Researchers found that briefly displaying words and images so quickly that people do not even consciously notice, does nevertheless change their thinking.
They found it was particularly effective with negative images and words which could alter a person’s mood.
The phrase subliminal advertising was coined in 1957 by the US market researcher James Vicary, who said he could get moviegoers to “drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” by flashing those messages onscreen for such a short time that viewers were unaware.
His claims led to fears that governments and cults would use the technique to their advantage and it was banned in many countries, including the UK.
Vicary later admitted he had fabricated his results.
But more than 50 years on British researchers have shown messages we are not aware of can leave a mark on the brain.
A team from University College London, funded by the Wellcome Trust, found that it was particularly good at instilling negative thoughts.
Professor Nilli Lavie, who led the UCL team, said the latest study had provided the first unambiguous proof that people can process emotional information from subliminal images.
“We have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words,” she said. “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’.”
The researchers believe their study, which may point to a sub-conscious “fast link” between primitive parts of the brain and those associated with decision making, has implications for the use of subliminal messaging in marketing.
Professor Lavie said: “Negative words may have a more rapid impact. ‘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.”
A remarkable thing about cult mind control is that it’s so ordinary in the tactics and strategies of social influence employed.
They are variants of well-known social psychological principles of compliance, conformity, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, framing, emotional manipulation, and others that are used on all of us daily to entice us: to buy, to try, to donate, to vote, to join, to change, to believe, to love, to hate the enemy.
Cult mind control is not different in kind from these everyday varieties, but in its greater intensity, persistence, duration, and scope. One difference is in its greater efforts to block quitting the group, by imposing high exit costs, replete with induced phobias of harm, failure, and personal isolation.