Subliminal Messages?

Is it possible to influence people or even to control them by sending subliminal messages – messages or images delivered in such a way that they bypass the consciousness so that the recipient remains unaware that they have received such messages?

I listed recently to Mathew Syed’s BBC radio 4 programme “Sidesways” focussing on a 1990s court case in Nevada where the families of two young men who had committed suicide accused the rock band Judas Priest of including subliminal messages in their 1975 album track “Better by you better than me”

It is a great listen.  Here:

It turned out that the first amendment didn’t protect the right to send subliminal messages… so it was “game on” in court.

The plaintives presented a series of experts who sighted examples of alleged subliminal messaging in sound, images and graphics to trigger violent or sexual thoughts. Further, there was a whole industry in 1980s… and still today…    providing self-help help audios to enable folk to give-up cigarettes and break other auctions, improve your golf… boost your self-confidence etc, etc. Plus, it was a common belief in the USA that the Chinese had used subliminal messaging to brain wash us military prisoners.

The concept, it was thought, relied upon the idea of sending “hidden” or “obscured” messages to subjects, so that their conscious executive function did not register or consider such messages. These messages would then change beliefs and thoughts without subjects even being aware of such messages – brain washing or even controlling individuals… or mass populations.

However, the clear scientific research demonstrated that subliminal messaging does not work.   To persuade people one has to win trust and provide persuasive arguments.

Spoiler: The court ruled that the plaintives had not demonstrated that Judas priest had inserted any subliminal messages into the relevant album – and had not demonstrated that the two young men acted because of the music that they had listened to. The case was thrown out.

Yet the weird thing is that many people still believe in the power of subliminal messaging – positive and negative – being an effective way to control people. Perhaps they have received subliminal messages to that effect!

(NB: If it did work we would be deluged by such subliminal messages from politicians, religions and marketeers).

Just to bring this subject back home I would reflect that MBCT… a mix of mindfulness and CBT… carefully explains how our thoughts and emotions work so that we can become aware of these processes and can exert an authority to prevent ourselves becoming overwhelmed or distracted.  Nothing subliminal about it – it’s right there.

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