Subliminal messaging is one of those topics that can’t shake controversy. Concealing hidden meanings in otherwise innocuous content has sinister overtones, sort of like slipping a sliver of glass into the filling of an Oreo cookie.
But, it’s far from clear that subliminal messages even work. Credible research on the topic is inconclusive at best, and some of the claims made in favor of subliminal messaging are really ridiculous (for examples of those, pick up Vance Packard’s infamous book, The Hidden Persuaders, which spawned subliminal-advertising messaging conspiracy theories aplenty). When you start thinking that Nabisco is controlling your mind, the story probably isn’t going to end well.
A recent study, however, may have broken the stalemate, at least when it comes to negative subliminal messages. Here’s a summary of the study methodology from the Wellcome Trust website:
In the study, researchers from University college of London showed fifty participants a series of words on a computer screen. Each word appeared on-screen for only a fraction of second – at times only a fiftieth of a second, much too fast for the participants to consciously read the word. The words were either positive (e.g. cheerful, flower and peace), negative (e.g. agony, despair and murder) or neutral (e.g. box, ear or kettle). After each word, participants were asked to choose whether the word was neutral or ’emotional’ (i.e. positive or negative), and how confident they were of their decision.
The researchers found that the participants answered most accurately when responding to negative words – even when they believed they were guessing the answer.
The reason this might be true makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Survival is linked more to anticipating danger than pleasure, so perhaps we’re able to detect danger messages more readily than positive or neutral ones even when they’re imperceptible.
The lead researcher, Professor Nilli Lavie, suggests that one way to apply the findings is to rethink public service messages. For example, if you want drivers to slow down, use a negative impact statement like “Kill Your Speed!” instead of something ignorable like “Slow Down”.
His example is valid, but not as a way to use subliminal messaging. “Kill your speed!” on a sign, for example, isn’t subliminal at all. It’ll grab attention because “Kill” is a danger word, but the word is right out there for everyone to see. There’s no reason to even try to make it subliminal when the overt message is powerful enough.
And that’s the problem I have with subliminal messaging overall. Even if it could be proven that the brain is capable of deciphering imperceptible messages, it’s hard to imagine why anyone except those with bad intentions would care. And those with bad intentions are probably already doing enough overt badness that subliminal messaging wouldn’t rank very high as a concern.
Then again, I might be missing the hidden forest and/or its trees and open to overt mind changing.