Subliminal politics and the art of deceptive influence

This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.

Any psychologist will tell you that, despite our best efforts, there’s really no such thing as multitasking – at least not in the way we use the term.

Our brains may be parallel processors, but we can only consciously focus on one thing at a time.  What we consider to be multitasking in fact entails flipping our focus back and forth from one thing to another, one task at a time.

Because of this, the vast majority of what we sense does not make it into our conscious perception. Less-than-crucial sensory inputs, ranging from the hum of your air conditioner to the background colors of the Burger King commercial on TV, go unnoticed without a conscious effort to focus our attention on them (apologies to readers who are now hearing their air conditioners). But just because we don’t turn our attention to these inputs doesn’t mean they aren’t processed. Whether you noticed or not, your brain processes the sound of your air conditioning unit and the background color of the commercial.

Manipulating that which is sensed but not perceived has yielded striking results in terms of human behavior. From flashing images on a screen for unnoticeable amounts of time (between 40 and 200 milliseconds), to varying the tone of words one is exposed to, unconscious activation of different mental themes can have profound impacts on behavior.

Malcolm Gladwell explains word-exposure priming:

Studies using word exposure have further shown that political ideologies dealing with individualism versus collectivism can be manipulated, moving self-identified capitalists towards interdependent values, and vice versa.

Evidence from on-screen priming is striking as well. Experimental participants who are instructed to stare at a screen, and discriminate “words” from “not-words,” will identify words that are subconsciously primed with a similar word more quickly than they otherwise would (the word “flower” is more quickly identified as a word when “rose” is flashed on the screen first; the same prime has no effect when identifying an unrelated word, such as “gun”). Similar experiments have shown that primes can effect our ability to associate words as “good” or “bad.” For example, it would take longer for me to identify “sunshine” as good if it were primed with a word like “cancer,” and vice versa.

But this does this have any bearing on politics? Would it have a tangible effect on behavior if political words or figures were primed with positive or negative words?

The Republican Party certainly thinks so:

Did you see it? If not, start the video again at 0:20 and look for the word “RATS.” It flashes very quickly. I grabbed a screen shot below – it took a few tries.

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 10.33.23 PM

The RNC dismissed accusations of “subliminal advertising” in this spot as a production error and dismissed the notion that such advertising would be effective in the first place, but a laboratory replication of the ad (using “RATS” as the prime and “STAR,” the reverse, as a control) showed that the prime did significantly reduce participants’ opinion of a hypothetical presidential candidate. In short, unconscious activation of “good” and “bad” mental cues can have significant effects on our short-term political attitudes.

How far do the implications of priming research extend? Should we simply take it as a given that we are influenced by our environment in ways that we aren’t fully aware of? Is there anything we can do about it? In my next post, I’ll address the Polling Place Priming Effect, which shows how where we vote can have a tangible effect on how we vote.


Jon Green is a senior Political Science major and Public Policy concentrator at Kenyon College. He is also the co-editor in chief of the Kenyon Observer, the school's student-run political journal. Jon worked as a field organizer for Tom Perriello in 2010 and recently returned to AMERICAblog from the Obama campaign, where he was a Deputy Regional Field Director based in Hampton, Virginia. He writes on a variety of topics but pays particularly close attention to elections, political psychology and the use of social media. Jon on Google+, and his .

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  • pappyvet

    I dont believe that this would fall under any subliminal advertising rules,they may be able for the moment to get away with it because this is not strictly an advertisement. Would love to hear what the makers have to say. Could be a crack they managed to slide through.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    There are no U.S. federal laws against it, but the FCC and BATF have regulations that do prohibit the use of subliminal advertising. And some industry self-regulatory organizations (such as film making) have also banned it. On the other hand, there haven’t been any prosecutions in years, and such cases usually just result in an order to stop doing it, never any monetary fines.

  • E in Munich

    Are subliminal messages actually legal in advertising? I thought this type of messaging was banned decades ago due – prompted by subliminal messages in advertisments in movie theaters. As a second question, how easy is it to identify these subliminal messages in a given video segment? I’d be curious if it is being used here in Europe too.

  • condew

    Are there any studies about how long the priming effect lasts? The video relates an incident where it lasted more than the 10 minutes of the test. How about days or weeks?

    This reminds me of a New-Age technique I think is called “mapping”, which encourages people to make a collage of images of their goals, aspirations, and things that make them happy and put it where they encounter it every day.

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