Subliminal messages–messages that are processed by our brains but never reach our consciousness–really do influence attitudes and behavior, according to a new study.
However, some subliminal messages may have an opposite effect than expected. For example, exposing people to a subliminal image of a national flag moderates rather than intensifies their political attitudes.
Researchers from Hebrew University of Jerusalem Psychology Department say that their studies indicate that, in general, subliminal messages do indeed influence explicit attitudes and real-life political behavior — a significant extension to what we know about the effects of non-conscious processes.
The studies, led by cognitive scientist Dr. Ran Hassin show that the subliminal presentation of a national symbol affects not only political attitudes, but also voting intentions and actual voting in general elections.
In the present study, a team led by Hassin reported on a set of experiments that examined the effects of the subliminal presentation of the national flag. The experiments involved over 300 participants who were recruited on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.
In the first experiment, the Israeli participants, divided into two groups at random, were asked about their attitudes towards core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prior to answering these questions, half of them were exposed to subliminal images of the Israeli flag projected on a monitor and half of them were not. The results show that the former group tended to shift to the political center.
In other words, a brief presentation of the Israeli flag — so brief, that people didn’t even notice it — was sufficient to make people adopt more moderate views. Another experiment, that was conducted in the weeks that preceded the Israeli pullout from Gaza, replicated these results and reflected centrist views in relation to the withdrawal and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
The third experiment was held just prior to Israel’s last general elections. The results were identical. The subliminal presentation of Israel’s flag drew right wing, as well as left wing, Israelis towards the political center.
Crucially, participants who were subliminally exposed to the flag said they intended to vote for more central parties than those who had not been exposed to the subliminal message. The researchers then called the participants after the elections, and found out that people who were exposed to the flag indeed voted in a more moderate way.
Why this exposure to a national symbol should have what appears to be a surprising moderating effect remains yet to be studied and analyzed.
“I think these results are interesting for two reasons,” says Hassin. “First, they provide sound empirical evidence for the non-conscious ways in which national ideologies subtly affect our thoughts and behaviors. We are now extending this research to examine what other ideologies can do so and in what ways this is expressed. ”
“Secondly,” he continued, “these results significantly extend the empirical knowledge regarding the nature and influences of unconscious processes. We are now investigating the mental mechanisms that underlie this phenomenon, and I am confident that this journey will yield new insights to our understanding of the cognitive unconscious — and hence, of consciousness itself.”
It’s not clear from these experiments whether the results generalize to non-subliminal messages, or whether the messages work with other kinds of symbols, since only flags were studied in the current study. It’s also not clear whether such messages could generalized outside of politics, or what the long-term effects and impact of these messages might be. It’s also not clear whether the messages translate into actual action, days or weeks after being exposed.
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Source: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem