Subliminal messages are stimuli that are imperceptible to human consciousness. So much of what our minds take in and process happens on a subconscious level. Subliminal messages can impact you without you even knowing it.
Over the years, people have studied this phenomenon. They’ve wondered if subliminal messages can cause you to take actions that you wouldn’t otherwise take or influence your emotions. Some experts have worried that subliminal messages can act as a source of mind control.
If subliminals work, then someone else could control your behavior without your awareness. That’s a scary thought. But subliminals can also be used for positive purposes, such as to help people stop taking detrimental actions or quit bad habits.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the research and evidence surrounding subliminal messages.
What Is a Subliminal Message, Exactly?
Most people misinterpret the meaning of “subliminal.” People often use the term “subliminal message” to refer to anything that can sway someone’s perspective, mood, or actions. However, to indeed be considered subliminal, this type of stimulus must be undetectable by conscious awareness.
The term comes from the Latin words sub limen, which means “beneath the threshold.” The idea of a threshold for awareness comes from the field of psychophysics. The sensory threshold is the level at which organisms can no longer detect a stimulus.
Psychologist Ernest Heinrich Weber conducted the original organized studies to pinpoint sensory thresholds. He determined that there is an absolute threshold. Below that point, humans can’t detect a stimulus. After they begin to feel the sensation, they can notice differences in the intensity.
However, absolute threshold is not measurable in the same way for everyone. Your cognitive processes, motivations, expectations, and physical makeup affect what you feel and notice.
Have you ever driven down the street and realized that you have no recollection of what you passed? It’s not that your mind wasn’t processing what you saw. A situation such as this one indicates that you have adapted to the view around you. You don’t need to notice every tree and landmark. Therefore, you process the visuals below the level of conscious awareness.
If you passed a billboard that promoted smoothies, you might find yourself craving a smoothie that day. However, you might not be able to recall seeing the advertisement.
Is this an example of a subliminal message? Not really.
The billboard was there for everyone to see. You could have noticed it if you were paying attention. The fact that you didn’t doesn’t make the message subliminal. However, the image did hit you on a subconscious level, potentially affecting your behavior.
That’s an example of a supraliminal message. Human consciousness can detect a supraliminal signal. However, you may not be aware of the way that it impacts you.
One of the most notable experiments conducted to look into the effects of supraliminal messages took place in a grocery store. Comparable German and French wines were displayed to the public. On some days, the supermarket played French music. Other days, it played German music.
The music affected wine sales. On the instances that the store played German music, more people purchased German wine. They were more apt to buy French wine when they heard French music.
We know that the music was affecting the individuals on a subconscious level because the leaders of the study asked the shoppers whether they had noticed the music. People self-reported that the music did not influence their buying behavior.
In other words, although everyone could hear the music, most of them said that it didn’t play a role in their purchasing decision. However, the results of the study show that the music may have had a significant influence.
You can find another example of supraliminal messaging on this website. As you read the first paragraph, you might notice that the writer capitalized some of the letters. It might seem strange, but you just keep reading.
If you go back and pick out the capitalized letters, you might realize that they spell out “keep reading” when you string them together. Does your mind pick up on this on a subconscious level? Are you capable of processing that message as you’re reading the other words?
There is no definitive answer. Everyone is different. If you can process the message subconsciously, and it does influence your behavior, this could be an instance in which you were affected by supraliminal messaging.
But a subliminal message can’t be detected even if you look for it. An example of a subliminal message would be a message that’s flashed across a screen for 1/250th of a second. Your eyes don’t pick it up, but your subconscious may internalize the meaning of the message.
There are three types of subliminal messages:
- Subaudible messages – Sound bites that are too quiet or quick for you to perceive consciously
- Subvisual messages – Visual flashes that are too fast to be picked up by the aware mind
- Backmasking – Audio messages that are disguised through backward recording
Understanding Subconscious Influence
Your subconscious is always working behind the scenes. In fact, some estimates say that 95 percent of your brain activity happens subconsciously. Moreover, what happens on the unconscious level is mainly in charge of your behavior.
Your brain is always working. Even though you may try to analyze every thought and sensation, you don’t know what’s going on until your brain serves up the small part that tells you how to act or what decisions to make. Your conscious mind takes the credit, but it actually didn’t do any of the work.
How often do you try to figure things out? If your friend said something that made you feel sad, you might try to work out why she said that. If you’re trying to complete a puzzle, you might try to create conscious patterns by looking at the colors and shapes. You feel as though you have a complete idea of what you’re thinking, but you don’t.
In the past, some experts have thought that the subconscious mind can pick up on sensory cues and drive repetitive behavior. They believed that the conscious mind is responsible for more complex tasks that involve logical thinking.
However, a 2012 experiment showed that your subconscious mind might be working harder than you think. During this experiment, participants were presented with math questions subconsciously. To do this, the researchers would flash a series of squares in one eye. Once the brain was so accustomed to seeing the squares, it wouldn’t realize that a set of arithmetic equations was being flashed in the other eye.
After they had a chance to experience the equations, though, the participants were shown a fully visible number. They were asked to identify the number aloud as quickly as they could. The participants were more likely to read the number quickly when it was the correct answer to the math equation.
This outcome suggests that the unconscious mind is able to do more high-level processing than we thought. There is still a great deal of research that needs to be done on the subconscious mind. However, most experts feel as though our consciousness is only the tip of a much larger iceberg.
Is Subconscious Messaging Ethical?
Is it manipulative or dangerous to manipulate people on a subconscious level?
It’s impossible to avoid subconscious influences. Because our unconscious minds are always processing information, we can’t escape supraliminal manipulation. Everything that we perceive and experience is shaped by the lens of our subconscious.
Take this experiment, which involved examining how holding a cup of hot or cold coffee could affect people’s judgments about a stranger. During this study, participants “ran into” an assistant who was struggling to hold a bunch of items, including a cup of coffee. These meetings were pre-arranged, but the participants didn’t know it.
The assistant would ask the volunteer to grasp the cup of coffee while they rearranged the items that they were holding. Later, the participants read about a hypothetical person and were asked to rate their personality. The individuals who had held a cup of hot coffee rated the hypothetical person as more warm and friendly than the ones who had held the cup of iced coffee.
Everything that you see, hear, feel, and experience affects everything else that you do, whether you realize it or not. Marketing messages have always drawn upon subconscious influence to do their work.
Marketers use emotion to encourage people to take action. Although you may think that you’re in touch with your emotions, there is so much that goes on beneath your threshold of awareness. Emotions drive behavior.
If an advertiser can tap into your emotions, they could affect your actions. Some ways that marketers speak to the subconscious include:
- Using specific color combinations to evoke a particular mood
- Using persuasive pricing models to make you feel as though you’re getting a great deal
- Using the scarcity principle to encourage you to buy now
Every form of communication resonates on a subconscious level. But should people capitalize on that ability and include subliminal messages in their work?
Subliminal messages are frowned upon in advertising. In the 1950s, marketing expert James Vicary claimed that he did an experiment involving subliminal messages in the movies. He claimed that flashing messages that read, “Drink Coke” and “Eat popcorn” on the screen boosted concession sales.
His claims were concerning. People worried that their behavior could be inadvertently manipulated. If subliminal messages could sway their buying behavior, what else could they do? It turns out that the experiment never happened. Vicary was just trying to get an edge on his marketing company.
But people have been suspicious ever since. The U.S. doesn’t have any specific federal or state laws outlawing subliminal messaging in advertising. However, the Federal Communications Commission does not allow subliminals in broadcasts. Any company that uses them will have their license revoked.
The idea behind this is that subliminals are deceptive, whether or not they work. The Federal Trade Commission doesn’t directly outlaw subliminals in advertising. However, it does prohibit deceptive marketing practices. Subliminal messages would fall under this category.
Other countries, such as Britain and Australia, have banned subliminal messages from advertisements.
Do Subliminal Messages Work?
Whether or not you believe that subliminals are ethical, you probably want to know if they work. After all, if you could train your subconscious mind to quit smoking or stop eating potato chips through subliminal messaging, it might be a lot easier than putting down the cigarettes or forcing yourself to eat salads all the time.
In the late 1900s, many people believed that subliminals could drive these types of behaviors. Many people created self-help cassette tapes and courses that involved subliminal messages to encourage personal growth. There are hundreds of subliminal suggestion courses that aim to help people:
- Stop drinking or smoking
- Lose weight
- Think creatively
- Reduce pain
- Improve relationships
- Conquer fears
- Read faster
One example of these self-help cassettes is the program entitled Building Self-Confidence by the Gateways Institute. Anyone who listens to it will hear relaxing nature sounds.
But the manufacturer claims that the tracks include subaudible messages. These spout affirmations, such as the following:
- I am a secure person.
- I believe in myself.
- My confidence naturally rises in all situations.
Although the nature sounds mask these suggestions, the subconscious may be able to pick them up. You don’t have to focus on the words at all. Instead, you can play the tracks while you sleep, drive, exercise, or do other activities. This might seem like a great way to multitask and effortlessly reach your goals.
The potential for subliminal suggestions to work is promising. But is it effective?
Subliminal Messaging Studies
Research shows that subliminal perception is a valid phenomenon. People’s judgments, opinions, and decisions can be swayed by priming them with subliminal stimuli. In a 1988 study, researchers showed that subliminal messaging can affect people’s moods, ideas, and behaviors. But subliminals may not be as persuasive as some people believe.
Although you can influence your subconscious mind, subliminals may not always be effective. A 1992 study looked at some of these cassette tape recordings that claimed to affect behavior through subliminal messaging.
The participants were divided into three groups. One group listened to subliminal audiotapes that claimed to help people lose weight. A second group listened to placebo recordings. A third group didn’t listen to any tapes.
Subjects in every group lost approximately the same amount of weight. The researchers concluded that listening to the tapes may have made the volunteers more conscious of their weight. However, the subliminal messages didn’t seem to have a significant effect.
Another study also investigated the effectiveness of subliminal message self-help tapes. In this study, some of the labels on the cassettes were switched. The participants might have been listening to a recording that aimed to improve memory, but they could have thought that they were listening to a tape that would help them lose weight.
Some significant effects were noted. However, the correlations were linked to the labels on the tapes, not to the contents of the recordings. In other words, someone who thought that they were listening to a memory-enhancing product might have experienced improved cognitive function even if the tape contained subliminal content about weight loss.
This demonstrates that your subconscious mind and behavior may be influenced by your expectations. If you believe that a tape is going to make you lose weight, it might work as a result of the self-fulfilling prophecy.
The placebo effect is also influential. If you think that a tape is going to help you get better at math, you might improve your skills just because you were focusing on that outcome.
In a more recent study, participants who were exposed to the Apple logo seemed to think more creatively afterward than other participants. The volunteers were asked to list possible uses for a brick. The ones who saw a subvisual image of the Apple logo suggested more uses than those who saw a subvisual IBM logo.
The study doesn’t necessarily prove that subliminal messaging works. However, it does indicate that we’re highly sensitive to social conditioning and may be affected by subconscious imaging when it’s relevant to what we know and believe.
Subliminals May Prime You to Take Certain Action
While most experts have concluded that subliminals can influence you, the majority agree that hidden messages won’t make you behave in a way that’s completely atypical.
In 1984, two researchers studied the way that imperceptible stimuli can prime people to behave in certain ways. The researchers showed participants a color word, such as “red, orange, yellow, etc.” Then, they showed a shape that represented an actual color.
When the preceding word was incongruent—for example, the word was “red,” but the color shown was blue, participants took longer to identify the latter color. What these researchers wanted to know, though, was whether the subjects could identify the subliminal primes.
First, they showed the prime words visibly and asked participants to identify what the word was. All of the participants correctly identified the word.
Then, they showed primes that fell below the absolute threshold. Participants said that they didn’t detect the words. But they identified them correctly about 66 percent of the time. Moreover, when the terms were shown subliminally instead of obviously, the time difference in naming the color was more significant.
Subliminal messaging may enhance persuasiveness when you’re already motivated to pursue a particular goal. If you’re thirsty, a subliminal message encouraging you to have a drink may persuade you to stop at the store for a beverage.
In one study, participants were asked to refrain from eating or drinking for three hours before their session. When they arrived for the experiment, they had to rate their thirst, hunger, and mood. Then, the participants taste-tested some cookies.
During the taste test, half of the participants were told to drink as much water as they wanted to cleanse their palates. The other half was not given water.
Then, participants were primed even further. They completed a computer task. While they were watching the screen, some were exposed to subliminal messages related to thirst. Another group was exposed to neutral words via subvisual messaging.
Finally, participants were asked to taste test a beverage. Participants were told to drink as much as they wanted. The beverages were loaded with sugar to prevent them from being too thirst-quenching.
The participants who had been exposed to thirst-associated primes drank more during the second taste test than the participants who had been exposed to neutral words. However, this only occurred if they were thirsty. The primes had no effect on the participants who had satiated themselves during the first taste test.
You’ve probably heard of the stories in which musicians were accused of including satanic messaging in their recordings. In the 1980s, the parents of two young boys who shot themselves after listening to music by Judas Priest sued the band for subliminal persuasion. The court ruled that the band wasn’t responsible.
You can often decipher random words or phrases when music is played backward. Whether or not this music contained evil backmasked messages, the judge ruled that it would not have made the teenagers do something that they weren’t already predisposed to doing.
Subliminals May Influence Brand Choice
If you’re already planning to buy something, subliminals could sway you toward a particular brand. During a 2002 study, researchers subliminally primed participants with images of Coke cans and the term “thirsty.” The people who were exposed to these messages were more likely to say that they were thirsty afterward than other participants.
But studies like these haven’t always shown that the message content influences the participants’ specific beverage choices. However, another study had distinct findings.
The researchers did experiments to learn whether subliminally exposing participants to a brand name would influence their beverage choices. Some participants were exposed to a neutral word. Others experienced a subvisual flash that read “Lipton Ice.”
Participants who were thirsty and exposed to the Lipton Ice message were more likely than others to choose that brand. These findings demonstrate that subliminal advertising could be effective in promoting specific companies. However, there are many other variables that are necessary for priming to occur.
For example, participants had to be thirsty. The brand that was used in the experiment is associated with thirst-quenching qualities. Therefore, priming has to be relevant and applicable to your present motivations for you to be persuaded by it.
Subliminals Are Related to Expectation
Can your mind be primed if you’re not already predisposed to a particular expectation? After the Vicary Hoax of 1957, many organizations wanted to study the effects of subliminal messaging.
In one study, people learned about the fake Vicary study at the beginning of the experiment. Then, they were asked to watch a popular TV show. The researchers told them that they would be flashing a subliminal message on the screen during the show. But the participants didn’t know what the message would say.
The subvisual message read “Phone Now” and was flashed more than 300 times. However, the number of phone calls during the show did not increase. About half of the people who watched the show claimed that they felt the urge to take some kind of action. Many of them had cravings for food or beverages.
These findings indicate that expectancy effects are strong. Because these viewers were told about the Vicary study ahead of time, they expected to experience some kind of subconscious effect while they were watching the TV show. However, it didn’t seem as though the content of the subliminal messaging made a difference.
The Bottom Line
The most important question is, perhaps, whether subliminals can cause someone to act against their will. There is no evidence that subliminal messages can take over your mind and make you do something that you don’t want to do. However, subliminals can push you in a particular direction if you’re already headed down that path.
In other words, they’re suggestive, but they may not be completely manipulative. Your perception is tied to your beliefs. If your beliefs are linked to a particular expectation, then you may be influenced by subliminal stimuli.
But the effects don’t last long-term. Subliminal messages may impact immediate judgments, thoughts, or opinions. But they haven’t been shown to deliver lasting effects on your confidence, attitudes, or other behaviors.
Moreover, the subliminal messages must be short enough for your subconscious to process them. For example, a verbal primer should be made up of one or two words, not a whole sentence, if you want it to be effective.
It seems that subliminal messages do influence us. However, they’re more likely to enhance the accessibility of a certain idea that’s already floating around in our minds than they are to drive us to take unusual action. In other words, we don’t have to be dramatic when it comes to subliminal messages.