Research suggests that subliminal stimuli can influence our emotional responses. But what would happen if a person sees one stimulus consciously while another one is shown nonconsciously; that is, subliminally? Research into this has thrown up some interesting answers.
Subliminal Stimuli to Manipulate Emotions
Imagine sitting at a computer screen and looking at pictures of abstract neutral designs that someone is showing to you. What you don’t know is that the person is also flashing a photograph subliminally at the same time that evokes negative emotions.
Research suggests that it is possible that the subliminal stimulus that you can’t see can influence your judgment of the stimuli that you can see. That is, the subliminal stimulus could evoke an emotion that you think has been caused by the neutral design on the computer screen.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Can You Even Dislike a Character or Letter of a Language?
In an early demonstration of this effect, researchers told research participants that they would be rating how much they liked different Chinese ideographs, which are characters or symbols used in the Chinese language. What the participants didn’t know was that, just before they saw each character, a photograph of either a smiling face or an angry face was flashed for four milliseconds—too fast to be detected consciously.
What happened was that participants rated the ideographs that followed subliminal smiling faces more positively than the ideographs that followed subliminal angry faces. In other words, the emotions evoked by the faces that participants could not see spilled over into their evaluations of the ideographs that they could see.
Of course, the participants naturally assumed that they actually liked or disliked a particular ideograph, not knowing that their reactions were actually caused by the subliminal smiling or angry face.
You may have realized that such a process could potentially be used to influence people’s attitudes toward products or toward political candidates or other things. That is, these results suggest that, if I flash happy pictures subliminally before showing you a new brand of breakfast cereal, it might lead you to feel good about the cereal. Could that really happen?
The Political Potential in Subliminal Messaging
Some of you may remember an episode during the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, in which the use of supposed subliminal messaging became an issue. It was discovered that a political advertisement attacking the health-care proposals of one candidate had the word RATS in big capital letters flash very quickly during the ad.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t quite subliminal—the word was on the screen for 1/30 of a second, which was long enough for a few people to see it, but most people didn’t detect it consciously because it happened so fast. The opposition campaign denied that it was an intentional effort to use subliminal messages, and the question has never been entirely resolved.
But this real-life episode made some researchers wonder whether such a ploy could actually affect people’s ratings of a politician. So they conducted an experiment in which people watched a campaign advertisement for an unknown politician into which the researchers had slipped the subliminal word RATS.
And, indeed, people’s ratings of the politician were more negative when the word, RATS, was inserted into the ad, even though they didn’t see the word consciously.
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Can the Neutral Appear Negative?
Now, there is an important point about these two studies—the one with the Chinese ideographs and the one with advertisement for the unknown politician. In both cases, the visual stimulus—the one that people could see consciously—was relatively neutral. People don’t feel strongly about ideographs, and the campaign ad involved a politician that participants hadn’t ever heard of before.
Because they didn’t have any pre-existing feelings about the things that they were evaluating—the ideographs or the unknown politician—the weak emotions created by the subliminal stimuli—the smiling or angry subliminal faces, or the word RATS—could influence participants’ ratings.
But this subliminal effect is probably not strong enough to influence people’s evaluations of things that they already have strong attitudes about. So, if I already support a specific candidate, subliminally flashing RATS is probably not going to make any difference in my feelings. Furthermore, although the subliminal stimuli—the smiling and angry faces or the word rats—caused people to rate the ideographs and the unknown politician differently, the sizes of these effects were really rather small.
So, these subliminal influences are real, but they are probably not strong enough to sway people’s preferences for real politicians or real products in a big way. But we don’t know for sure.
It’s pretty clear that, under certain circumstances, subliminal stimuli can influence our emotions and preferences. And, as we’ve seen, subliminal stimuli can affect how we feel about things that we perceive consciously—as with the ideographs and politician.
These and other similar experiments show that subliminal stimuli can affect not only our emotions but also how we respond to other people. In fact, this seems to be one way that subliminal influences creep into our everyday behavior. Things happen around us that we’re not consciously processing, yet these subliminal events can steer our thoughts in particular directions, influencing our emotions and influencing our behaviors. But it’s a very subtle process.
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Common Questions about Negative Subliminal Stimuli
Research participants were told to rate how much they liked different Chinese ideographs, which are characters or symbols used in the Chinese language. Participants rated the ideographs that followed subliminal smiling faces more positively than the ideographs that followed subliminal angry faces.
During the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, it was discovered that a political advertisement attacking the health-care proposals of one candidate had the word RATS in big capital letters flash very quickly during the ad.
The research into negative subliminal stimuli in political messaging revealed that people responded negatively to even unknown politicians in a negative fashion when presented with negative subliminal stimuli.
Research indicates that though subliminal stimuli do affect the emotions of people, the measured effects of subliminal stimuli are actually rather small.