By Alyson Rich
Fiction: there is no satisfying scientific support for the idea that subliminal messaging can manipulate people. Subliminal messaging refers to the brain receiving information below the “limen”, or our conscious awareness threshold. The information is meant to embed itself in the mind to alter behavior. People often attempt to quit smoking through listening to motivational tapes while they sleep, in the hopes that hearing “you do not need to smoke” will penetrate their subconscious mind and make it so that they no longer have the urge to smoke. Unfortunately, this method is not consistently helpful in kicking the habit. Resulting shifts in behavior are mostly due to the expectation of a positive result.
This myth originated from a 1957 “study” conducted by a market researcher named James Vicary. Vicary said that he had introduced several messages telling viewers in a movie theater in New Jersey to buy popcorn and Coca-Cola. These messages only appeared on screen for 1/3000th of a second, so none of the viewers were aware of these messages. That is when Vicary coined the term “subliminal messaging”.
Vicary’s work can only be referenced as a “study” in quotations because he falsified data to prove his hypothesis that these subliminal messages could alter behavior. Later studies revealed that subliminal messages had no, or very little, effect on controlling viewers. Unfortunately, the idea had already become very popular before this was discovered. Publishers during the 1950s – 1970s detailed how advertisers could benefit from subliminal messaging, and these reports were taken so seriously that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) actually felt the need to ban subliminal advertising in 1974.
If subliminal messages have any effect at all – and there is a lot of controversy over whether they do – they would act as nudges to behavior, not eliciting any radical alterations.
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