Science or Myth?

-  In 1957, during the showing of a film in a movie theater in New Jersey, the words Drink Coke and Eat Popcorn were flashed on the screen at a level below the conscious perception. The claim at the time was that Coke and popcorn sales rose significantly because of those subliminal messages. Everyone who knows about subliminal messages knows about this incident, but few seem to know that the procedure used was not up to scientific standards, and more important, the results have never been reproduced!

-  The theory behind the use of subliminals is that the messages which are below a person's audio level or visual level will be received directly by the "unconscious" mind, thus by-passing conscious evaluation. At the audible level, subliminal tapes contain music or sounds from nature, such as ocean waves. Below these audible sounds are verbal messages that are inaudible as far as conscious perception. According to this theory, the "subconscious" mind can and will distinguish the inaudible verbal messages from the audible sound messages, respond to them, and act upon them. (The same idea underlies visual subliminals, such as the Coke/popcorn incident that started this whole craze.)

-  The notion of the unconscious receiving messages directly through finer perceptive mechanisms than available to the conscious mind is based upon a theory of the unconscious proposed by Sigmund Freud. Freud taught that the driving force behind human behavior is the unconscious mind. He described the mind as being like an iceberg with most of the mass (the unconscious) below the surface. According to Freud, it is out of this internal (subterranean) unconscious abyss, of which we are unaware, that our external behavior arises. Therefore, the promoters of subliminals are basically Freudian, most without even knowing it. Also, most are unaware that Freud's ideas about the unconscious and other matters have been discredited because they have not been supported either neurologically or scientifically. Moreover, the "Freudian unconscious" is contrary to the Word of God. No Scripture passage supports such an idea. Instead, the Bible is consciously and volitionally oriented.

-  Through the use of subliminal tapes and the supposed power of the Freudian-invented unconscious, individuals are told that they can stop smoking, improve their sex life, lose weight, improve sleep, overcome fears, relieve stress, and be headache-free, along with hundreds of other promises and possibilities. Unfortunately, some subliminal promoters even suggest cancer cures, as well as deliverance from other physical problems. Such promises have been referred to as "one of the biggest rip-offs going" and "another form of health fraud."

The January 1991 issue of the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter refers to "the complete lack of any scientific evidence that such messages can alter human behavior. Nevertheless, one survey shows that 68 percent of the public believes in subliminal tapes, which are now a $50-million-a-year business." The article goes on to say that "double blind tests have consistently shown that these products [subliminal tapes] fail to produce their claimed effects." Numerous other valid research studies also fail to support the promises made by subliminal promoters.

-  Think about the claim for subliminals. The claim is that the unconscious mind can understand messages that are below the level of perception, repeated as many as 100,000 times an hour, at the same time the person is consciously hearing musical or other pleasant sounds. Since the conscious mind processes speech significantly below the level of the subliminal messages, it would be necessary for the unconscious mind to hear more words per hour than the conscious mind. If anyone is helped by such tapes, it must be attributed to the "placebo effect" and not to the tapes, since the human mind (conscious or "unconscious") is neither capable of perceiving such messages nor acting upon them. (In fact, in the Wellness Letter referred to earlier, it was reported that "One research team noted a 'non-specific placebo effect' ... tapes without subliminal messages produced a greater effect that those with them"[!]) Moreover, it is not subliminal messages that individuals need to be concerned about, but rather audible, understandable messages.

-  Despite complete lack of scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of subliminals, they have become quite popular among professing Christians. There are now available "Christian" subliminal tapes provided by a number of so-called Christian "ministries." Now instead of Drink Coke or Eat Popcorn, Scripture is used along with, or in place of, other messages. These so-called Christian subliminal promoters promise about the same things as their secular counterparts, with one exception. Unlike their secular counterparts, they claim Christian growth and Christian spiritual help for the listeners. What follows is a mere sampling of what Christians are being offered:

(a) Vicki Jamison-Peterson Ministries announces: "A great breakthrough in science brings to us the opportunity to hide God's Word in our hearts as never before. Since our brain has the capacity of receiving many messages at one time at different levels of consciousness, the astonishing information I wish to present to you is that the entire New Testament has been recorded layer upon layer on one cassette so that in 60 minutes of time our brain can receive all of this information on a subliminal level." The subliminal New Testament is hidden beneath "the gentle sound of ocean waves and sea gulls." In addition, Vicki Jamison-Peterson Ministries says, "We have over 100 additional titles on various subjects of self-improvement and behavioral modification."

(b) Renew Ministries offers continuous-play tapes promising "freedom from: Doubt, Fear, Failure, Fear of Death, Guilt, Grief, Depression, Temper, Pride, Lust, Temptation, Pornography, Procrastination, Unforgiveness, Rejection, Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking, Anger, Rebellion, Anxiety and Panic, Judging, Homosexuality, Scars of Child Abuse & Molestation." Other Renew tapes promise to "speak into being: Prosperity, Weight Loss, Peace, Healing, Self-Esteem, Salvation, Marital Harmony, Surrender to God, Acceptance of God's Love, A Closer Walk With God!" According to Renew, "Bible-based subliminal messages hit controlling spirits where they live and command them to leave in Jesus' name. Then the void is filled with the Word of God!" ("Subliminal Deliverance" [advertisement] Charisma, November 1990, p. 145.) (Emphasis in original.)

(c) Rapha Ranch of Defuniak, FL offers what they call "The Spiritual Solution to the Secular Subliminal." They advertise that "tens of thousands of scriptures penetrate your total mind in just one hour." In addition, the ad lists two testimonies, one from a medical doctor, the other from a pastor. The medical doctor refers to: "Daily reports of healings, new peace and calmness, hearts being convicted and lives changed." The pastor testifies of a woman "with Alzheimer's Disease who had been confined to a mental institution," but who supposedly "received restoration of her mind and is functioning today as a normal human being" after hearing the subliminals.

(d) W.V. Grant Evangelistic Association is even more absurd than the above examples, advertising subliminal neckties! Two words, "Jesus Saves," are repeatedly, imperceptibly embedded in the neckties. The ad says: "When a Christian wears Eagle Neckwear: He is reaching thousands—virtually everyone who looks his way with the message 'Jesus Saves'—what a silent soul winning tool!" They claim: "When worn, the words 'Jesus Saves' are actually being planted in the subconscious minds of everyone who sees it. ... Never before in history has the Lord revealed such a plan as this!"

-  When people generally speak of the evils of secular rock music, they often refer to the supposedly evil and/or satanic messages that are covertly placed in the minds of the listeners through a method called "back-masking." The theory behind back-masking is the same as that of subliminals—that messages below the audio level (reversed messages in this case) will be received by the unconscious mind, thus by-passing conscious evaluation, and then at some time in the future, are able to affect the behavior of the listener.

There is no doubt that back-masked messages have in fact been recorded, but since there is no proof that the human mind is capable of even receiving these messages, their effect on human behavior must obviously be zero. In fact, in a 1990 court case involving the British rock band Judas Priest, the band was accused of culpability in the suicide deaths of two teenagers who had allegedly killed themselves as a result of acting upon the back-masked "subliminal" messages on the band's recordings. However, the band was found not guilty, not because the subliminal messages were not recorded (they were recorded), but because the scientific evidence presented at the trial was overwhelmingly convincing that subliminal messages just don't work!

Therefore, it is quite disturbing to hear that so-called Christian musicians have also been getting involved with the back-masking of "Christian" messages on their recordings, under the guise of "subliminal evangelism" (apparently echoing the same thinking as Grant with his subliminal neckties). Some have even made the incredulous claim that, unbeknownst to them, the Holy Spirit Himself did the back-masking!! (Even assuming their ignorance of the non-efficacy of back- masking, are not these musicians in effect saying that the Holy Spirit needs to resort to trickery in order save sinners? Do they believe that the Word of God, preached clearly and without deceit, is no longer capable of convicting men and calling them out for salvation? Evidently not.)

-  In summary, research evidence to the contrary, these so-called Christian subliminals are promoted with outrageously unsubstantiated claims and personal opinions. Besides being a waste of time, subliminals encourage faith in Freud and his unconscious motivation notions instead of faith in God and His Word. They encourage mindlessness rather than diligent study of God's Word. They encourage magical passivity rather than obedience. Instead of equipping the saints, they disarm them and make them vulnerable for the next gimmick—to bypass the mind and the will and the opt for the 60-second, effortless transformation. The Word of God is clear about the relationship between faith in God, conscientious study of His Word, and obedience (2 Tim. 2:15- 16; 3:16-17; 4:3-4). It should be heeded.

Update Note [2000]: "An Update on Subliminal Influence," by Timothy E. Moore and Anthony R. Pratkanis

What has happened in the area of subliminal influence in the 8 years since we wrote our reviews for Skeptical Inquirer? [See: Moore, T.E. (1992). " Subliminal perception: Facts and fallacies," Skeptical Inquirer, 16, 273-281; Pratkanis, A. (1992), and " The cargo cult science of subliminal persuasion," Skeptical Inquirer,16, 260-272.] In a nutshell, a little bit more science, a little less hysteria, and some still long-term, unresolved issues. In the "little bit more" category, recent scientific evidence continues to support our original appraisal that actions, motives, and beliefs are NOT susceptible to manipulation through the use of briefly (i.e., subliminally) presented messages or directives. If anything the case against subliminal manipulation is stronger now than ever as a result of some recent research designed to address Anthony Greenwald's (1992) "two-word challenge" -- to create an experimental demonstration that multiple words presented subliminally could be understood as a unit and more than the sum of the parts.

Numerous studies had previously demonstrated semantic activation of single words under conditions in which subjects had no phenomenal awareness of the stimulus, as we noted in our reviews. However, no priming study had shown that multiple words, presented subliminally, were capable of semantic activation. Such a demonstration would be essential for validating claims that phrases such as "Eat Popcorn/Drink Coke" ... could affect human motivation and behavior. A recent study by Draine (1997) has cast considerable doubt on the proposition that multiple words presented subliminally can be comprehended. In his work, Draine established that priming effects of word pairs are a function of individual word meanings, rather than their combined meaning. For example, the pair of words "Not Dirty" was perceived to be evaluatively negative. The impact of the prime was uninfluenced by its negation. Draine concluded that two-word grammatical combinations are beyond the analytic powers of unconscious cognition. 

In the "little less of" category, we are pleased to report that much of the furor over subliminal influence has died down. There have been no new rock bands labeled as "subliminal criminals." ... The news media, including ABC, CBS News, and CNN Headline News have made numerous accurate presentations of the scientific data showing the ineffectiveness of subliminal influence in general and subliminal self-help tapes in particular. The National Academy of Science and the British Psychological Association both issued statements concerning the lack of efficacy of subliminal tapes. The level of promotion of subliminal self-help tapes seems to have declined. The message seems to have gotten out that when it comes to subliminal tapes, "Buyer Beware," although sales of such tapes continue.

We wish we could end this update on a happy note and state that the hysterical claims for the power of subliminal influence have finally been laid to rest. However, we noted in our reviews that interest in subliminal influence is often cyclical -- first appearing before the turn of century, then again in the 1950s, 1970s, and today. And while the most recent manifestations of interest in things subliminal appear to have died down, the underlying reasons for this interest remain. These include a general lack of scientific literacy, unclear standards for qualifying experts in court, confusing unconscious perceptual processes with the psychodynamic unconscious, a mass media interested in ratings and the sensational, and a desire for quick solutions to difficult problems and quick scapegoats when the quick solutions don't work.

There is also a feature of subliminal stimulation that is somewhat unique compared to other urban myths -- namely that evidence that could disconfirm the presence of subliminal stimuli is not readily available to the viewer (or listener). A subliminal stimulus is, by definition, outside of conscious awareness. Consequently, NOT seeing (or hearing) subliminal messages when one suspects their presence, confirms their presence in the minds of those who have been encouraged to believe in subliminal persuasion. For this reason, subliminal conspiracies will no doubt continue to crop up. Time will tell if, 5 or 10 or 20 years from now, some new researchers will need to write articles similar to the ones we wrote 6 years ago to alert the public to the fact that no scientific evidence is available showing that subliminal stimulation can significantly influence human motivation and behavior.

* Unless otherwise indicated, the bulk of this report has been adapted from 12 Steps to Destruction (pp. 220-221) and PsychoHeresy Update [now PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter], Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter 1991, by permission of Martin & Deidre Bobgan, EastGate Publishers, 4137 Primavera Road, Santa Barbara, CA, 93110.

Biblical Discernment Ministries - Revised 8/01