What Are Subliminal Messages – How They Work and How to Use Them Effectively

What Are Subliminal Messages – How They Work and How to Use Them Effectively

In Mind Science by Chris A. Parker

For years, advertising departments have used subliminal messaging as a standard tactic to influence consumer behaviors in order to increase sales. James Vicary carried out one highly publicized study in 1957, where he incorporated subliminal messages in advertisements during a movie.

The effect was an increase in sales following the movie. Since then, there has been an increase in public interest regarding this phenomenon. 

A subliminal message is meant to affect your behavior or mind when you cannot see or hear the message. Part of the wide-spread fascination with subliminal messages is its seemingly insidious nature and the ready affirmation of what many people already believe to be unsettling methods of advertisers, corporations, and public relations experts.

Is it possible that the content or meaning of an event can affect your behavior without you being aware of it?

What Are Subliminal Messages?

Subliminal messages are auditory or visual messages (stimuli) presented at so low an intensity or so fast a speed that people cannot usually detect them. Subliminal means that the sensory stimuli are below your threshold for conscious perception. The reason for this is that the stimuli fall below your absolute threshold level (AT). 

A subliminal stimulus is contrary to a supraliminal stimulus, which is a visual or auditory stimulus that humans can perceive. Numerous researchers have investigated the effect of subliminal stimuli and have attempted to prove the possibilities for application in therapeutic and academic domains. 

History of Subliminal Messages

The concept of subliminal messages dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when E.W. Scripture published the book The New Psychology (Aff-link). The book describes the basic tenets of subliminal messages. After this, an American professor of psychology, Knight Dunlap, conducted an experiment where he flashed “imperceptible shadows” to participants while showing them a Muller-Lyer illusion. 

This illusion features two lines bearing pointed arrows at either end that create an illusion showing different lengths. Knight Dunlap concluded that the shadows subliminally influenced how the subjects judged the lengths of the lines. This visual flash is believed to be the start of visual subliminal messages. 

A number of researchers applied visual flash techniques in various fields, including during World War 2 (to train soldiers to quickly spot enemy planes) and American football (train quarterbacks to spot open pass receivers). Some of the methods are still being used today. 

However, subliminal messages didn’t get widespread attention until the aforementioned publicized study by James Vicary in the 1950s. 

History of Subliminal Messages
Image by Sammy-Williams from Pixabay

Through a press release, the researcher claimed that movie viewers had been motivated to purchase Coca-Cola and popcorn via subliminal messages. 

Vicary used a tachistoscope to project the words “Hungry? Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” for 1/3000 of a second during a movie. He asserted that the sales of the two food items increased by 18% and 57.8%. 

While Vicary was unable to replicate his experiment, subliminal messaging had already caught the attention of the business world. People started using subliminal messages in advertisements when they saw the potential opportunity for profit. Around the same time, the Federal government started providing funds for research in the field of subliminal perception.

Types of Subliminal Messages

Researchers have studied two types of subliminal messages, visual and auditory subliminal messages. These two categories of messages are very similar, but researchers have discovered that their effectiveness is different.

Empirical studies detailing positive results from visual subliminal messages are more than those utilizing auditory subliminal messages.

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Visual Subliminal Messages

Visual subliminal messages are subliminal stimuli related to sight or seeing. Researchers prime study subjects with certain visual stimuli, often images, to investigate the effects of subliminal stimuli. The main purpose of the studies is to determine if visual perception elicits a different response. 

Studies surrounding subliminal messages have focused largely on the context of emotion. In particular, a lot of attention has been directed towards how we perceive faces and how subliminal presentation of various facial expressions can affect emotions. Nonetheless, there are several kinds of visual subliminal messages.

1. Images

Most visual subliminal messages utilize images. Subliminal images are meant to elicit attitudes without you being aware of the antecedents. One notable study gave credence to the potential impact of subliminal images

Researchers showed study participants slides of individuals doing familiar daily activities after they were exposed to either an emotionally negative scene or emotionally positive scene between each slide.

The study participants gave positive personality traits to the individuals whose slides featured emotionally positive scenes. The opposite was also true.

Visual Subliminal Messages
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
2. Words and Non-Words

Words and non-words (pseudoword) can be used as another form of visual subliminal stimuli. In experiments, researchers use words and non-words as subliminal primes.

The words that researchers classify several times before using as primes (subliminal messages) often work best as visual subliminal messages. Researchers also make word primes from sections of practiced words to form new words. 

In this case, the actual priming word may have the opposite meaning of the parent word (the word it came from), but it will prime for the parent words’ meaning.

Non-words formed from words that were practiced as subliminal stimuli previously have the same effect, even when unpronounceable (that is made of only consonants). The subliminal effect from words and non-words only last a very short time.

3. Masking Visual Messages

Visual Masking subliminal messages are orchestrated through forward and backward masks. This method allows for the messages to be displayed for a more extended period, but the subject cannot be able to tell what the prime is. 

A forward mask is shown before the subliminal prime for a short period, and a backward mask usually follows the prime. This prevents the subject from recognizing the subliminal prime. 

4. Geometric messages

Lab studies on unconscious perception often use simple geometric shapes or colors, where the researchers control the visibility through visual masking.

They then use masked messages to prime the processing of the presented target subliminal stimuli that follows. Geometric figures used as visual subliminal messages can cause below threshold discriminations.

Auditory Subliminal Messages

Auditory subliminal messages are different from visual subliminal messages in that you cannot detect them. To prove their presence in audio recordings, you require special equipment.

Human ears cannot perceive auditory subliminal messages. This has led to skepticism regarding whether self-help subliminal audio recordings indeed have subliminal messages. There are four main methods of presenting auditory subliminal messages:

Auditory Subliminal Messages
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay
1. Auditory Threshold Technique

Researchers use the auditory threshold technique mostly in empirical studies. In this method, the researchers set the dB (loudness) of subliminal messages under the human hearing threshold with background music.

This threshold is altered regularly since it doesn’t have a defined borderline to differentiate between non-hearing and hearing areas that can fit everybody.

2. Signal Masking

In this method, the audio signal is masked with white noise or music. This kind of auditory subliminal message is recorded as noise or mixed speech. However, this method is not often recommended since it holds the risk of the subliminal messages become audible.

3. Digital Signal Processing

This technique utilizes advances in computer technology, particularly digital signal processing (DSP). DSP is manipulation of the analog signals, such as sound or even images, which have been converted to the digital form through a computer.

With this method, words can be repeated thousands of times an hour at a very low volume such that they become inaudible. It is also referred to as subliminal mixing.

4. Backward Masked Messages

Backward masked subliminal messages are widely known to the public due to mass media. In this method, the messages are played backward in a number of styles. 

The styles include time-shrunk messages and high pass-filtered messages. With time shrunk messages, they are played backward at a speed that’s twice as fast as the originally recording speed. 

For highpass filtered subliminal messages, they are played backward at a frequency below 15 kHz that is usually inaudible to human ears (the audible frequency range is 20- 20,000 Hz).

How Subliminal Messaging Works

In subliminal messaging research and experiments, the threshold is the level at which the subjects cannot perceive the stimulus (message) being presented to them. This threshold can be either objective or subjective.  

What Are Subliminal Messages – How They Work and How to Use Them Effectively
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The researcher determines the threshold for the message that they will use as the subliminal message. They then present this subliminal message at some point during the experiment and take measures to determine the effects of the stimulus. The methods of the particular study dictate the definition of the threshold.

In the theory of mind, your mind is a construct of two parts that interact with and influence each other. These are your conscious and subconscious (unconscious) mind. Your conscious mind constitutes everything inside your awareness. 

It is the part of your mental processing where you can talk and think rationally. It includes such aspects as perceptions, sensations, memories, fantasies, and feelings inside your current awareness. 

On the other hand, your subconscious mind consists of processes in your mind that occur automatically, and you cannot introspect (perceive/examine) them. They include processes, interests, memories, and motivations. Your subconscious process significantly much more information than your conscious mind. 

Now, subliminal messaging taps into your subconscious mind. Subliminal perception happens when stimuli (below the perception threshold) influences your thoughts, behaviors, feelings, or even actions.

Subliminal perception refers to the process of capturing a message (stimulus) that, for various reasons like short duration, low volume, or lack of attention, doesn’t reach conscious representation. Nevertheless, it has the power to influence your behavior at the level of your conscious will. 

The subliminal message has an impact on your psyche through communication with the unconscious, affecting certain behaviors and desires selectively without you being aware of it. A subliminal message causes a subliminal stimulation to the auditory or visual cortex of the brain, which the conscious mind may not be aware of.

In other words, the subliminal message circumvents the gatekeeper in your conscious mind and plants the message right into your subconscious.

Do Subliminal Messages Work?Limitations of Subliminal Messages

The applications of subliminal messages are based on the persuasiveness of the message. More importantly, researchers conducting studies on action priming have discovered that subliminal messages can only influence actions the recipients of the message planned to perform anyway. As such, you can only trigger an action subliminally if the subject is already prepared to perform certain (specific) action.

How Subliminal Messaging Works
Image by John Hain from Pixaba

The context that you present the subliminal message in also affects its effectiveness. For instance, if the subject is thirsty, then a subliminal message for a drink is more likely to trigger your target to buy a drink if it’s readily available. Strahan, Spencer, and Zanna, 2002 shed some light into this limitation. 

The researchers discovered that subliminal stimuli related to thirst produced results in subjects who were thirsty already. They concluded that subliminal messaging can be used for influence, but when certain conditions are met first. The takeaway here is that subliminal messages can’t be used to control behavior but to guide the decision-making process. 

Another limitation of subliminal messaging is the influence of the placebo effect. The placebo effect is an inert preparation having noticeable effects solely based on the power of suggestion. Many researchers and scholars have stated that this effect likely happens with the use of subliminal messages (particularly in self-help subliminal audio recordings). 

For some people, a strong belief that subliminal messages work is enough to produce positive results. As such, even though self-help recordings may not have subliminal messages that can influence behavior conceivably, the audio recordings can be beneficial to an extent to a certain proportion of the users.

In summary, a subliminal placebo effect is possible if the subject has the suggestion that subliminal messages exist or a predisposition towards believing in the effectiveness of subliminal messaging. 

Despite years of skepticism and controversy, recent research has shown that subliminal messages are indeed effective, provided they are goal and habit relevant.

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How to Use Subliminal Messages Effectively

You can use subliminal messaging effectively to break conditioning blockages on a conscious level.

1. Subliminal Recordings during Sleep

One of the best ways to utilize subliminal messaging is by listening to subliminal audio recordings as your sleep. On top of this, this technique can improve the quality of your sleep and increase your energy levels. 

There are numerous specially designed subliminal audio recordings that can help you through various mental obstacles that stem from the subconscious. You can listen to subliminal recordings through headphones as you sleep for 6-8 hours. 

It’s worth noting that you should go for subliminal recordings that target the appropriate affirmations. If the affirmations in the recordings don’t match your internal challenges, then the subliminal messages will have little to no effect. 

As such, you must have a grasp of the root cause of the aspects you are trying to address through subliminal audio recordings. Do not just focus on the results and forget about the process.

How to Use Subliminal Messages Effectively
Image by Herbert Aust from Pixabay
2. Subliminal Messages via MP3 during the Day

Subliminal exposure is not only effective before or during sleep. You can also enjoy the benefits of subliminal messaging during the day as you go about your daily activities. It is entirely possible to pick up subliminal messages during the day.

You can use visual subliminal flashes and also play subliminal meditation MP3s in the background. The best course of action is to play the MP3 audios for as many hours as you can. You can still benefit from them even when you only have a few minutes to an hour to spare. 

The key here is repetition and consistency. However, this is not a passive venture. For these methods to be effective, you have to meditate and reflect on the affirmations and paradigms. Manifestation techniques can be incredibly helpful in this area.

3. Visual Subliminal Messages on Your Screen

You can also benefit from subliminal messages by having images or words appear as quick flashes on your computer screen. With this technique, you only need to spare a few minutes each day. 

These subliminal messages are positive affirmations that can influence the negative conditioning in your subconscious. Regular exposure to the affirmations may have a positive impact on the old conditioning. There are many tutorials online on how to set up visual subliminal messages on your computer.

4. Subliminal Notes

Place notes of concepts you’d like to pick up on in various locations in your home or office. This way, your subconscious mind can pick up on the messages without you perceiving them actively. 

This method is similar to the aforementioned visual subliminal messages that employ forward and backwards masks. As you go about your daily activities, you can’t tell what the subliminal primes are. However, since the notes are consistently in your view, they will have subliminal effects.

Sigils in magick work the same way. Read how they work and how to use them in our article: “Sigil Magick – How to Create and Charge your Sigil”

Research Studies on Subliminal Messages

Over the past century, researchers have published more than a hundred papers and articles regarding subliminal messages and perceptions.

While this filed is still controversial, there are many well-documented findings and arguments over recent contributions alike. Below are several notable research studies on subliminal messaging:

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