What Is Subliminal Perception In Psychology?

Hey there,

Basically, this term comes from two words

Sub meaning “low” and limen, a latin word which means “threshold” . So basically, it means low threshold. Subliminal perception can be defined as to an occuring where a stimulus is too weak to be perceived yet a person is influenced by it.

This answer originally appeared on this Quora question on Subliminal Messages.

Subliminal Perception

The text:

Hello Psych 100 students and welcome to our subliminal perception short lecture. We’re just gonna take a few minutes to sort of explain what subliminal perception is. Really to put it in a nutshell, subliminal perception is perceiving a stimulus outside of your awareness. In other words, it’s the idea that some type of stimulus can affect our behavior when it’s subtle or brief or in other words we don’t perceive it consciously.

So can these messages be detected by the brain outside of our awareness? So what we’re going to do is look at some research and to kind of set the record straight here. It turns out there’s a lot of misconceptions about this. Let’s take a look at our research. We’re going to start off sort of discussing what we think it cannot do contrary to popular belief. So what subliminal perception cannot do according to the research.

Number one it does not affect consumer behavior. In other words, if we expose subjects to a subliminal message directing them to purchase a product or change their behavior in this sense, we have found that it does not hold up. For example, let’s say you’re at the movie theater and in between the trailers at the beginning of the show they flash on the screen a message which says “Buy Coke”. This message is flashed so quickly that you don’t remember seeing it.

We are talking a fraction of a fraction of a second. And yet at some level you may have detected it is what they’re saying would you actually be more likely go to the concession stand and buy a soda or some similar product? We’re finding the answer is no. So they have done this with subjects and they’ve discovered that this does not affect their behavior in terms of buying products. OK what if we expose you to some type of evil message directing you to do something unthinkable would this person be influence to do that? Remember we’re saying subliminally we would expose them to some type of message. Once again the research is saying no. As an example, back in the 70s, so this is before most of your time, a lot of these rock stars were putting these backwards messages in their songs, so backward messages.

So in other words you would listen to the song forward but it’s really playing the message backwards and thus it makes it subliminal. The famous rumor was Led Zeppelin, one of the most famous rock bands of all time, in my opinion one of the greatest, uh in their song “Stairway to Heaven” there was a section supposedly where they would put some kind a message in there in their lyrics where it would be played backwards and yet at some level that you would be able to hear it. So you hear about all these rumors that bands were doing this and advertisers and so forth but once again when we actually research this stuff we have found that it is simply not true. OK so what about those help self help tapes? In other words you buy this audio recording and then it supposedly helps you to lose weight, or quit smoking, because you’re exposed to subliminal messages. So the book talks about a study where they obtained two of these recordings. The first recording supposedly helped improve your self esteem and the second video these manufacturers claimed that it would improve your memory. So the psychologists got a hold of both of these recordings and it’s very important to understand that they actually switched the labels on these recordings and had subjects listen to those. So one group listen to the “Self esteem” one group listen to the “Memory”.

After a period of time, whatever was recommended in terms of listening to that, they then measured the subjects and what do you know? The Self esteem group showed an improvement as well as the Memory group in memory. The problem is, is that because the labels were switched they were actually listening to the wrong tape but they found gains in areas where the label said they should. So what we think is happening with these recordings is that we think it’s more due to your expectations. Because this recording says it’s going to improve your memory and you’ve invested in it you’ve purchased this, you spent money we think that because of those strong expectations it may be guiding the subject in that direction.

So in other words, they may work but we don’t think it is due to subliminal messages. We think it’s more due to the expect expectations of the subjects. So the book is a great description of that particular study. Make sure you check that out.

Next we are going to go to what it can do. So we do have some evidence that there are subtle affects on responding. So keep in mind they are small and the research studies are mixed. But we do see some effects. So the book does cover this, but I’m just going to give you one study here. In this particular experiment, they sat people in front of a computer screen or something and exposed them to words subliminally.

In other words, the words may have been flashed very quickly to the point where the person did not remember seeing anything but theoretically subliminally they detected it. So one of the words happened to be “Tree”. After they were exposed to those words, they then gave them what we call word stems. Which is like a little worksheet. And they had to fill in the blank. So they asked the subject what is the first word that comes to mind that starts with L? What do you know? The number one response was “leaf”. So in other words, of all the L words they could’ve come up with They came up with the word directly tied to one of the words they were exposed to.

So they’re saying that maybe evidence that subliminally they did detect the word “tree” and it influenced their thinking and guided them to think of the word “leaf”. So I will let you make up your mind if you agree that is evidence of subliminal perception. Remember not every study shows this, so that makes me kind of skeptical. And the ones that do show effects they tend to be very small if anything. So it appears that there is some research, but it is pretty weak. All right so this will conclude our short lecture on subliminal perception. Please go onto the next video or step in the process…

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