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Subliminal priming – fact or fiction?

Updated 10/22/14 to for better clarity!

We’ve all heard crazy ideas behind subliminal advertising – hidden messages stuck inside a film that influence your purchasing behavior, and other strange ideas like that. Being the skeptic that I am, I want to deny such an idea. However, I would be quite wrong in this case. Let’s keep in mind that subliminal priming is actually limited in what it can do, but it is definitely something that occurs!

First we will look at how it can occur, then we shall discuss how it has been tested in one advertising experiment.

Can behavior be influenced without our knowledge?

Yes, and yes. Recall my first post about the dual process memory, and we can recall that memory stored through the basal ganglia is not something we can pull into our working memory. This means we cannot mentally review our procedural memories consciously. For example, we can’t really recall our muscle memories, we just understand the situations were they were learned.  Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) devised a clever way of influencing people’s behavior by activating their stereotype constructs. In Social Psychology, construct is a term used to describe a cluster of information related to a particular topic – thus my construct for what makes a sports car is “loud, fast, red, convertible” even though that is not what defines a sports car in reality.

Individuals were brought into a lab asked to play a word game in one version of this study. The word game required individuals to construct a grammatically correct sentence as fast as possible. For the experimental group, the word game looked something like this, “lived he Florida in.” And most people would make that sentence read, “He lived in Florida.”  For the control group, they may see something like, “lived he home at,” which would unscramble to, “he lived at home.” The strange thing is that Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) made all of the experimental group’s stimuli related to the “elderly” stereotype. So all of the experimental group’s word scrambles would involve the words like, “retirement, ancient, Florida,” and so on.

Next, participants left the room, walked down a hallway, and entered another area. Researchers timed how long it took the participant to walk down the hallway.

When researchers asked the subjects if their behavior had been altered by the presence of the words they viewed, none of them said it had. When in fact, most of the people in the experimental group did walk slower. This seems like a minor detail, but the fact of the matter is that it works consistently outside of our notice. Thus the procedural memory is picking up on the activation of the construct and using it to influence our behavior.

How can advertisers use priming?

Strahan, Spencer, and Zanna (2002) showed how an advertiser may attempt to influence our behaviors, but with limited success. The authors found when people were ready to engage with a behavior, subliminal priming could be used to further encourage that behavior. For example, if your friend was hungry, and you kept mentioning the types of foods you liked, they would become more hungry as a result. While this is certainly simplistic as an example, the way it is done is quite tricky.

The experimenters instructed the participants to come to their testing area without having anything to drink a few hours prior to this study. They took a simple computer based test, but between each question the experimental group was primed with a word which was related to thirst – such as desert, sun, summer, dehydration, etc. The control group saw subliminal words that had nothing related to thirst. After the priming task, each participant would eat a few cookies for a supposed taste test.

After trying to cookies, the participants were allowed to drink some fruit punch which was provided by the experimenter. The experimenters measured how much punch each participant drank.

Keep in mind, the participants could not drink for hours prior to this study, now they were having to eat cookies, thus they should be quite thirsty. Also, the experimental group was being primed to be even more thirsty, so the question is – did they drink more than the control group?

Yes they did. Let’s look at this crazy situation again.

When you take a group of thirsty people, expose them to a situation where they will be made more thirsty (eating cookies),while exposing them to subliminal priming which encourages thirst, they will indeed consume more drink than the control group.

How this could be used?

If you are standing in the lobby of a movie theater and you are not sure if you want to buy some popcorn, an add can be made that could encourage your consumption in general. As you smell the popcorn, and you start to believe you may want some, this advertisement may push your to making the decision. However, if you did not want popcorn at all, this advertisement would be ineffective.

That said, priming does not serve to change your mind, it just pushes you towards things you probably already want to do in the first place!


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