Stealing Thunder Definition
Stealing thunder is a social influence tactic in which in anticipation of negative information being revealed about a person, that person chooses to reveal it first. By doing so, the negative impact is reduced or, in some cases, eliminated. An individual’s representative can also steal thunder with similar consequences, as in the case of an attorney who steals thunder by revealing the worst bit of evidence before the opposing counsel brings it out.
Courtrooms provide the best example of the use of stealing thunder. Defense attorneys may reveal incriminating evidence about their clients, for instance that they had a prior conviction, before prosecuting attorneys can reveal it. The defense attorney might use the stealing thunder technique to minimize the damage caused by incriminating evidence against his or her client.
Evidence for Stealing Thunder
Based on naive theories and research, beginning an interaction by revealing damaging information about one’s self would seem to backfire by creating a negative first impression that would negatively bias future information and impressions. In many circumstances, the fact that the negative information is revealed again (as in the case of a courtroom trial) by someone else would also increase the salience of the information. Nevertheless, research has demonstrated that stealing thunder can be quite effective. In mock trial studies, researchers have found that both the defense (in a criminal trial) and plaintiffs (in a civil trial) can benefit by stealing thunder. Legal experts suggest that the reason that stealing thunder is potentially effective is that the attorney who reveals it first can put a positive spin on the negative information.
In addition to showing the effectiveness of stealing thunder in courtroom settings, research has also found positive benefits in a political domain. Voters (or mock voters) are more likely to indicate a willingness to vote for a candidate who reveals a transgression himself or herself, than they are if an adversary (or the media) reveals the same information. News editors also indicate less interest in pursuing the story when candidates reveal the information.
Reasons for Stealing Thunder Effectiveness
Recent research suggests several reasons stealing thunder might work. One is that the revealer appears to be credible, and thus, likeable. Another is that because the negative self-revelation is so unexpected, message recipients force the meaning of the information to be less damaging. Another reason is that stealing thunder allows the revealer to cast the information in a favorable light, but the available research suggests that putting a positive spin on the information is not necessary for the effect to emerge. Still another reason that stealing thunder may work is that by making the information more public and common, less attention and value are placed on it. When people perceive information to be scarce or secret, they think it is more valuable. Stealing thunder diminishes the perception that the information is scarce.
Limitations of Stealing Thunder
The question still remains, when will stealing thunder work and not work? Do factors such as the timing of stealing thunder, the seriousness of the thunder information, and the use of compelling spin moderate the effects? In a courtroom context, the existing research suggests that the timing of stealing thunder does not seem to affect how well thunder stealing works. Damaging information presented by the defendant’s lawyer earlier or later in the case did not reduce the benefits of stealing thunder. Nor did it matter if the opposing counsel chose not to reveal the negative information after all. However, acknowledging incriminating evidence after it has been disclosed does not reduce the impact of negative information.
Regardless of how serious the damaging information is (bouncing a series of check compared with smuggling drugs), stealing thunder appears to reduce the information’s negative impact. Stealing thunder continues to work even if the information is very damaging. In a mock court case involving homicide resulting from reckless driving, stealing thunder remained effective at reducing negative information even when the defendant admitted veering into the oncoming traffic lane. One boundary condition discovered so far is that if the message recipients (in this case, mock jurors) are told during closing arguments that the other attorney manipulated their opinions by using the stealing thunder tactic, then they are no longer positively influenced by stealing thunder.
Whether stealing thunder works best under heuristic (i.e., low effort) or systematic (i.e., high effort) processing remains to be determined. Whereas source credibility is often used as a short-cut to message processing, changing the meaning of the message to be consistent with the message source would require considerable cognitive effort and elaboration.
Implications of Stealing Thunder
Stealing thunder has been demonstrated to be an effective way to minimize (or eliminate) the impact of incriminating information in a variety of different contexts. Most legal experts already are aware of its benefits (even if they are not aware of the reasons why it works) and use it regularly in court. Ironically, politicians (many of whom are lawyers) are generally not willing to take the chance of stealing thunder and are more likely to deny wrongdoings to the bitter end.
- Williams, K. D., & Dolnik, L. (2001). Revealing the worst first: Stealing thunder as a social influence strategy. In J. P. Forgas, & K. D. Williams (Eds.), Social influence: Direct and indirect processes (pp. 213-231). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.