The sleeper effect is a psychological occurrence that has to do with persuasion. It is the delayed increase in impact of a message accompanied by discounting cue. Normally, when people get exposed to a message that is highly persuasive (like a persuasive or engaging TV ad) the attitude they have towards advocacy of the message display increases significantly.
Over certain duration though, the newly formed attitudes will gravitate back towards a position that was held before they received the message. Consequently, it will be like they were never exposed to that communication. Normal decay pattern has been documented as the most frequently observed pattern in persuasion research.
In contrast though, there are messages which are accompanied by a discounting cue (e.g. a low credibility source or message disclaimer) that might arouse the suspicion of the recipient in regard to the message validity and also suppress attitude change that might arise because of exposure to that message only.
What is more, when people get exposed to persuasive message that is followed by discounting cue, it is likely that over time, they will be persuaded and this is what is known as sleeper effect (Hovland & Weiss, 1951 Flay & Cook 1978). Note that when the message gets separated from the source (by dissociation), the gain is likely to gain additional credibility.
There is inconsistent and limited evidence of the sleeper effect. Among the findings is that the impact of any message that is persuasive does not increase over time if it is issued with a source that is of low credibility with discounting cue.
For instance in political campaigns that take place during important elections, those voters who are undecided are seen as negative advertisements about a candidate or party that is running for election. Towards the end of an advertisement, they might notice that the advertisement was paid for by the opposing candidate.
Because of this, the voters might start questioning whether there is any truthfulness to the advertisement and because of this, they might not be persuaded. However, though the advertisement source lacks credibility, voters are likely to get persuaded later (and vote against that candidate in the ad eventually).
It is this change in attitude pattern that has puzzled a large number of social psychologists for close to half a century. This is primarily as a result of its counter intuitive nature and its potential to help in understanding attitude processes. This effect was first identified in the United States during Second World War among soldiers who attempted to change their morals and opinions.
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