Unconsciously Persuaded

17.05.2016 |

Episode #9 of the course The psychology of persuasion by Jake Teeny


According to a researcher in the late 1950s, entering the words “Eat Popcorn” into a film for 1/24th of a second—a speed faster than conscious awareness—increased popcorn sales by 60%. However, even though the researcher came clean a couple years later and admitted that he had fabricated the entire dataset, the damage was done:

The U.S. government had banned the use of all subliminal persuasion.

However, even though his data were phony, decades of subsequent research actually demonstrated the effect; that is, stimuli occurring below our conscious awareness can influence us in tangible ways. Such an assertion just needs to be highly qualified.

First, the effects of subliminal persuasion primarily occur for things you have no pre-established attitude toward. For example, while you could use the subliminal flashing of words (like “good” or “love”) to make people more positive toward a novel Pokémon character, such subtle persuasion would be unlikely to influence someone on a familiar topic (like a presidential candidate).

Second, when researchers have shown the effects of subliminal persuasion, they’ve only done so in the lab (i.e., without distractions) and with lots of repetitions. That is, simply receiving a subliminal stimulus once won’t do the trick; you have to have it flashed dozens and dozens of times before there are consequential effects.

And third, the influence of such subliminal persuasion is typically restricted to more basic “feelings” rather than “thoughts.” For example, flashing “McDonalds” multiple times beneath your subconscious won’t make you more likely to eat at McDonalds; however, it will make you report feeling hungry—and if McDonalds is one of the first options available (versus just getting something from the fridge), you’ll be more likely to go there.

In summary, the effects of subliminal persuasion aren’t really that impactful in the real world. However, what’s known as indirect persuasion is.

Indirect persuasion refers to being persuaded on one topic and then having it affect your attitude on something related but categorically different. For example, researchers used strong persuasive arguments to convince university students they should change the school’s color to green.

And while the researchers succeeded at making students more positive toward the color green, it also made them more positive toward Heineken, a beer known for its green bottle.

Because topics are so interconnected in our minds, persuasion on one attitude often influences another. For example, researchers were able to persuade people to have more favorable attitudes toward equality, which (indirectly) made them more favorable toward Affirmative Action.

In regards to all kinds of incidental persuasion like this, paying attention to why you feel the way you do and why you believe the things you do can help counter any factors subtly influencing you. However, as you’ll learn in the final lesson of this course, there are some things so ingrained in us that persuasion in these areas is nearly always successful.

Although subconscious persuasion isn’t always successful, there are other tricks of the subconscious that can be valuable.


Recommended book:

“The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence” by Philip G. Zimbardo, Michael R. Leippe


Share with friends