Sleepers, Whispers, and Amnesia – How You’re Influenced by What You Forget

According to a report that came out this week, scientologists are investigating possible criminal activity by the creators of South park, a popular cartoon seen on American TV. Don’t forget where you heard that information, though – here and now – because it might be important. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not just making that up. But excerpts like that may influence you without you realizing it. The psychology of influence gets interesting when you factor in memory, because the spell experts can put you under isn’t meant to work now, but months later.

Forget About It

The Sleeper Effect

For generations, researchers have been studying how people can be psychologically manipulated in subtle ways. There are in fact things you can do to make people more likely to think the way you want them to think. For example, imagine someone is trying to sell you on the benefits of a product. You already have an opinion on it, but the salesman is quite persuasive. Your opinion may change regarding that product, but not for long. As time goes on, your opinion will tend to revert back to your originally held belief.

In the 1940’s, American researcher Carl Hovland and several of his graduate students wanted to figure out how effective their WWII propaganda films were. They found that two-sided presentations actually made their persuasive arguments stick in people’s minds longer than one-sided presentations, challenging previously held beliefs about the psychology of attitudes. If you present your persuasive argument with a less-persuasive counter-argument, people will tend to remember that influential argument, and often forget the counter-argument. As PsyBlog explains it:

While attitudes didn’t change immediately, subtle shifts were picked up nine weeks later. US 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. Yale University’s Carl Hovland and colleagues called this the ‘sleeper effect’.

Source Amnesia

There are obviously more methods of influencing the mind in cleverly subtle ways. Think of it this way: You have a 0% chance of remembering something you never experience, but at least a 1% chance of remembering something you have come across. While this may seem trivial, it’s clearly something that the world has understood. Why… just think of the huge sums of money companies are dishing out to advertise in the weirdest of places, such as on the vomit bags on airplanes, sewers, or… somewhere visible on your body.

Of course, people are aware of this. That’s why politicians and other “psychological salesmen” often dwell on accusations against their political opponents. That’s also why they like to take advantage of the times when the rumour mill starts up. describes the phenomenon as follows:

The rise of the internet news portal has given birth to a whole new, sly technique of bullshit insertion. […] The Drudge Report [which makes reports based on tips] lives off this. A single anonymous source will report to some news blog that, say, Senator Smith runs a secret gay bordello in New Orleans. Drudge will run the headline:


Or perhaps there’ll just be a question mark on the end:


The reason this ends up being effective is because of a phenomenon known as “source amnesia.” In short, it’s the tendency for us to forget where we heard a certain argument, while in fact remembering that argument.

The controversial American comedian Gilbert Gottfried seemed to understand the phenomenon of repeated exposure and source amnesia, when he attended the “Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget” in 2008. He didn’t say his piece in order to cause a controversy, he said it in order to get a laugh. …but since it’s Gilbert Gottfried, he had to do it in the most controversial way possible. That is, he invented an obviously false rumour, the context of which may not be remembered later as easily as the statement itself. What statement am I talking about? Watch the video below:

As Cracked points out, people are even influenced by things as trivial as headlines or pictures even when those headlines or accompanying captions specifically say they’re untrue.

The entire point of putting a shaky rumor into the press is to force your opponent to deny it. Why? Because They know that the denial works just as well as the accusation. Thanks to Source Amnesia, for millions of people all three of these …


… register as the exact same headline.

The Whisper Campaigns

Since people know source amnesia is a real and pervasive problem, they often strategize regarding how to diffuse information. For example, during the 2000 Republican presidential primary, a cleverly diabolical rumour was going around South Carolina. Voters were being given a push poll – a fake poll used to produce and/or spread rumours. They were asked “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew that he fathered an illegitimate black child?”

The incident caused a huge amount of gossip, and – needless to say – McCain lost the South Carolina primary to soon-to-be-president George W. Bush. In fact, since McCain had adopted a child from Bengal who had quite dark skin, he had to go through the ordeal of trying to keep her out of the spotlight. This incident, and similar ones like it, are called “Whisper Campaigns.” Like a whisper drowned out in a crowd, the perpetrator is never caught. It’s almost as effective as it is despicable.

However, not everyone seems to know or understand the phenomenon of source amnesia as much as the ones doing the rumour mongering. Take National Geographic’s November 2004 issue as an example. The image below shows the front cover on the left, along with the first page of the corresponding story.

I don’t have any numbers or statistics to back me up, but the research suggests that this might have done more damage than good. Obviously the purpose of this piece was to catch some eyes and give a quick answer (“NO” in big letters) with some relevant evidence. But unless passersby bought the issue after seeing it and looked through it, the only thing viewers would have walked away with are the words “Was Darwin Wrong?” The information above suggests that some people even walk away with the impression that “Darwin was wrong,” which is the opposite point they were trying to make.

The Bottom Line

The next time you hear something like “Scientologists are investigating possible criminal activity by the creators of South Park,” you may want to either look into it instead of just assume it’s true. In this case, it’s true; but doesn’t it sound like the South Park creators committed a crime and are on the verge of being caught? Because that part is absolutely not true.

Apparently scientologists have been searching the South Park creators’ trash, as well as trying to get information from their friends and acquaintances. They’re essentially looking for clues of criminal activity that may (i.e., doesn’t) exist, such as unpaid taxes, or anything else unlawful they can find.

It’s pretty low and pathetic, even for scientologists; but it’s still not as bad as what Bob Saget didn’t do in 1990.

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2 Responses to Sleepers, Whispers, and Amnesia – How You’re Influenced by What You Forget

  1. 6 8 10 says:

    I have an uncle who forwards every alarmist email rumor he comes across to everyone on his contact list. The latest one showed a photo of Obama standing on a stage, hands folded in front of him, while everyone else onstage had their hand over their heart or saluting. The email made some fairly strong accusations and some choice names in outrage that the President wasn’t covering his heart during a recitation of the pledge of allegiance. 30 seconds with the search function on later, and I knew that the photo was actually taken during a salute to the President (they even had a video which contained the same moment during which the photo had been taken). I linked the correction to the entire email list my uncle had sent the message to, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much damage had already been done.

    I try to check things out when I hear stories like that, as I prefer to save my righteous indignation for times when I’m in the right. It really annoys me that there are people out there who resort to such lies to tarnish their opponents- if you can’t tarnish your opponent’s reputation with the truth, then maybe they shouldn’t be tarnished.

    • Ryo says:

      That’s an interesting anecdote. That’s exactly the type of thing Cracked was talking about.

      And I agree, those lies are totally unethical. It’s the old problem of “using the means to justify the end.” Some people just falsely believe that they’re entitled to lie. They’re kind of like the council in Hot Fuzz.

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