Subliminalpersuasion009.pdf

Subliminalpersuasion009.pdf - What Every Skeptic Should...

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Unformatted text preview: What Every Skeptic Should Know About Subliminal Persuasion > Classic research by cognitive and social psychologists suggests that suhliminally presented stimuli can he perceived and can influence individuals’ low—level cognitions. More recent investigations suggest that such stimuli can also afiéct individuals’ high-level cognitive processes, including attitudes, prefirences, judgments, and even their behavior. NICHOLAS EPLEY, KENNETH SAVITSKY, and ROBERT A. KACHELSKI The report of my death was an exaggeration. —Mark Twain, in a note to the New York journal, June 1, 1897 eaders of the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER are well Racquainted with instances of mismatch between pop— ular belief and scientific evidence. Despite an utter lack of scientific support, for example, many individuals place a great deal of belief in such topics as astrology (Carlson 1985; Dean 1987), facilitated communication (Dillon 1993; Mulick, Jacobson, and Kobe 1993), homeopathy (Barrett 1987), alien abductions (Carlsburg 1995; Randles 1993; Turner 1994) and even Elvis sightings (Moody 1987). 40 September/October 1999 SKEPTICAL INQUIRER Issues such as these are “slam dunks” for skeptics: There can be little reconciling such beliefs with evidence that simply does not exrst. In other cases, though, where there is some scientific support on which to pin one’s belief, there may still be more belief than is warranted. Graphologists, for example, who use samples of individuals’ handwriting to determine enduring aspects of their personalities, consistently claim greater predictive validity than can be supported empirically (Nevo 1986; Scanlon and Mauro 1992). Some might argue the same for ESP, for which some evidence might actually exist (Bem and I-Ionorton 1994; but see Hyman 1994). It is in domains such as these that the skeptic’s role is more subtle, but just as important. One key aspect of this role is to deter- mine what the available scien- tific evidence does and does not support. With this in mind, our purpose here is to explore the psychological research on subliminal persua- sion, an area in which popular belief may again outstrip avail- able evidence. Subliminal persuasion refers to the use of sublimi- nally presented stimuli, or messages presented to individ— uals beneath their level of con- scious awareness, that are intended to influence their attitudes, choices, or actions. Not surprisingly, reports that unscrupulous marketers were using this technique to influ— ence consumer behavior have historically prompted alarm (Cousins 1957; Key 1980). Yet, as many writers have suggested, such panic is probably unwar- ranted: There is simply no good evidence to support the con— clusion that subliminal messages implanted in advertisements can exert an influence over whether one drinks Coke or Pepsi, endorses a particular viewpoint, or votes for candidate X over candidate Y (Moore 1988; Pratkanis and Greenwald 1988; Trappey 1996; Vokey and Read 1985). Or is there? We will explore why the notion of subliminal persuasion might not be as far—fetched as some have supposed. Our point of departure, in particular. is an article appearing in the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER in 1992 by Anthony Pratkanis (see also Moore 1992). In his article, Pratkanis traced the historical roots of the belief in the powers of the unconscious, nicely debunked James Vicary’s famous “Eat Popcorn/ Drink Coke" hoax, and described the compelling results of some of his own research on the ineflectiveness ofsubliminal self—help audio tapes. Still, for all its strengths, we believe the Pratkanis article. and others like it, may have left readers with an incomplete picture. of the state of the art regarding subliminal presentation of sum- uli. Accordingly, we endeavor to acquaint readers of the. SKEP'I‘ICAL INQUIRER with the varied (and thriving) use ofsuby liminally presented stimuli in cognitive and social psychologié . cal research. Specifically, we review evidence suggesting that cognition can occur without conscious awareness, and thatthis unconscious cognition can be affected by subliminal stimuli, thereby influencing individuals’ judgments, attitudes, and even their behavior. Indeed, this recent evidence suggesting that sub- liminal stimuli can influence behavior gives us pause in contemplating the possible effectiveness of subliminal persuasion in advertising. Clarifying Ambiguities . I The exact meaning of “sub- liminal” has been a source of controversy and confusion for’ decades. A common defini- tion, however, is that a stimu- lus is subliminal (that is, below threshold) if it cannot be veré ' bally identified (e.g., Cheesman and Merikle 1986; Fowler 1986, Greenwald and Draine 1997). The threshold used in this definition is that of conscious awareness, some- times called a suly'ective thresh— old (Cheesman and Merikle 1986). This definition, of course, allows for the possibil— ity that an individual perceives that some material was pre- sented, but requires that its exaCt nature be unidentifiable. Nearly all of the studies we review use this definition, while the remaining adhere to a more conservative one: that individuals be unable to report even the presence of the stimulus. Furthermore, there is a critical distinction to be made between subliminal perception and subliminal persuasion. Subliminal perception refers simply to the perception of stim— uli that are below the threshold of conscious awareness.‘ Subliminal persuasion, on the other hand, requires that the subliminally presented stimulus have some efléct, not simply on an individual's judgments, but on his or her attitudes or behav- ior. As others have noted, subliminal perception need not imply subliminal persuasion (e.g., Moore 1988). — Nicholas Epley is a doctoral student in social psychology at Cornell University. Kenneth Sauitsky is assistant profissor of social psychol— ogy at Williams College. Robert A. Kac/oeltki is visiting assistant professor of cognitive psychology at W/illiams College. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER September/October1999 41 1 In this article, we restrictour discussion of subliminally pre- sented stimuli to only those methods that are well supported by research evidence. Thus, audio self-help tapes with subliminal suggestions to “lose weight” or “be assertive" are not consid— ered, nor are “backmasked” messages hidden in recorded music, or instances of messages embedded within pictures (such as the word “sex” airbrushed onto ice cubes or Riu crack— ers). Research has shown convincingly that none of these meth— ods is eEective (Greenwald, Spangenberg, Pratkanis, and Eskenazi 1991; Moore 1982, 1988; Pratkanis 1992; Pratkanis and Greenwald 1988;Thorne and Himelstein 1984; Vokey and Read 1985). We focus instead on subliminal visual priming techniques, whereby stimuli are presented very quickly, and are typically followed immediately by a “pattern mask," such as a geometric shape or a series of random letters. This mask is intended to disrupt the individual’s conscious processing of the stimuli—a bit like immersing pasta in cold water to halt the cooking process.‘ Unconscious Processing: Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind Ask people to name a psychologist and there is disappointingly little variation in their answers. Virtually all of them name Sigmund Freud (with Dr. Joyce Brothers and TVs Frasier Crane running a distant second and third). Many people might be surprised to learn, then, that contemporary psychology bears little resemblance, either in substance or in methodology, to the work of Freud (Stanovich 1992). That said, at least one idea often attributed to Freud—the unconscious—has made a comeback in contemporary cognitive and social psychology (Bornstein and Pittman 1992; Cohen and Schooler 1997; Erdelyi 1996; Greenwald 1992; Kihlstrom 1987; Uleman and Bargh 1989). Modern psychologists do not subscribe to all of Freud's notions regarding the unconscious; instead, the term refers simply to those mental processes that occur without con— scious monitoring or guidance. Viewed in this way, the uncon— scious figures prominently in many contemporary psychologi— cal theories (Greenwald and Banaji 1995; Wegner 1994). For example, numerous studies have shown that some memories that cannot be recalled consciously may nevertheless exert influence on a variety of mental processes (Schacter 1987). Others have noted that stereotypes can be readily applied with— out any conscious effort or awareness (Gilbert and Hixon 1991; Spencer, Fein, Wolfe, Fong, and Dunn 1998). Indeed, stereotypes seem to be most readily applied at those times when one's conscious capacities are the most limited (Bodenhausen 1990; Bodenhausen and Lichtenstein 1987; Macrae, Milne, and Bodenhausen 1994). Furthermore, the causal determinants of behavior—why we do what we do—can also be unavailable to conscious aware— ness. People are notoriously poor at articulating the true causes of their actions and recognizing the importance of critical causal stimuli (Nisbett and \Vllson 1977). In one experiment, participants were given a sentence-completion task containing a number of words related to the elderly (e.g., old, wire, retired). 42 September/October1999 SKEPTICAL INQUIRER Later, after the experiment had ostensibly ended, these individ— uals walked more slowly to the elevator than participants in a control group, as if they had internalized the concept of “elderly." None of them showed any recognition of their decreased walking speed or of the high frequency of words related to the elderly in the sentence-completion task (nor could the effect be attributed to other plausible alternative fac- tors, such as depressed mood). The result, concluded the researchers, was a direct effect of unconscious processing on behavior (Bargh, Chen, and Burrows 1996).3 Thus, ample evidence attests to the fact that much of what goes on in the mind is unavailable to conscious awareness. Note, however, that the “elderly words" experiment, as well as the research on stereotype activation, used stimuli that were, or could have been, consciously perceived. Since this article’s primary concern is the influence of subliminal stimuli, we turn to whether subliminally presented stimuli can actually be perceived, while still remaining unavailable to conscious awareness. ' We believe that the research literature leaves little doubt that the answer is yes. Many researchers have reported, for example, that words presented‘ subliminally an influence subsequent judgments. Dixon (1981, see also Epley 1998a) found that par- ticipants given a subliminal prime (e.g., the word pencil) were faster than those who had not seen the prime to later identify a related word (e.g., write). Likewise, Marcel (1983) found that participants’ identification of a color on a computer screen was facilitated when it was preceded subliminally by the name of the color, but was delayed when preceded by the name of a dif— ferent color. Although these early studies have been criticized on methodological grounds (Holender 1986; Merikle 1982), similar effects have been found using methodologies developed to address these criticisms (Greenwald Draine, and Abrams 1996; Greenwald and Draine 1997; Merikle and Joordens 1997). In all, dozens of studies using implicit tests of perception now attest to the fact that subliminally presented stimuli can be perceived (for reviews, see Bornstein and Pittman 1992; Greenwald 1992). But can they persuade? Ghosts In the Machine: Subliminal Influences on Cognition For many, the Eiffel Tower is a beloved symbol of Paris. But this was not always true. When the structure was built in 1889, it was despised by many—some Parisians even advocated its destruction (Harrison 1977). Likewise, popular reactions to new artistic movements that are now cherished, from Impressionist painting to rock and roll music, were initially negative (Sabini 1995). How can these changes of heart be understood? One answer has been proposed by Robert Zajonc (1968), who suggests that “mere exposure” leads to liking: The more one sees something, the more one comes to like it. Thus, the more times people were exposed to the Eiffel Tower, paintings by Monet and Renoir, and the music of Elvis and the Beatles, the more ...;_...,‘6 positive their evaluations became. Experiments have demonstrated that this mere exposure effect is reliable, and, furthermore, that the phenomenon does not depend on one’s conscious awareness of the exposure. In one study using subliminal stimuli, for example, participants were shown several irregular polygons for one millisecond, five times each. In a subsequent phase of the study, they were given pairs of figures, one that had been flashed to them previously and one they had never seen. Participants were then asked to make two judgments: which one had they seen before, and which est/dishonest, moral/immoral) after subliminal exposure to a .. picture of the pope, but not after exposure to the adviser, photograph used in the first study. Moreover, this was true only 3 for participants who indicated that they practiced their religion . regularly (Baldwin et al. 1991). This suggests that the effect of subliminal stimuli can be quite complex, mediated here by the personal relevance of the stimuli. In all, these studies serve to demonstrate that subliminal Subliminal persuasion requires that the one did they liked better, Although they subliminally presented stimulus have some effect, were unable to determine which figure they had seen (these guesses did not depart reli- ably from a chance base—rate of 50 percent), participants did show an increased liking for the familiar shapes, preferring them 60 per- cent of the time (Kunst-VVilson and Zajonc 1980; see also Epley 1998b; Seamon, Marsh, and Brody 1984). Other experiments have broadened the generalizability of this result. In one study, participants were subliminally exposed to a photograph of one of two males who posed as research sub— jects. Later, when participants engaged in a task with both con- federates that involved several scripted disagreements between the two, they sided more often with the one whose picture they had previously seen, and also reported liking that individual more than his counterpart (Bernstein et al. 1987). Mere expo— sure evidently leads to liking, even when that exposure is beneath the level of conscious awareness.‘ In other research, experimenters have shown that subliminal exposure to words related to various personality traits can influ- ence how people judge others around them. In particular, expo— sure to words related to hostility (Bargh and Pietromonaco 1982), kindness, and shyness (Bargh, Bond, Lombardi, and Tota 1986) have been found to produce corresponding personality judgments (i.e., rating others as hostile, kind, or shy). Other investigators have demonstrated that subliminal exposure to pleasant and unpleasant photographs can also affect how target individuals are judged (Krosnick, Berz, Jussim, and Lynn 1992). Subliminally presented stimuli can also affect judgments about the self, a point made in one of our favorite experiments in this literature. Psychology graduate students were asked to write down three of their ideas for possible research projects. They were then either exposed to a photograph of a familiar postdoctoral student from their laboratory or of the scowling face of their faculty advisor. Unaware that they had seen any— thing but flashes of light, the students were then asked to rate the quality of the research ideas they had listed. As predicted, those who had been exposed to the scowling face of their advi- sor rated their own ideas less favorably than did those who had been exposed to the smiling postdoc (Baldwin, Carrel, and Lopez 1991). A follow-up experiment by the same authors makes a simi- lar point. Catholic undergraduate women rated themselves more negatively on a series of trait adjective scales (e.g., hon— not simply on an individual's judgments, but on his or her attitudes or behavior. As others have noted, subliminal perception need not imply subliminal persuasion. stimuli can influence high—level cognitive processes, including preferences for geometric shapes, liking of individuals, personal- ity judgments, and ratings of one’s self-concept. Of course, to be of any use in a consumer context, these effects must go further. In addition to altering a consumer’s attitudes, a marketer desires to affect his or her behavior. (It is not enough that one likes Pepsi, one has to buy some!) And as students of social psychol— ogy know, one need not follow from the other: There is often less correspondence between individuals’ attitudes and behav- iors than one might expect-(LaPiere 1934; Regan and Fazio 1977; cher 1969). Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to doc- ument instances in which subliminally presented stimuli influ- ence individuals’ behavior. Such influence has only recently been documented, and only a handful of supportive experi- ments exist. Nevertheless, we find these experiments interesting and compelling. A full accounting of the possibility (or impos- sibility) of subliminal advertising warrants their consideration. Subliminal Influences on Behavior Can subliminally presented stimuli influence behavior? Recent investigations suggest that the answer may be yes. For example, Neuberg (1988) has argued that subliminally presented stimuli can influence behavior indirectly, by way of activating concepts that can influence the way individuals interpret the behavior of others. These interpretations, then, can lead individuals to opt for certain behavioral responses. For example, if the concept of hostility were activated subliminally, and caused individuals to “read" hostility into the behavior of others, these individuals might then choose to adopt a hostile course of action them- selves. Though such an indirect effect is a far cry from the mindlessly acquiescent behavior conjured by the words “sub— liminal advertising," it nonetheless would represent an instance of subliminally presented stimuli affecting behavior. To test this hypothesis, Neuberg confronted participants with a “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” an exercise in which individuals must choose to either cooperate or compete with another participant (Luce and Raiifa 1957). Before choosing, participants completed SKEPTICAL INQUIRER September/October 1999 43 questionnaires designed to assess their proclivity toward cooper- ation versus competition, and were exposed subliminally to either neutral words (e.g., house, water, sound) or competition- related words (e.g., hostile, adversary, cutthroat). Although the primes did n0t influence the behavior of those with a coopera— tive orientation, participants predisposed to compete did so to a grcater extent when they were exposed to competitive words than when exposed to neutral words (Neuberg 1988). More recently, Bargh and collcagucs have provided even Finally, direct evidence of subliminal influences on behavior is also surfacing from neuropsychologists who are taking advan- tage of recent advances in brain imaging. For example, after participants have learned to respond to an odd number with their right hand and an even number with their left, the sub- liminal presentation of a number (odd or even) produces corti- cal activation in the corresponding hemisphere of the brain (left or right). This activation is located in the motor cortex, the arca of the brain that controls movement (Dehaene et al. 1998). These experiments raise more questions, Experimenters'have shown that subliminal exposure than theY answer. What mcdy are the to words related to various personality traits can influence how people judge others around them. mechanisms that allow subliminally pre- sented stimuli to influence behavior? Is the process indirect, as Neuberg (1988) argues, direct and unmediated, as Bargh and col- _In particular, exposure to words related to hostility, league, (1996) man-main, 0, both? In...
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