Unconscious perception

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Mind Media Tech Double Circles

Let’s talk about unconscious perception, commonly known as “subliminal messaging.” Note: If you get our newsletter, then you saw the light version of this earlier today. As promised, we’re coming back to the blog to share some sources and other resources and insights on the topic. If you want to see a lighthearted example of unconscious perception to get you started, check out the link to our newsletter above and watch the Derren Brown video.

Unconscious perception influences you on a daily basis, and you may not even realize it. It influences all of us. To quote Romzoy “Things we either don’t consciously see, or forget that we have seen, may have a strong impact on our thoughts and behavior.” That sounds creepy, but you can learn to spot it and understand how it biases your thoughts, helping you make better decisions (that’s a topic for a future post, however).

How does subliminal or unconscious perception work?

Priming is one of the main aspects of subliminal influence, where a stimulus (a photo, phrase, word, sound, etc) triggers the mind to give a certain idea or concept more weight in tasks following the stimulus that involve judgement. This entails supplying information to someone prior to an interaction. For example, you’ll hear of psychologists priming research subjects with certain types of images during testing to assess difficult measurements and answer challenging questions that aren’t binary.

You may have heard of one famous example of priming in the stereotype threat research conducted by Steele and Aronson. By requesting that white and Black college students identify their race before taking a test, they found that the simple question and its timing had massive impact on the test scores and overall test performance of the Black students. The Black students who had been primed with the question about their race took longer to answer questions and achieved lower overall test scores. Without the priming question, the Black student’s performance was unaffected. This was an early quantification of the relation between identity and negative stereotypes. Note: This topic, the negative impact of stereo type and white bias on people of color, deserves an entire post all its own.

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That’s one example of a research use case for priming. Priming happens outside of the lab as well. If you’ve ever wondered why ads are so repetitive, how billboards work, why authoritarians try so hard to get their talking points repeated by the media before a major event like an election, or why so many companies choose the color blue for their logo – you’ve seen examples of priming influencing people in the wild. Marketers also use priming to test brand loyalty. For example, McClure found that telling someone that they are about to drink Coca Cola created a higher rating of the test drink than when subjects weren’t primed, and caused a stronger response in the brain in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex on fMRI scans. These are the regions of the brain that control memory. When the test subjects were told they were about to drink Pepsi Cola, no response occurred, and the drinks were rated less favorably. Now that’s brand loyalty!

Select Sources

  • Steele, C. & Aronson, J. (1995) Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans
  • Ramzoy, T. (2014) Introduction to neuromarketing & consumer neuroscience. Denmark.
  • Levinson, J. & Smith, R. (2012) Implicit Racial Bias Across the Law Cambridge University Press
  • O’Keefe, D. (2016) Persuasion: Theory and Research (Third Edition). Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA.
  • Lavrakas, P. (2008) Encyclopedia of Survey Research Methods
  • Morin & Renvoise (2018) The Persuasion Code. New York: Wiley

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