Subliminal Persuasion?

We’re all exposed to a massive number of suggestions and influences from the environment every day. Yet we don’t all respond to them, and we don’t all react to them the same way. I may be influenced by something you don’t even register and vice versa. It’s obvious we aren’t merely passive receptors for whatever is going on around us. This is a subject that has fascinated me from early childhood and is one of the reasons I’m predisposed to be interested in things like the Enneagram, the MBTI, and various areas of psychology and neuroscience.

The May/June 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind includes an article titled, “The Subtle Power of Hidden Messages,” which isn’t about personality or temperament, per se, but still speaks to the issue of who responds to what stimuli—and when. The author’s conclusion was that, yes, subliminal messages or advertisements can influence our behavior. But they can’t actually cause us to do something we wouldn’t ordinarily do. They can’t brainwash us. They can’t redirect our will. We’re only susceptible to subliminal messages in certain limited situations: when we’re open to persuasion because of a particular need—i.e., we’re looking for something, whether or not we’re consciously aware of looking for it.

Thirst is an example of one such need we might not be consciously aware of or conscious of trying to fill. Wolfgang Stroebe, the author of the article, is a professor of social psychology in the Netherlands. He and his research team wanted to find out if they could persuade people to choose a certain drink, so they “bombarded one half of a test group with 23-millisecond flashes of the words ‘Lipton Ice,’ a brand of iced tea.” The other half of the test group did not receive those messages. Afterwards all participants had to choose a drink, either mineral water or Lipton Ice. The people in the group that received the “Lipton Ice” word flashes chose that drink far more often than the control group did. The researchers then performed another test in which they made the subjects thirsty beforehand. The thirsty subjects chose Lipton Ice 80% of the time after subliminal messaging, but only 30% of the time without it. The non-thirsty people who did not receive subliminal messaging chose Lipton Ice only 20% of the time.

The fact is that our surroundings color our choices all the time, without us consciously realizing it. The aroma of coffee escaping from a bakery can make us crave an espresso; the scent of grilled meat from a restaurant can set our stomach growling. Our research to date indicates that subliminal messages hold sway over our behavior in the same way as these environmental cues do. The thirsty test subject is more receptive to a subliminal hint about a drink just as the hungry shopper is more likely to overfill his or her cart at the supermarket.

— Wolfgang Stroebe

There’s an element of common sense to all of this. Just as no one comes into the world as a blank slate, no one travels through it as one. Our paths are different not only because of what’s out there, but also because of what’s in here.

Related posts: The View from Here: Habits of Attention and The Assemblage Point.


One response to “Subliminal Persuasion?

  1. I find this fascinating because it is just one of those areas in which people assume that the way they perceive something is the way everyone else perceives it. The connection to the Ennegram seems a key element in reminding ourselves that we all have our own approach to things.
    I know someone, for example, who seems to be in the “brainwash” camp. He may not think of it that way, because it isn’t his overall approach to all sensory input; however, when it comes to one very specific thing, he is convinced that he must protect himself. He insists on listening only to instrumental music (and a few very select vocalists) because he is concerned about the subliminal impact that the lyrics of songs might have on him. He doesn’t want to be influenced by what he hears, even if he’s not particularly attending to it.
    I wonder how different types approach the way they listen to music. I would imagine, for example, that most people aren’t concerned about the subliminal messages, but rather simply whether they “like” the music or not. If I’m reading complex text, I prefer instrumental music, because I will find myself distracted by the lyrics. On the other hand, if I’m working on piecing fabric or some other aspect of quilting, I enjoy letting the music take me where it does, and vocal music is my preference. Various music styles add texture to my experiences, but I’ve never felt that they somehow affected my thoughts or actions. I do, however, like how they affect my moods and enrich whatever I’m doing.

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