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Key to subliminal messaging: keep it negative, study suggests

Sept. 28, 2009
Courtesy Wellcome Trust
and World Science staff

Sub­lim­i­nal mes­sag­ing is most ef­fec­tive when the mes­sage be­ing con­veyed is neg­a­tive, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

Sub­lim­i­nal im­ages – that is, im­ages shown so briefly that a view­er does­n’t con­sciously no­tice them – have long been the sub­ject of con­tro­ver­sy, par­tic­u­larly in the ad­ver­tis­ing field. Stud­ies have hinted that peo­ple can un­con­sciously pick up on sub­lim­i­nal in­forma­t­ion in­tend­ed to pro­voke an emo­tion­al re­sponse, but lim­ita­t­ions in the de­signs of the stud­ies have meant that the con­clu­sions weren’t con­sid­ered de­fin­i­tive.

A new study by Nilli Lavie of Un­ivers­ity Col­lege Lon­don and col­leagues, in­di­cates that peo­ple can pro­cess emo­tion­al in­forma­t­ion from sub­lim­i­nal im­ages and that in­forma­t­ion of “neg­a­tive val­ue” is bet­ter de­tected than in­forma­t­ion of “pos­i­tive val­ue.”

Lavie’s team showed 50 par­ti­ci­pants words on a com­put­er screen. Each word ap­peared on-screen for only a frac­tion of sec­ond – at times only a fif­ti­eth, much too fast for view­ers to con­sciously read. The words were ei­ther pos­i­tive, such as “cheer­ful,” “flow­er” and “peace”; neg­a­tive, such as “agony,” “de­spair” and “mur­der”; or neu­tral, such as “box,” “ear” or “ket­tle.” 

Af­ter each word, par­ti­ci­pants were asked to de­cide wheth­er the word was neu­tral, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, even if they had to just “guess.” Par­ti­ci­pants were found to an­swer most ac­cu­rately when re­spond­ing to neg­a­tive words – even when they be­lieved they were merely guess­ing.

“Clearly, there are ev­o­lu­tion­ary ad­van­tages to re­spond­ing rap­idly to emo­tion­al in­forma­t­ion,” said Lavie. “We can’t wait for our con­sciousness to kick in if we see some­one run­ning to­wards us with a knife or if we drive un­der rainy or fog­gy weath­er con­di­tions and see a sign warn­ing ‘dan­ger.’”

Lavie said the re­search may have im­plica­t­ions for the use of sub­lim­i­nal mar­ket­ing to con­vey mes­sages, both for ad­ver­tis­ing and pub­lic serv­ice an­nounce­ments such as safe­ty cam­paigns.

“Nega­tive words may have more of a rap­id im­pact,” she ex­plained. “‘Kill your speed’ should be more no­ticeable than ‘Slow down’. More con­tro­ver­sially, high­light­ing a com­peti­tor’s neg­a­tive qual­i­ties may work on a sub­lim­i­nal lev­el much more ef­fec­tively than shout­ing about your own sell­ing points.”

The findings were pub­lished Sept. 27 in the re­search jour­nal Emo­tion.


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Subliminal messaging is most effective when the message being conveyed is negative, according to new research funded by the Wellcome Trust. Subliminal images – in other words, images shown so briefly that a viewer doesn’t consciously notice them – have long been the subject of controversy, particularly in the advertising field. Previous studies have already hinted that people can unconsciously pick up on subliminal information intended to provoke an emotional response, but limitations in the designs of the studies have meant that the conclusions weren’t considered definitive. A new study by Nilli Lavie of University College London and colleagues, indicates that people can process emotional information from subliminal images and that information of “negative value” is better detected than information of “positive value.” Lavie’s team showed 50 participants words on a computer screen. Each word appeared on-screen for only a fraction of second – at times only a fiftieth, much too fast for viewers to consciously read. The words were either positive, such as “cheerful,” “flower” and “peace”; negative, such as “agony,” “despair” and “murder”; or neutral, such as “box,” “ear” or “kettle.” After each word, participants were asked to decide whether the word was neutral, positive or negative, even if they had to just “guess.” Participants were found to answer most accurately when responding to negative words – even when they believed they were merely guessing. “Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information,” said Lavie. “We can’t wait for our consciousness to kick in if we see someone running towards us with a knife or if we drive under rainy or foggy weather conditions and see a sign warning ‘danger.’“ Lavie said the research may have implications for the use of subliminal marketing to convey messages, both for advertising and public service announcements such as safety campaigns. “Negative words may have more of a rapid impact,” she explains. “‘Kill your speed’ should be more noticeable than ‘Slow down’. More controversially, highlighting a competitor’s negative qualities may work on a subliminal level much more effectively than shouting about your own selling points.” The research was published Sept. 27 in the research journal Emotion.