In the study they talk about the governments attempts to test and see if their propaganda, via war support films, directed at boosting support for the war were actually working. Producers of the films and psychologists expected to see a shift in attitudes in favor of the war after watching them. In fact, they found the opposite... at first.
Surprisingly, while attitudes didn't change immediately, minor shifts were picked up weeks later. Allied soldiers who watched one film about The Battle of Britain showed little extra sympathy towards the British five days later, but, after nine weeks, they had softened. Hovland and colleagues called this the 'sleeper effect'.
This effect is employed today in the political and commercial arenas. For example, in political campaigns voters often see negative advertisements about a party or candidate. At the end of the advertisement, they often will see that an 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, as surprisingly as it may sound, even though the source of the advertisement lacked credibility, voters will be more likely to be persuaded later, and vote against the candidate.
This pattern of attitude change has puzzled social psychologists for over half a century, primarily due to its counter-intuitive nature and for its potential to aid in understanding attitude processes.
Attempts to replicate this effect after the result being discovered initially failed. Researchers Capon & Hulbert, and then Gillig & Greenwald, went as far as suggesting that it might be better to accept the null hypothesis and conclude that the sleeper effect does not exist. However, further researchers (Cook, Gruder, Hennigan, & Flay) 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 very 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.
So, basically, what is happening is that people see a message, feel like because of its source it ins't reliable, and dismiss it. However, they don't process the dismissing info (IE: the terrible survey or the opposition being the source) as well as the message, and over time the message sticks stronger than the disclaimer.
This is what is happening to some religious people who see the very thought provoking ads against their faith. Initially, when they see the powerful ad, such as the ad depicting "YOU KNOW ITS A MYTH" by American Atheists that ran during the holidays recently.
They dismiss it as ridiculous or even insulting. But, overtime the initial shock of the message dies down and they begin to realize that they really DO know it's a myth. That is one reason why these billboards work and they need to keep being made. I often hear from some people in the atheist community, things along the lines of "You catch more flies with honey"... and while I agree with that to an extent, considering I am one of the founders of Be Secular, a company that is BASED on the idea of accommodation, understanding and working together, I certainly see a need for billboards and messages like this.
Not only because it helps those who are already hiding the fact they they don't believe and are seeking comfort and community as a means to escaping the lie they are living, but also for this who are currently strongly and wholeheartedly against us.
The Sleeper Effect works, just give it time.
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Cook, T. D., Gruder, C. L., Hennigan, K. M., & Flay, B. R., "History of the Sleeper Effect: Some Logical Pitfalls in Accepting the Null Hypothesis", Psychological Bulletin, Vol.86, No.4, (July 1979), pp. 662–679.
Hovland, C.I., Lumsdale, A.A. & Sheffield, F.D, Experiments on Mass Communication: Studies in Social Psychology in World War II: Volume III, Princeton University Press, (Princeton), 1949.
Hovland, C.I., Weiss, W., "The Influence of Source Credibility on Communication Effectiveness", Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol.15, No.4, (Winter 1951), pp. 635–650.
Capon, N. & Hulbert, J., "The Sleeper Effect — An Awakening", Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol.37, No.3, (Autumn 1973), pp. 333–358.
Gillig, P.M., & Greenwald, A.G. (1974), "Is it Time to Lay the Sleeper Effect to Rest?", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.29, No.1, (January 1974), pp. 132–139.