Subliminal Perception

What You Don't see May Hurt You

What would a person think when they are told that the action that they may be doing at any given moment could have been caused by the reception and absorption of information by their mind while they were unaware? Most likely the person would deny that any action that they could have done, ever, was done while being totally unaware why they were doing the action, or by doing the action not by their own choice. The human character has a tendency to want to be in control of itself and its actions at all times. When a person is approached with the knowledge that their actions are not due by the choices of that person but by some clever, undetectable, outside influence, usually he or she would become angry and frightened.

. During the 1950s there was an interest taken in the phenomena of subliminal suggestion. Subliminal suggestion is when people are subjected to information that is not perceived consciously. The assumption is that these messages caused some sort of behavioral change in the person receiving the subliminal suggestion without their awareness.

The idea that subliminal messages could cause a person to change what they are doing and cause them to do something different without their awareness is one that could be very dangerous and frightening for the everyday Joe. If those with the technology and the money could devise a way in which they could cause these subliminal behavioral changes in a person (or even in masses of people) then every man, woman, and child could be controlled to do anything, by anyone. Then again, perhaps a similar strategy has already been discovered, though not exactly like subliminal suggestion, and has been used on people to change their behavior according to the wants of another.

It is conceivably possible that many people have tried to subliminally change our behaviors but we will probably never know. There have been tests done to see if people would be affected by such subliminal suggestions. A study by Anthony Pratkins, Elliot Aronson, Jay Eskenazi, and Anthony Greenwald (cited in Pratkins and Aronson, 1992) looked at widely used self-help tapes, tapes that would subconsciously cause yourself to increase your memory capacity, and build self-esteem. Before they listened to the tapes, the subjects first took a self-esteem test and a memory test. Then they listened to the aforementioned tapes for an extended period of time. Afterward, they took similar tests to those they took before the experiment. According to the test results, none of the subjects had any significant change in their levels of self-esteem or memory. Yet if questioned, the person would agree that their self-esteem was improved, or that their memory was much better.

This adds another dimension to subliminal suggestion. These people knew that they were listening to tapes that had the potential to change their behavior, and in a positive way too. The subjects then wanted to believe in the effectiveness of the tapes, and thus they felt that the tapes did their job. (Pratkins and Aronson, 1992)

If subliminal messages are fraudulent then how are some people still having their behaviors changed due to information received on a subconscious level? Meaning, that people are subjected to different kinds of stimuli, not just messages intended for the subconscious mind, that could cause behavioral changes with their awareness. These other stimuli could be coming from psychological conditioning that could be occurring in society. In Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, the author suggested that advertising agencies were secretly using the principles of psychoanalysis to create successful and powerful advertisements. Different parts of a person's psyche were attacked with information so overpowering that the person succumbed to what was being presented to them and occasionally bought . Packard reduced the human consumer to a creature with eight influential needs or emotions, all exploitable by advertisers. These are emotional security, trust (in the advertiser), ego-gratification, creativity (of the consumer), love, power, family history, and immortality. Does the exploitation of these human qualities equal to the underhanded actions of subliminal messages?

Usage of the former is similar to the "hit them where it hurts" concept. Advertisers learned what appeals to the consumer and then they threw this at the consumer in different styles within the characteristics of our eight "needs," and so mercilessly that people were affected and behavior was probably changed too. This strategy on the part of the advertisers is clever and not all too immoral. People know what is happening to them as they watch their favorite advertisements on T.V., and it is usually their choice to succumb. Whereas with subliminal advertising the person is unaware and this can cause many moral questions. Also, subliminal messages used on a large scale can be dangerous.

This kind of advertising could be labeled as offensive advertising where the advertisers are taking the initiative, planning ways of attack, and just jumping right in with what they feel will cause the consumer to succumb to their selling point. Could this type of advertising be just as dangerous as subliminal advertising? Sometimes when an advertiser attacks our senses with what they want us to see time and time again, do we not change our behavior, and is this change always conscious? Thi s question affects they way propaganda is used in our society.

Propaganda has become to be known as the mass "suggestion" or influence through the manipulation of symbols and the psychology of the individual (Pratkins and Aronson, 1992). Propaganda was most widely studied for its potential usage during time of war to stir up homeland patronage among the people. One of the most remarkable users of propaganda was Adolph Hitler. What was most remarkable about Hitler's use of propaganda was his incredible success with the German people. He appealed to his struggling Germ an's and had them believe that they were a strong people, that their misery was not permanent, that it was the fault of the Jews, and that he will lead his people out of the bondage of poverty. Through the manipulation of the emotions of the people of Germany, Hitler lead them out of poverty and on to conquer more than half of Europe. That was an incredible step for the Germans, going from poor and insecure to believing that they were the only "true race." How did these people come to believe this?

Most likely it was because they wanted to. This notion ties in to what was earlier mentioned about how people want subliminal suggestion to work, and because they believed so strongly, it did (The Age of Propaganda, p.204). The attitude of the person greatly affects the reception of any information that may affect their behavior. This could be one reason why subliminal advertising was not very successful, that the subjects were not in the right state of mind. Possibly it is because of this, that subliminal advertising is not illegal in American advertising. People have come to recognize that for subliminal suggestion to work the person must be ready, and that the probability that the person is ready when the message is received is very small.

True subliminal suggestion, messages that change behaviors, has been show not to work most of the time. But there are other ways in which advertisers, and other people, have learned how to appeal to the human psyche and to change our behavior. And these other ways are almost as powerful, if not more powerful, than what people feared subliminal messages could do. Through propaganda and psychoanalysis, scientist, politicians, and advertisers are learning how to control our decisive minds even while we are aware. Why we let ourselves be changed is a matter that needs to be discussed by the individual. Apparently our minds are easily influenced by how certain things are presented to us. The impact of these things varies with how much we want to be affected. It is the advertisers job to make us want to change, and then he or she gives us what we can use to change ourselves.


Bibliography The Hidden Persuaders: Packard, Vance; David McKay Company Inc. New York, 1957

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Oct. 1997, Jae C Kwon, All rights reserved