and dramatic, with the aim of winning the attention of the audience, without sending discounting cues from the source. In this case, the recipient accepts the message without paying attention to the source.

Emergence of Sleeper Effect

Delay in the impact of a persuasive message came to light 1940s during the heat of the Second World War. At this time, the U.S Department of War wanted to establish the effectiveness of its propaganda films of battlefield soldiers. To do this, they conducted experiments into how soldiers changed their attitudes after watching the movies. With the aim of changing opinions and morals of soldiers, producers and psychologists expected a significant shift into in their attitudes.

Because of the sleeper effect, experimental studies showed that despite the films being informative, they were unlikely to make the soldiers optimistic about the war instantly. In essence, the soldiers already had a preset mind on the films. They knew that the U.S government was after changing their attitude towards war using propaganda. As a result, their defenses were up to block the message.

However, nine weeks after the soldiers watched the propaganda films, experimental studies showed a significant increase in change of attitude towards the war. The difference in opinion between soldiers who had watched the films and those who did not changed as the level of persuasion increased with time.

Conditions that favor Sleeper Effect

One of the main challenges of determining an increase in persuasiveness of a message is establishing the effect itself. It is a controversial topic because most communication theorists hold that the impact of a persuasive message is always greater when measured closer to the presentation time than after a longer period. Nonetheless, researchers have weighed up these findings and agreed that sleeper effect indeed exists, but only under two conditions.

First is the big initial impact. Researchers opine that the likelihood of the persuasiveness of a message to increase with time depends on the early effect of the message. The audience is likely to revisit a more powerful message with time.

The second condition is message discounting where the recipient delinks the message from the source through dissociation. This is common where the audience cannot trust the source because of discounting cues during delivery.

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