Subliminal Persuasion
What You Don’t See Is What You Get

Queen of Tomorrow ErteOnce upon a time . . . the Queen of Tomorrow discovered the principles of subliminal persuasion.  She could display messages that on the surface were quite innocent, but “below” the surface dwelt subliminal exhortations that motivated receivers to vote or buy or prefer or smile or frown or do whatever she wanted at the time.

She formed a small technology company that put all manner of cool functions in a wireless set worn as eyeglasses.  She also invented those supercool iEye visors you see everyone wearing; they’re especially popular in the US Navy.  Then she embedded her subliminal messages within the wireless functions that displayed on the iEye like the “heads-up” cockpit screen for fighter pilots whether in a real F-22 or the Xbox version.  So, every time somebody called up a map or email or the latest Amazon Kindle book, stuck within the text was a subliminal message.  And if you have the iEye with the iAkoostik ear buds option you also get subliminals with every mp3 you hear. The Queen of Tomorrow also developed a subliminal system for olfactics, but it hasn’t been well received in the marketplace perhaps because of the name, iSmell.  It is rumored that she’s currently working on a haptics system, code named, iTouchMyself.

Soon her company was bigger than GE, Exxon/Mobil, and Microsoft combined and every elected official was her Best Friend Forever.  The guys in the band, U2, do all of her benefit concerts without being asked.  And, Al Gore has a really happening slide show he’s touring now.  Maybe another Nobel prize is in the offing.  Former President George W. Bush has her down at the ranch in Crawford where she and Dick Cheney go hunting.  And our beloved current President – who could have predicted a 90% popular vote victory – has built a hideaway bungalow for the Queen of Tomorrow just off the White House, near the Rose Garden.

When she realized the power she had, she also realized something else:  If Steve found out about it and put it in his book, she’d be ruined.  Yet, since he didn’t own a pair of iEyes she couldn’t control him.

What did she do?

Did she remain quiet and move the world in directions she desired?

Did she tell Steve about this so he could share it with you and save the world from this devious power?

Stayed tuned, readers, and after this brief instructional message you’ll learn the answer to these titillating questions!

What Is Subliminal Persuasion Anyway?

Most researchers define subliminal persuasion as messages that operate below the level of conscious awareness that nonetheless influence the way a person thinks, feels, or behaves.  Thus, for subliminal persuasion to occur there must be three elements:

1. A message that does exist.
2. The message must be below the conscious awareness of the receiver.
3. The message influences the receiver.

Now, to make things more accessible to science we need to make each of these assumptions as clear and obvious as possible because science is about as subtle as a hammer on your thumb.  Thus, the first element: The subliminal message has to be apparent, concrete, existent, THERE.  The message is not inferential or delicate or interpreted as when someone looks at the clouds in the sky and sees dragons fighting with Cupid over a box of Twinkies and then, poof, it’s now a six pack of beer riding a horse at Mountaineer Stadium.  The message exists without an assist from Dr. Freud.

Next, this concrete message has to move below the receiver’s level of conscious awareness.  The whole conscious-unconscious distinction is one of those issues that can easily devolve into a bar bet with people yelling at each other over whether “unconscious” really truly exists.  Let’s put it this way.  If I put you in front of a subliminal message and it influences you and then a little later I show you that message again, stick it right in your face and say, “Hey, you see this message?” if you don’t remember seeing the message, we’ll call it Unconscious Awareness.  (For some of you this is a completely unacceptable explanation and you want a greater discussion about the conscious-unconscious thing and how you know it and epistemology and what about God, yada-yada.  Just take it on faith for now and we’ll talk about it later, okay?)  If a message is below your awareness it means I showed it to you, but you did not see it, but it did influence you and later when I show you the message you don’t recognize it.

Finally, this observable (if you knew how to look for it at the time) yet unobserved (below conscious awareness) message changes you.  If there’s no change, there’s no persuasion even if it is subliminal.  It’s like those multiplayer computer shooter games that have the Invisible Option where all the shooters are invisible on the screen; you know you’re a shooter in the game and that there are other shooters out there, but since you can’t see them and they can’t see you, there’s no game and nothing happens:  Subliminal, but not subliminal persuasion.

At this point you might feel exasperated with science.  In our attempt to be clear and obvious, we’ve defined subliminal persuasion as something that is transparently absurd.  Yeah, right.  The message exists, but the receiver doesn’t know it’s there, and yet the message influences behavior.  Right, like my mom used to put up a subliminal sign in my room, “Clean Your Room,” and we know how that worked out.  If you’re feeling like this, don’t worry.  There’s a simple little trick that makes the whole enterprise much more doable than you might think.  The trick is this:  You must use a technological device to transmit the message.

Common Examples of Subliminal Persuasion

VicaryThe earliest recorded claim of anybody doing subliminal persuasion occurred in the late 1950s.  An advertising man, James Vicary, claimed that he had embedded subliminal messages like, Eat Popcorn and Buy Coke, in movies being shown in outdoor theaters.  (Okay, my little pretties, a fairy tale from your Uncle Steve.  Once upon a time they used to show movies outdoors on giant screens and they called them drive-in movies.  Many people learned about love in the backseat of their Dad’s Oldsmobile while allegedly watching a movie.  Oh, another fairy tale from Uncle Steve.  There used to be an American car company called Oldsmobile.  They made cars with huge backseats.)  Vicary claimed that he spliced just a few frames of the subliminal message into the movie so that there was just a very brief exposure to the message.  Thus, everyone “saw” the message, but it zipped by so fast it had to be below their conscious awareness.  Vicary claimed that sales of popcorn and colas increased after showing these subliminals.

This story feels like an urban legend, but it is a true and revealing example of human nature.  If you want to learn more about it, search on “Vicary, subliminal, and popcorn.”  For our purposes I want to note several details.  First, see how we solve the apparent problem of “now you see it, now you don’t” through the use of technology.  Just show a message rapidly and in a context with a lot of other information; thus, the message does exist, it is THERE, yet most people would not know it happened and would not recognize the message later if you waved it in their faces.  Second, observe the claim occurs in the context of making money.  We’ll see this frequently.  Many claims of subliminal effects arise from people trying to make a buck.  Now, I’m not saying you can’t trust somebody trying to make money.  Many times you can and do trust the credibility of a sales source.  For example, I do consulting, so people are paying me for recommendations.  I can still be an honest source of information and get paid for it.  But, you still need to keep your head on a swivel and your hand on your wallet during the conversation.  Third, note the absence of any scientific testing here.  One guy says he did something and it increased sales.  That’s it.  Nothing about the conditions of the tests or the people involved or the methods.

Given my cautions here, you’d think that Mr. Vicary would be just a quirky footnote, but his claims caused a phenomenal uproar in the US and other countries.  Many people grabbed the implications of this claim.  Hey, if this guy can make us buy more popcorn without us knowing it, then he can be King of the World and make us vote or buy or marry or, my God, dance in a way we don’t want.  People met.  People voted.  Laws changed.  Subliminal persuasion is banned as an illegal communication activity.

So, this is the end of subliminal applications, right?

Where do I begin . . . how about with Lorelei Communications doing business on the world wide web at They offer a Shrinkage Control system ( that delivers anti-shoplifting messages for use in department and other retail stores.  These messages are mixed in with the music typically played in these settings.  On their website they claim up to a 67% reduction in shoplifting losses.

MM Prefer Blondes TriangleI can’t resist this at least until I get a cease and desist letter from someone that scares legal counsel.  “Lorelei Communications?”  The name, Lorelei, is too rich for me.  Marilyn Monroe played Lorelei Lee in the fabulous 1953 movie, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” along with Jane Russell which featured a story line that followed these two beautiful women who followed rich older men and their money.  Here are some lines from Lorelei:

“Sometimes Mr. Esmond finds it very difficult to say no to me.”

“I just love finding new places to wear diamonds.”

“Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?  You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”

This tells you everything you need to know about Lorelei Lee and for me it’s a fun way to look at the company, Lorelei Communications.  Is it possible that just as Lorelei knows that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, this company knows that subliminal persuasion is a consultant’s best friend?

And how about “Shrinkage” control?

Seinfeld ShrinkageRemember the classic Seinfeld episode where George goes swimming in cold water and then is accidentally seen naked by a new girlfriend?  He is not embarrassed at being seen naked, but rather by the “shrinkage” caused by swimming in cold water and his fear that the woman may underestimate George’s manliness.  Now, I’ve been around enough Risk Management and some folks do refer to shoplifting losses as “shrinkage,” but in the context of Lorelei Communications, shrinkage can easily take on a new meaning here and one that may be a sly wink on the part of the company.

Again, let’s observe some details with anti-shoplifting subliminals.  First, we’ve got the technological device.  That’s key.  Second, somebody is trying to make money on this.  Third, we’ve got claims, but no science for those claims.  Keep this in mind as we move along to . . .

. . . self help.  Wanna lose weight?  Quit smoking?  Boost your self esteem?

Visit  Pick your problem, send them money, and they’ll send you audio tapes.  Listen to them while you sleep, while you’re awake, on a bus, or to paraphrase Dr. Suess:

I like them in a box or with a fox or in a house or with a mouse
I like them here or there or anywhere
I like subliminal tapes, I like subliminal tapes.

As with Mr. Vicary and Lorelei (it’s fun just saying that name, Lorelei; I might start calling Melanie, “Lorelei.”) Communications, the purveyors of these self help tapes claim “67%” improvement in whatever it is that ails you.

Geepers, Professor Science, you’re mocking all these good people who are just trying to put food on the table for their children.  Tell me it ain’t so.  Tell me there’s something good in here.

Scientific Analysis of These Studies

Professor Science is not moved.  These claims reek, I mean, reeeeeeeeek with false-iness.  Mr. Vicary claims to sell more popcorn and cola when everyone knows what is going on at the drive-in theater in the huge backseats of your father’s Oldsmobile.  Sweet Lorelei claims that you can stop shoplifting with the simple addition of faint voices saying, “Don’t steal that CD, don’t stuff that thong in your pants” on a music track that features hits from the 1980s.

Let’s be serious.  There is no science offered in these claims.  Somebody did something and something else good supposedly followed.  No comparison.  No control. No chance.  No counting except for magic percentages.

And, then, consider how these folks claim to deliver a subliminal message.  Yeah, right.  Splice in 10 milliseconds of film with “Eat Popcorn” in the middle of some movie that’s headed right for DVD in the next week.  Sure, get someone who sounds like your mom to hiss into a microphone, “Don’t shoplift,” then layer that into the hit from Milli Vanilli.  Of course, get a tape of the sounds of ocean waves breaking on the beach and then mix in subliminal messages like “don’t eat that cheeseburger” or “tobacco tastes like used baby diapers” or “darn it, you are a good person.”  Pah-leeeez.

One of the best researchers in testing these money making subliminal schemes is Professor Anthony Pratkanis.  You can easily find his work on the Web if you want more details, but for now, I just share his conclusions.  He notes,

“During the past few years, I have been collecting published articles on subliminal processes-research that goes back over a hundred years (Suslowa 1863) and includes more than a hundred articles from the mass media and more than two hundred academic papers on the topic (Pratkanis and Greenwald 1988).  In none of these papers is there clear evidence in support of the proposition that subliminal messages influence behavior.”

No one has been able to produce scientific evidence of getting serious, practical, profitable behavior change from subliminals.  So, there, Mr. Vicary and others of your ilk!  Ha!

But what about changes in thinking or feeling?  Professor Pratkanis only declared behavior change as null and void.  Hmmmm.

Professor Science says let’s break these claims on the Stone of Experimental Research.

Scientific Studies of Subliminal Influence

What happens to these claims of subliminal persuasion when you do some serious research on them?  Yeah, let’s randomize.  Get your control groups.  Systematic AND experimental manipulation of independent variables.  Reliable and valid measures of the dependent variable.  Replication.  Exact replication.  Varied replication.  Meta-analysis.  Hit the play button while I get the popcorn.

Whisky and Sex in the Lab

Chivas BottleLet’s consider a contender put in the ring by Professor Kilbourne and his colleagues.  They took ads then running in a national print campaign promoting a premium brand of Scotch whisky, Chivas Regal.  They then created two versions of one ad.  In the control (no subliminal messages or images – at least as far as they could see) condition the ad displayed a classy photo of the bottle of whisky all alone on the page.  In the treatment condition (with a deliberately designed subliminal image) the researchers smoothly blended in a silhouette of a nude female rear end on the slope of the bottle cast within a glinting reflection of light on the glass.  They pretested the subliminal ad by having people look over the ad without warning about subliminals.  After viewing, the people were asked about the ad.  No one reported seeing this silhouette.  However, when it was pointed out, everyone could see it and agreed that it was a nude image.

While there were several ads used in this experiment, we’ll only focus on the Chivas ads.  A large group of volunteer undergraduates were randomly assigned to see a series of ads that contained either the control version of the ad or the subliminal treatment version.  To measure everyone’s response to the ad, the researchers collected several different items.  They asked each subject to rate the quality of the ad and their attitude toward the product.  The researchers also obtained a measure of physiological arousal through monitoring Galvanic Skin Response (GSR).  GSR measures anxiety, stress, or general activation through electrical resistance.  Since the subliGSR deviceminal ad contained a sexual image, the researchers hypothesized that participants would become aroused.  The researchers also hypothesized that the sexual image, especially in the context of alcohol would cause participants to prefer the ad with the subliminal and to have a more favorable attitude towards Chivas Regal.

Okay, Professor Science, we’ve got a pretty good test here.  A large sample of young adults who might be familiar with sex and alcohol.  Random assignment to controlled conditions.  Multiple measures of the outcome variable.  Throw those subliminal claims on the stone of science and what do you get?

Everyone liked the subliminal ad more.  Noticeably more.

People randomly assigned to the treatment condition rated the ad itself as being “better” than the control version, showed a more favorable attitude toward the product, and, get this, also demonstrated higher GSR scores indicating more arousal when viewing the subliminal ad.  And best of all – I left this out in the method setup – the researchers also asked everyone in both conditions if they noticed anything unusual about the ads.  No one suspected any subliminals and just like the folks in the pretest, when the researchers pointed out that glint on the bottle, everyone immediately saw the nude silhouette.

Big deal.  So what.  One pretty good scientific test.  So a bunch of hormone crazed young adults look at liquor ads with a naked babe and get a little jumped up.  Anybody can get lucky.

So, let’s look at Professor Baldwin and colleagues study.  This one is not about advertising, but still uses subliminals.  It’s also about sex, so you’ll keep reading, won’t you?

The Bodice Ripper and the Pope

Bodice RipperIn this study, Baldwin recruited volunteers who were female and practicing Catholics.  All of the women first read a passage describing consenting sex between a man and a woman in a romantic setting.  After reading this passage the women were then randomly assigned to a viewing task in one of three conditions.  The viewing task involved them looking at a screen where they were exposed to extremely brief bursts (4 milliseconds or .004 seconds) of five images.  In the “negative” subliminal condition, some of the women saw images of a frowning Pope John Paul.  In the “neutral” subliminal condition, some women saw images of a unfamiliar face with no expression.  Finally, in the control condition, the remaining women were given bursts of light.  After this exposure, all the women were asked to complete measures that essentially assessed their self-evaluation, whether they felt good about themselves or felt guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed.

Once again, we’ve got a pretty good scientific study here.  People are randomly exposed to only one condition.  The viewing exposures are extremely brief.  Think about it.  Four milliseconds means were taking the time unit of one second then dividing it into a 1000 parts.  These images were onscreen for 4/1000 of second.  That’s Superman fast.  That’s faster than my little brother, Rick, leaving the table when the check arrives.  That’s faster than an airbag at 1/20th a second.

The researchers hypothesized that after good Catholic girls had read a sexy, romantic passage and then saw subliminals of a frowning Pope John Paul the women might feel a negative self evaluation while other women exposed to either an unfamiliar face or a mere burst of light would not experience a momentary sense of embarassment or guilt.

As with the Kilbourne study, Baldwin and colleagues found evidence to support the subliminal effect.  The Catholic women exposed to the frowning Pope had significantly lower self ratings than the other two conditions which were almost identical to each other.  For you gear head statistic mongers out there, the effect sizes were moderate with a d effect size of .50 or expressed another way, a Binomial Effect Size of  35/65.  For the rest of us, these numbers mean the effect was obvious to the naked eye.  If you’d talked with each woman after each test, you’d probably have been able to tell who’d seen the frowning Pope.  The researchers also asked each woman to report what image had been flashed before their eyes.  All of them reported seeing a “burst” as the screen went from dark to the image display, but no one could report any details.

Okay, Professor Poopypants.  Now, we’ve got two scientific studies on this subliminal effect.  Both show it happens.  Very different kinds of tests, but the same kind of outcome.

Mommy and I Are One

Let’s continue the humiliation of Professor Poopypants with a psychodynamic application of subliminal persuasion.  Professor Lloyd Silverman and his colleagues spent many years testing the subliminal presentation of various messages aimed at the unconscious mind.  The conceptual and theoretical background of this approach is well beyond my expertise and frankly I’m more than a little suspicious of psychodynamics and not just because I was poorly potty trained.  Be that as it may, many serious people take psychodynamics seriously and as we’ll see it has interesting implications for our more pedestrian uses of subliminals.  On with the Oedipal drama!

TachistoscopeSilverman’s work is typically aimed at people with extreme mental illness, such as schizophrenia, but it has also been done on garden variety neurotics (there’s a word you don’t read much any more) and even normal-crazy folks like you and me.  The method is simple.  Using an old fashioned computer called a tachistiscope people are exposed to particular subliminal messages with the aim of improving their mental health.  A tachistiscope looks like a World War II radar screen.  It’s a bit like putting on a swimming mask in that there is a rubber shield running around the screen.  You press your face into that rubber tube in this case to block your peripheral vision and to block out environmental light.  You are then exposed to extremely fast, again that 4 millisecond burst, subliminal messages, usually in repeated trials.

With Silverman’s work the New Thing is not just in the subliminal presentation, but also in the content of the message.  The most famous message employed is:

Mommy and I are One

Just take a moment and let that percolate.

Mommy and I are One

On a conscious level, simply reading that sentence can be a wildly activating event for most of us.  Mommy and I are One.  No more classes or assignments.  No bills or crazy bosses or teachers.  No taxes.  No traffic.  No dentist visits.  Just Mommy and I are One.

Given all the controversy surrounding psychodynamic theory, Silverman’s ideas generated a lot of research using this paradigm.  Commonly, the subject (either a “healthy” person or someone with a serious mental illness) is exposed to either the subliminal treatment message (Mommy and I are One) or a subliminal control message (People are Walking).  Usually there are several trials involving 5 or more exposures.  These sessions may occur only once or several times a week or over several months.  After the exposure the participant either self reports or is rated by someone else for outcomes like mood state, emotional memories, severe psychological distress like depression or obsessive/compulsive behavior.  The hypothesis is that exposure to the positive message of Mommy and I are One will produce more favorable mental health outcomes.  A meta analysis of 28 studies involving over 2800 participants supported the hypothesis.  Folks of all types exposed to Mommy and I are One, either reported or were rated as having more positive mood states, more positive emotional memories, and less severe psychological symptoms.  The effect size expressed as an r effect was .20 with a Windowpane Effect of 40/60.

How about that?  Subliminal persuasion can function as a tool for improving mental health.  Now, let’s all think about Mommy.

I Don’t Recognize It, But I Sure Like It or
An Experiment about . . . Nothing

A weird application of subliminal messages occurs in the work of Professor Robert Zajonc.  (Okay, it is pronounced “Zy-ence” and not “za-ZONK” as I first thought.  Melanie enjoyed correcting me.  Lah-dee-dah.)  Zajonc developed the mere exposure paradigm that tests a simple proposition:  the more you see something, the more you like it.  He busts this proposition down to its barest bones.  He’ll take some nonsense symbol, something you’ve never seen, give no meaning, and couldn’t pick out of a lineup if it robbed you in broad daylight.  What kind of symbols are we talking about?  Zajonc would take letters from the Cyrillic alphabet or ideographs from Chinese.  He would then have American subjects use the tachistiscope to look at literally hundreds of trials of these “meaningless” symbols.  For almost all of these trials, each meaningless symbol would be presented only once.  Zajonc would, however, systematically manipulate the number of presentations for one randomly selected symbol and have participants see it five times, ten times, or more all randomly varied with the sequence of the other hundred unique presentations.

Let me use English letters and numerals to illustrate this.  A participant would look in the tachistiscope and see a blank screen.  Every few seconds the scope would present a 4 millisecond exposure of one symbol, then the screen would go blank then the process would repeat with another subliminal burst of a symbol.  One session might go like this:

b h m 9 c x 9 p r w v o y 9 s n g f i a

In this session, there would be twenty bursts of symbols, with seventeen being unique (the letters), but the numeral 9 being repeated 3 times.  Now, remember I’m using familiar English letters and numerals rather than the unfamiliar alphabet and ideograph symbols that Zajonc used so nothing in these trials was this obvious for any participant.

The key thing here is that people are getting subliminal exposures to many unique symbols, but that within this long string, Zajonc is systematically showing one symbol many times.  Thus, some participants would be randomly assigned to see one symbol repeated ten times while another group would get five repetitions and the control group would get only the long unique string of symbols.  Got it?

Zajonc would then give a recognition test and an attitude test to each participant.  Here, the participant would be shown at regular speed (i.e. put the symbol on the screen and leave it there in the center of visual attention and tell the person to look at it).  The participant would then be asked if it was in that long series of subliminal symbols and then asked how well the symbol was “liked.”  To make things even more complicated, during this testing phase Zajonc would sneak in a couple of new symbols that had not been shown during the subliminal exposure to look for “false positives” the way police do with a properly conducted witness lineup.

Now all this sounds more than a bit absurd and wildly complex.  The methodology is a classic experimental design with the kind of controls one would use for testing a hydrogen bomb.  And what is it all about?  To quote Seinfeld, it’s a show about nothing.  Nothing.  Just a bunch of alphabetic characters than mean nothing to anyone.  Talk about a bare bones test of the proposition the more you see it, the more you like it.

And that is exactly what Zajonc found.  If he showed one group of people a nonsense symbol five times, they liked it more than the control group.  If he showed another group of people a nonsense symbol ten times, they liked it more than the fiver group.  If he showed it fifteen times, they liked it more than the ten-ers or the fivers.  And, here’s the kicker, even though they liked it more, they still didn’t recognize it at a greater rate!  In other words, even when you don’t know it, the more you see it, the more you like it.

The mere exposure paradigm attracted a lot of research attention, so much so that it was reasonable to do a meta-analysis of all the studies.  Professor Bornstein conducted just this kind of analysis.  He combined the results from over 200 mere exposure studies involving hundreds of different people.  As you can imagine there are a ton of results from analyzing so many different studies, so I’ll report just two.  Bornstein did a very interesting sub-analysis.  He looked at the “liking” ratings and broke them out by the “recognition” scores.  In other words, he compared how much you liked things, but didn’t recognize versus how much you liked things, but did recognize.  When people DID NOT recognize the symbol, the mere exposure effect expressed as an r was .50 or as a Windowpane Effect of 25/75.  This is a huge effect in social science.  By contrast when people DID recognize the symbol, the mere exposure effect was .1 or a Windowpane Effect of 45/55.  This is still significant, but a much smaller effect.

This last section is a bit complicated because it is so abstract and literally meaningless in so many deliberate ways (an experiment about . . . nothing).  First, keep the subliminal exposure in the front of your head all the time.  These experiments use those fast exposure times of just a few milliseconds.  Using this approach, researchers have determined that our brains apparently track information that flies under our consciousness.  Furthermore, not only does our brain track this information, but we also develop an unconscious affective response in the process.  Stated another way, there’s stuff going on in our “heads” (both the central and peripheral nervous systems) that we miss yet it is still psychologically meaningful.  Thus, you can participate in an experiment about . . . nothing, and come out it liking things you don’t even remember.


We started this chapter with a tart and testy look at all those infamous popular claims of subliminal power.  Vicary and popcorn.  Lorelei’s shrinkage program.  Self help audios for those times when we’re feeling fat, stupid, or lonely.  We noted the scientific failure of all of them.  Yet, when we take a scientific approach to subliminal messages, we find pretty good evidence to support their existence and impact.  What gives?

Subliminal Effects Do Occur

While there are hard headed and perhaps hard hearted critics who would claim that everything about subliminal persuasion is a ridiculous fraud and that it is a contradiction in terms, it is hard not to find something compelling in the wide areas of research that test subliminal messages.  Images or words displayed at incredibly fast speeds produce a consistent effect across a wide range of applications.  Nudie subliminals produce physiological arousal and more positive evaluations and ratings.  Frowning Popes elicit mild feelings of embarassment for sexually aroused Catholic women.  Mommy and I are One makes us feel better about ourselves.  And experiments about nothing make us like the familiar.  I cannot read this research literature and not come away without feeling like there is a lot going on in our minds that both influences how we think and feel, and also is something that is beyond our conscious awareness and control.

Effects Clearly Operate Below Our Awareness

What always intrigues me about subliminal effects is the absence of conscious control and awareness.  Most of us most of the time think that people know what’s going on in their minds and have control over it.  Yet, subliminal effects seem to operate on us in a way that eludes our control.  Critics of subliminal research often note that a lot of what’s going on depends upon the self report of participants.  For example, in Professor Zajonc’s research when you show the subjects a symbol and ask if they recognize it, how do you know if they’re not lying?  The same concern could be raised with Professor Kilbourne’s study with Chivas Regal and nude silhouettes.  How do you know that participants didn’t really see the subliminal?

I cannot think of an answer to these concerns in much the same way that I cannot provide convincing arguments to people who put forth conspiracy theories about the assassination of President Kennedy or the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.  However, it is usually the way of science to suggest to critics that the burden of proof is upon the one raising the concern.  Can someone demonstrate through experimental research that participants are lying (or self deceived) when answering questions about recognition?

If we do accept the results at face value, it appears that our minds are an active environment of meaning-making, learning, and remembrance in processes that continue even when we are not trying to control them.  This is a marvelously strange aspect of human nature.

But What IS the Effect?

As I think about all this evidence (plus a lot more not presented here), it is clear to me that subliminal persuasion does occur.  However, that Queen of  Tomorrow thought problem that started this chapter seems foolish in the extreme.  All of the scientific studies we looked at did demonstrate the subliminal effect, but consider what those effects were.  Physiological arousal.  More positive attitudes about Chivas Regal and its print ads.  A happier mood and stronger feelings of self worth when we see Mommy and I are One.  We read a sexy book, then get a jolt of the Pope and we feel a little embarrassed or guilty.  Wow.  The more nothing we see, the more we like it.

Nothing with scientific control comes anywhere close to our Queen of Tomorrow who manipulated both our thoughts and our actions.  If you’re a serious movie buff, you might have seen the minor John Carpenter cult film, “They Live.”  A friendly alien race lands on Earth to save us from ourselves.  The intrepid hero of the film, Rowdy Roddy Piper, a former professional wrestler in perhaps his best film performance, discovers a pair of sunglasses that show the “real” world of the alien invaders.  When Piper puts on the magic sunglasses he has a new vision of the world.  The sunglasses reveal all the subliminal messages the aliens have scattered across information environment.  I don’t want to spoil your viewing pleasure, so I won’t give away any specifics.  But it turns out that the aliens don’t have our best interests at heart.

[Literary sidebar:  Interested in a literary critical analysis of "They Live?"  Surprised that such a schock film could attract literary critical analysis?  Then read "They Live" by Jonathan Lethem.  Gee whiz, not only subliminal and cultish, but PoMo worthy!]

Is this really possible?

On a scientific basis the answer is clearly, “No.”  Subliminal effects do occur, but they operate at a low level of cognitive and affective change.  Nothing we have seen demonstrates any strong, compelling, obvious behavior change.  I suspect that anyone who purchases one of those self help audios probably will think and feel better, but will not lose and keep the weight off or find and keep friends or whatever the sellers are promising.

Why would there be this disconnect between the obvious cognitive and affective changes we’ve documented and the desired behavior change one might fear?  Well, think about everything we’ve read here.  First, delivering a subliminal message ain’t easy.  Second, even after you get the message, you’re still not in much of a position to act on it.  Third, it seems that much of our response to subliminals is “alerting” or “activating.”

Let’s chew on that first observation:  Subliminal exposure isn’t easy to do.  The reason that scientists use devices like tachistiscopes is not because they like old toys but because they reliably produce the effect.  As I’ve read this literature researchers constantly note how difficult it is to block out all uncontrolled sources of information so that they can deliver the subliminal message.  If the message environment approaches anything like the normal world where people are freely moving through life, it is virtually impossible to hit them with a subliminal.  If you can’t control the visual or auditory field, you haven’t got a ghost of chance of delivering effective subliminals.

This technical reason alone explains why so many of those hokey websites offering a marketing advantage or self help or whatever could never deliver on their promises.  The environments in which their devices are meant to operate are simply too noisy and don’t control the processing field.  Self help audios come the closest to offering the real deal, but they will fail for the second reason.

Even when a subliminal message is effectively delivered most people are not in an immediate situation to act upon it.  Consider behavior problems like smoking or overeating.  Even if the audios do have even a moderate effect on attitudes, the users don’t listen to those audios while they are in the kitchen or over a beer.  In other words, there is a disconnect between the attitude and the behavior.  Our examination of the ABCs and then the Standard Model proves the crucial importance of tying the attitude to the action as closely as possible.

The third reason subliminals don’t appear to have much effect on interesting volitional behaviors is because it appears that the physical and psychological processes that cause subliminals to work don’t have much impact on behavior.  There is still a lot of work to be done to understand the basic systems of subliminal responding, but it appears that a lot of subliminal reactions are along the lines of “alerting” or “activating.”  Nowhere do you find signs of that Central Route elaboration activity.  Instead subliminals operate as primitive reactions to the world like a preconscious cognitive/affective radar.  And, this radar is not strongly related changing volitional behaviors that are most relevant to persuasion.

Putting this all together suggests that subliminals do exist and they can alter the way people think and feel, but not behave.  This could easily change in the near future.  Given the incredible advances in computer technology it might be possible to have a type of visor or glasses that control the visual field.  Imagine a grocery store that has special sensors to detect this visor and as we walked down an aisle the sensor would transmit a subliminal image (the nude silhouette on the image of a bottle of pop) just before we got to the pop display.  That might motivate an interesting volitional behavior in a very TACTful way.

Consider other possibilities.  Imagine people who volunteer to work in high discipline situations like the military, private security, or sports teams.  As part of the training program, leaders could employ subliminal technology to condition emotional responses as part of producing more loyalty, commitment, and unity.  Remember the “Mommy and I Are One” studies?  Substitute the organization name for “Mommy” and away you go.  You would have to hide the subliminal training and disguise it as part of a normal activity.  For example, you could use a camouflaged tachistiscope to deliver visual training – say, how to use a new piece of equipment – and as part of that training, add in the subliminals.  While I’m not aware of any published scientific studies on this, I suspect you could do this to produce negative emotional responses, too.  Trainers could use subliminals to produce anxiety (“I Lost Mommy”) then show subliminal images of opponents.

Now, having dreamed these kind of futuristic applications, one might wonder if the Queen of Tomorrow might not yet come into being.

References And Recommended Readings

Baldwin, M.W., S.E. Carell, and D.F. Lopez. 1990. Priming relationship schemas: My advisor and the pope are watching me from the back of my mind. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 435-454.

Bornstein, R.F. 1989. Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968-1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 265-289.

Kilbourne, W. E., Painton, S., & Ridley, D. (1985), The effect of sexual embedding on responses to magazine advertisements. Journal of Advertising, 14, 48-56.

Weinberger, J. (1992). Validating and demystifying subliminal psychodynamic activation. In R. F. Bornstein & T. S. Pittman (Eds.), Perception without awareness (pp. 170-190). New York: Guilford.

Zajonc, Robert B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist, 35, 151-175.

The airbag deployment speed is discussed at:

Here’s an interesting side note to the Kilbourne et al. study with Chivas Regal.  They also ran a test on a cigarette ad that had either a sexual subliminal embedded image or else the neutral image.  You’ll recall that in the Chivas ad, both men and women showed a response consistent with a subliminal effect.  In the cigarette ad, the subliminal effect occurred only for women.  The subliminal image was of a male erection (not explicit, but rather like the line drawing silhouette of the nude female on the Chivas ad).  Some people have interpreted this as a serious limitation of subliminal effects, but others have wondered if men viewing the cigarette ad simply would not get aroused looking at another guy’s, ahhh, arousal.  There is pretty consistent evidence that heterosexual men do not typically get aroused when looking at images of other aroused men.

Another study done by Baldwin and colleagues ran a similar kind of guilt subliminal as with Catholic women except with graduate students.  They exposed these students to subliminal images of their research advisers either smiling or frowning and then asked the students to provide a frank assessment of the scientific projects the students were developing.  Grad students exposed to a subliminal smiling face thought their work was better while those exposed to the frowning face thought their work was worse.

You might recall early in this chapter when we were defining subliminal persuasion I elided analysis of the distinction between the conscious and unconscious.  At the time I noted that you might have found it annoying that the discussion was so brief and didn’t really make the distinction clear.  After reading this, do you still feel the same way?

And finally, return with me now to the Queen of Tomorrow who first discovered subliminal persuasion.  Did she keep the secret to herself or did she tell Steve about it to save the world from this devious invention?

Hey, did you perhaps realize that maybe she did tell Steve all of this, but it is all wrong and misleading like someone who knows how to make a Time Machine and tells others the wrong way to make It so they’ll think It is impossible?