I’ve recently been watching illusionist Derren Brown’s latest TV series, in which he uses subliminal messaging and suggestion to influence people’s actions. He’ll probably be interested to read about some recent research showing that subliminal images are most effective if they carry a negative message.
Subliminal messaging involves showing someone an image for a very short amount of time – so short that they don’t even realised they’ve seen it. Until it the practice was banned advertisers used subliminal messaging to sell their products, but it seems that positive subliminal promotion isn’t the most effective technique.
The work was carried out by Nilli Lavie and her team at UCL, and show that negative information is easier to detect subliminally than a positive message. They showed 50 participants a series of words on a computer screen in rapid succession, sometimes as quickly as a 50th of a second. Each word was either positive (e.g. cheerful, flower and peace), negative (e.g. agony, despair and murder) or neutral (e.g. box, ear or kettle).
Participants were asked to identify whether the word was “emotional” (positive or negative) or neutral, and how confident they were of their choice. They found the participants were most accurate when given a negative word, even if they had no confidence in their answer.
“We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words,” said Lavie.
“Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information. 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’.”
Whilst the use of subliminal messaging in advertising is strictly limited, the research could have implications for safety warnings. Drivers who are going too fast and can only see a warning sign for a fraction of a second are more likely to register “Kill your speed” than “Slow down”, suggests Lavie.