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Myth 5: Subliminal Messages Can Persuade People to Purchase Products (50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology)

Myth 5: Subliminal Messages Can Persuade People to Purchase Products (50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology) 1

There is a widespread belief that marketers and psychologists have figured out how to hack our brains by using subliminal messages. Some audiotapes claim to improve your sex life, to enlarge a woman’s breasts, and to make you wiser, healthier, and wealthier.

However, there is evidence to support the idea of subliminal messaging under tightly controlled laboratory conditions, but these effects are modest. In these experiments, researches use “priming” to influence behavior. Priming involves flashing information that will nudge the participant to distort his choice later. For example, in one experiment the word “gui _ _” was flashed before participants, and they were asked to form a complete word. When words like “direct,” “lead,” and “escort,” boosted the probability of choosing the word “guide” whereas the words “deceit,” “duplicity,” and “treachery,” increased the chances of choosing the word “guilt”. Another experiment showed that a student’s evaluation of their quality of research was influenced by flashing images of a scowling face of their supervisor.

Subliminal means “under the limen.” The limen is the sensory threshold. If advertisers are capable of influencing your behavior beyond your sensory awareness, you should be worried. Are they?

Freudian views of the unconscious, which most scientific psychologists have abandoned, continue to influence subliminal entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs believe that the unconscious contains primitive and sexual urges that operate outside of your conscious awareness and compel you to make choices. Vance Packard was a writer who helped popularized this view in this bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders. But he accepted a story uncritically from consultant James Vicary. The consultant lied about influencing an audience at a movie theater in New Jersey to buy more drinks and Coca-Cola by flashing subliminal messages on the screen to save his career.

When carefully controlled tests of the ability of subliminal messages to influence consumer choices or voter attitudes were made, the results were negative.

One famous and absurd claim was the heavy-metal rock bands like Judas Priest inserted backward recordings of Satanic messages in their music. It was thought that this caused suicidal behavior, but it is hard to understand why entertainers would want to kill their potential buyers. Later tests demonstrated that it was all in their minds. The messages were in the ears of the beholder.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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