Subliminal Influence: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Jessica McCallister

Jessica has a Doctorate degree in Social Work

Subliminal influence includes hidden messages embedded behind phrases you hear and images you see. Review the following lesson to explore this interesting topic and come to understand how this phenomenon can occur in real life.

Subliminal Influence: What is it?

Have you ever heard of subliminal influence or subliminal messaging before? Perhaps you have been told that there are hidden messages in a video or audio recording you have watched. Can you hear the messages? Are you supposed to see them? Subliminal influence and subliminal messaging are terms used to describe when messages are camouflaged in the background of noise (i.e. music, radio broadcasts, commercial jingles, etc.) and/or images in hopes of embedding certain information in your subconscious thoughts. While the concept of subliminal influence is a debated issue, the following provides an overview of the concept in general. There is much controversy regarding whether it works and whether it doesn't work.

The somewhat mystical or magical concept of subliminal influence traces back to ancient times when people attempted to control other people's minds. It was thought that you could control someone else's thoughts if you hid messages in background noise. That control was sought to gain power over the enemy, manipulate people into doing things they would not normally do, or even help someone gain control of his own situation. Subliminal influence can also bring about positive outcomes such as helping someone lose weight, encouraging someone to stop smoking, or helping people improve their thoughts about themselves, such as self-image or self-esteem. But what really happens during subliminal influence?

How Subliminal Influence Works

Much of the brain is designed to react to things that come at us, whether these things are harmful, beneficial, scary, or manipulative. The brain does this by applying perception. We perceive everything around us, including everyday issues like how others might be viewing us and what items to buy based on quality and popularity, as well as more complex social issues such as when we develop conservative or liberal viewpoints. Perception gives us the tools to examine anything from any position; however, those positions may be different when compared to others. This is why we all have different perceptions.

For example, if you were interested in purchasing a new product that is part of a nation-wide fad diet, such as a magic pill to help you lose weight, perhaps your perception of the product is such that it is helpful, will aid in weight loss, and is affordable. Are those facts or are they your perceptions? They are your perceptions! Someone else may have a completely different perception of the fad diet magic pill, such as it is too expensive and is another weight-loss gimmick aimed at just taking your money. But perception drives our impulses and desires and can influence us in making good and bad decisions.

So, the concept of subliminal influence is based on the idea of perception. When you are influenced, you are provided with a perception to either agree or disagree with something. Let's think about the weight loss magic pill again. If you saw an advertisement on television regarding the excellent results of using the pill, you might perceive the product as being very beneficial to use to help you lose weight. But let's say the magic pill has absolutely NO real clinical evidence that it really does work: you might have been swayed to develop an enthusiastic perception towards the product because of subliminal influence.

What happened? Now, we can't say that this really does happen (remember, there is controversy as to the effectiveness of subliminal influence), but to illustrate subliminal influence, let's continue examining the fad diet magic pill. Let's say that when you watched the commercial on television regarding the product, there were subliminal messages occurring in the background that you couldn't necessarily hear. The message could also have been hidden images in the commercial that were displayed very quickly and somewhat hidden in between frames of the commercial.

The messages and images where short and fragmented. The messages may have said if you take this pill, you will lose weight...this pill the pill, buy the pill, buy the pill. There may have been very quick images across the screen that were of a very happy, thin woman holding the bottle of pills. You may not have been able to fully comprehend the subliminal images, but they were there and influencing you!

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