All about Subliminal Influence

The term subliminal is outdated, yet very much in use today. The issue here is that the term is even today related to the sensory limit, which has been made absolutely irrelevant by the theory of signal detection in the field of psychology.

It is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we even now tend to use it again and again. The literal meaning of the term subliminal is “below the threshold”, but there is no such thing as a fixed limit to sensory perception. A huge amount of sensory features are detected and processing takes place before we become aware. This gives us a lot of freedom in what and how we understand or grasp when sensory impressions and awareness are combined.

An input or stimulus is defined technically as subliminal – if it is too weak, short or does not cause our senses to notice it, but it does influence the tests conducted later on. But marginally perceptible is what is a more appropriate term for the above phenomenon.
The popular or layman meaning of subliminal is anything that affects us without one being aware of it.

The interest and study in subliminal messaging and its influence can be traced back to the psychologist Otto Poetzl who did a research on the influence of rapidly flashed pictures on dreams. This was in the early 1900’s. The invention of tachistoscoope renewed the interest since it could flash images even faster. What just began as a sensory curiosity, soon became a highly debated issue among the researchers and the common people.

James Vicary, perhaps, is the one who brought into public notice the power of subliminal persuasion. He said that he was capable of influencing any consumer to buy and that too with as simple technique as flashing invisible images on the screen. Vance Packard created a dull view of this and was successful in inducing fear of unseen messages in the media. This fear has now gone into every segment of media and entertainment like movies, television, magazines and even computers.

Packard was worried by the news that the advertisers were employing psychoanalysts to design symbolic messages into the ads. The fanned the rumor mills and rumors like use of hidden sexual symbols in children’s movies began to be discussed.

The story has another aspect to it. Audiotapes which apparently help us overcome our inhibitions has become a huge industry. Such tapes have claimed to influence the probable seducers and help them win hears and minds of their victims.

The term subliminal is used to indicate a variety of hidden messages:

•Words or images flashed for a short period of time
•Forms of deliberately designed social situations and body language.
•Hidden symbols which indicate strong instinctual drives.
•Terms from the hypnosis world.

From the above, the most discussed among scientists are the images that are flashed for a very short period of time. The other technique referred is the acoustic masking which is used as a stimulus in subliminal priming experiments. This technique does produce some short and weak psychological effects.
The experimenters doe acknowledge the existence of subliminal priming, but also agree that it is weak. This is a fact about unconscious semantic priming.

Many popular authors, specifically Wilson Bryan Key has made the concept of subliminal messaging very popular. Most of what is written usually says that advertisers can surely manipulate via the hidden messages and they practice it in order to fulfill their ulterior motives. This warning is not only about the subliminal priming, but it also includes all kinds of weird convincing methods that the term “subliminal” has been linked to.

Due to authors like Key, Vance Packard and others, the term now is used to whatever influences us without we noticing it or being aware of if. This includes stimuli which researches employ, hidden messages in pictures, sound played backward, symbolism in languages and many others.

It is definitely debatable whether the effect is unconscious. It is not all possible to figure out many thing like the socio- psychological affect, the emotional appeal, preconscious processing and more.
Subliminal semantic priming is the influence of words which are flashed for a very short interval and which are grouped into categories. It lasts not longer than 100 milliseconds and changes with every experimental trial.

The more robust effect perhaps is the subliminal perceptual priming. This is the effect when a picture of our preference from a forced choice test is displayed for a short interval of time. Also known as “mere exposure effect”, this technique has been used to activate emotional centres of the brain, specifically amygdale, without the participant being aware of it. This may have to something with the “classical conditioning” of emotional memories without knowing. This classifies it into a category, which can be used to design a propaganda, by reinforcing it repeatedly.

The oldest and most interesting technique is subliminal psychodynamic activation. It is known that subliminal stimuli can get into our dreams and active imagery. This can be recalled and even influence the social behavior. But it is very tough to demonstrate its results since it varies from person to person and also depends on the state of mind that the recipient is in.

A combination of conscious and subliminal techniques is the most effective. It is conducive to our appeals and uses our natural information processing capabilities and can help improve our thought process in the way we desire.
If one becomes aware of the subliminal stimuli, the effect generally is diminished. This has been observed in the mere exposure as well as the psychodynamic experiments. It is very much necessary to cautiously combine the conscious and unconscious elements. Care should be taken not to duplicate them i.e. unconscious elements should remain so and not become conscious elements.

The reason to this hybrid technique is most effective is that it can influence our behavior. Hidden messages do effect our emotions, but not behavior. This is what has been observed till today.
Behavior gets affected by subliminal effects because these influence our perception, thought process and emotions. Even though there are unconscious aspects of nonverbal communication, but in the end it is conscious thinking that drives and makes us react in a particular fashion.

Hypnosis, another technique, has demonstrated that illusions and compulsions can be induced under some specific condition on some people, without they being aware of it.
These hypnotic suggestions are not uniform for all. They largely depend on what the participant expects, his belief in the technique and hypnotist and the characteristic of the condition. The more favorable the above mentioned factors are, in that, the more the expectations the more are the chances that the recipient will respond unconsciously.

The most dangerous and possible threat of subliminal persuasion is the degree or kind of involuntary response that the subliminal messages can generate. Like mentioned above, it would be very difficult to compare without the considering the factors like relationship and expectancy of the recipient.

No concrete evidence has been found at a generic level. Results are found only when designed for a particular individual. Hence it cannot be said that they are a worthwhile aid for advertisers.

Combining the subliminal messaging and hypnotic techniques to get similar results is still only a proposed theory. As mentioned earlier, for hypnosis, the state of mind , the relationship and the expectancy has to be created for the technique to be effective.

In conclusion, subliminal influence seems only limited to weak reinforcement of conscious messages. The results,when combination technique is used, is difficult to anticipate. It very much depends on the state of mind of the listener. Results largely differ depending on the expectancy and the state of mind of the recipient.

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