(adapted from The Science of Influence Library: Part IV, Volumes 37-48)
Can People Be Influenced Subliminally?
The girl sees the word “sex” on the TV screen and of course she hypnotically becomes unyielding in her quest to dominate you. (Or guy, if the case is appropriate.) We all dreamed of it when we were younger (it wasn’t just me, was it?)…and the images didn’t fade much with time.
In the last 15 years, subliminal perception and influence has been put back on the front burner, albeit very quietly.
The first discovery to share with you is that audio subliminal recordings simply don’t work.
Priming in Persuasion…and Subliminal Influence
Priming is a way we can covertly influence, as we’ve discussed in The Science of Influence CD Library in numerous contexts. Priming is all about activating conscious and unconscious associations with intention.
Some quick examples of every day priming:
- Someone says, “Mr. MacDonald was a nice old man,” and the listener has a ‘thought’ to go to McDonalds and get a hamburger.
- Someone asks you what TV show you want to watch tonight. They are playing “Who are You” on the CD player in the background, and they say, CSI. “Who are You” is the theme song for CSI.
- You hear a commercial for The Apprentice, or 24, or the upcoming special about Elvis on TV. You think, “I wonder what Kevin Hogan will write about in Coffee this week.”
Why Don’t Auditory Subliminals Work?
Why didn’t the subliminals work? Simple. The brain couldn’t get the message from outside in the world to the inside of the brain, as there was no vibration for the ear and then auditory cortex to work their magic. It was a shame, too, after all the recordings we bought for better grades and self-esteem in college. (or was that just me again?) Like sleeping on a book and praying for the information to be pumped in by osmosis…well you get the picture…
There’s still people who produce “subliminal CDs”, but I can assure you that the zealotry of the producers of such materials is utterly and totally unwarranted. They don’t work and it’s been shown in every single scientific study ever done about it.
What about video?
An entirely different and very enticing story!
The visual cortex WILL respond to stimuli which are not in conscious awareness and which are NOT able to be seen with conscious attention and effort. The visual cortex will take this information that isn’t or can’t be seen and share it with other parts of the brain CAUSING actions to be taken on the stimulus.
What Does New Research Show?
Research out this week shows that if you show a picture of Pamela Anderson to someone, there are literally single cells (neurons) in the brain that “know” that is Pamela Anderson. These neurons react to Pamela (and who wouldn’t?) in a “knowing way.” In other words it’s DIFFERENT neurons that react when pictures of The Beatles are shown and different from those of Jennifer Aniston and so on.
Now don’t get the idea that “memory” is single cell. L. Ron Hubbard wasn’t that on target with “engrams,” but one thing is for sure…Pamela Anderson can excite a cell that wasn’t turned on by Jennifer or John Lennon.
And that’s crucial in understanding subliminal persuasion. (When I first read about this in popular form last week, I was VERY skeptical. The research bares it out though and my skepticism has been quelled.) I’ll go into the research about all of this later in the summer, it’s beyond “pretty incredible.”
The brain acts on external and internal impulses.
And that’s where visually stimulated subliminal persuasion begins. Without someone’s awareness, you can cause them to want to drink, for example, via subliminal perception. Carefully look at this example. Out-of-lab scenarios should start popping into your mind shortly.
What Does New Research Show?
***1*** People alter their consumption behavior based on subliminal exposure to faces.
In studies led by Piotr Winkielman, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, people altered their consumption behaviors after exposure to subliminal facial expressions.
***2*** Subliminal perception of smiles and frowns have profound effects on behavior.
Hidden smiles persuaded thirsty subjects to pour more and drink more of an unidentified beverage than did neutral expressions. Frowns had the opposite effect.
***3*** Subliminal perception of happy faces cause people to be willing to spend more money…a lot more money.
Study participants who were unconsciously “primed” with happy faces also reported being willing to pay up to triple the price for the mystery drink. And they reported wanting another half cup instead of just a sip or two more.
***4*** The entire process is covert at the emotional level. People have no idea their feelings have CHANGED.
Remarkably, the test subjects, whose actions had been influenced by these emotional cues, were not aware of their feelings having changed.
“This is the first demonstration that you can influence consequential, real-world behavior without affecting conscious feeling. We can change what you do, without changing how you feel,” Winkielman said.
Winkielman, coeditor of the forthcoming book Emotion and Consciousness, believes the findings, presented at the American Psychological Society annual convention in Los Angeles, May 26-29, support the existence of unconscious or “unfelt” emotion.
“Emotional states operating outside conscious awareness can drive behavior. The subjective experience of a feeling is not always necessary to the process,” said Winkielman.
“Feelings are often slow,” he said. “In a frightening situation, you run first, feel afraid later.”
To tease apart emotional reaction and subjective feeling, Winkielman and colleagues devised two different experiments.
In both studies, subjects were first asked to rate how thirsty and hungry they were. Next, they were subliminally exposed to a series of photographs of happy, angry or neutral faces — masked each time by a neutral face. Consciously, the subjects were aware only of seeing the second, neutral image, which they were then asked to classify as male or female. Immediately afterwards, they were asked (in varying order) to interact with the beverage and rate their moods.
Happy and angry expressions were selected as primes, Winkielman said, because it is easy to extract a simple positive and negative interpretation from them: Grins and glowers are flashed at us in approval and reproach since Day 1 and are essentially equivalent to “stop” and “go” signs.
The researchers chose drinking in part because ingesting an unknown substance can have obvious biological consequences and is therefore not a trivial act — even if, as in this case, the drink is made of nothing more than water, sugar and lemon-lime Kool-Aid.
In the first experiment, 39 undergraduates freely helped themselves and drank as much as they wanted. Unknown to them, the amounts poured and consumed were recorded using an electronic scale. Thirsty participants poured and drank more than twice the amount of the beverage after happy primes than after angry primes.
In the second experiment, 29 undergraduates tasted a small, predetermined sample and were then asked to evaluate it after one sip. Those at the high level of thirst reported willingness to pay 38 cents (U.S.) after happy primes and only 10 cents after angry ones. They also expressed desire for an additional half cup instead of one to two sips.
What Are Some of the Most Important Findings?
***5*** It’s all about the predisposing factors being acted upon subconsciously…The Subjects Motivation.
In both studies, thirst proved a necessary precondition for influence. Moderately thirsty participants were only moderately affected. And those not thirsty, not at all. Thirst also correlated positively with ratings of the beverage’s deliciousness and thirst-quenching abilities.
“Motivation matters,” Winkielman said. “Your motivational state — your level of need — prepares you to process relevant information and gives value to the stimulus. Otherwise, the emotional message falls on deaf ears.”
***6*** Better act fast or it won’t matter.
Can Advertisers Benefit From This?
To businesspeople or politicians tempted to apply these findings to advertising, Winkielman says: It won’t work. The effects of subliminal expressions were too short-lived. By the time people arrived at the store or polling booth, all influence would have worn off.
The studies were supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Results were published earlier this year in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, with coauthors Kent C. Berridge of the University of Michigan and Julia L. Wilbarger of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
What’s next? You’re going to be surprised!!!! Stay tuned…
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