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.