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New Research on Subliminal Influence: Is it For Real?

Dr. Greg Ketchum, KRON, 08/06/07

Is the concept of “subliminal seduction or mind control” just something from spy movies?

Scientists have long known that we are, literally, of two minds. We have the older parts of the brain, the “early primate brain,” which operate on a subconscious level, and we have the newer parts of the brain, the cerebral cortex, which allows us to think, act rationally, and is the seat of our conscious awareness.

In the last couple of years there have been a slew of experiments demonstrating the power and influence of the “subconscious,” older part of the brain showing that it is much more active, independent and purposeful than previously thought.

What kinds of studies are we talking about?

For example, in a recent study at Yale researchers set out to manipulate the subconscious minds of study participants. On the way into the research lab, the researchers had planted an accomplice who was holding papers, books and either a cup of hot or iced coffee. The plant would ask each subject if they could help out by holding the cup of coffee for a moment. The students had no idea that this person was part of the experiment.

Now what’s interesting is that when the subjects were later asked to rate a hypothetical person that they had read about, the students who had held the cold cup rated the person as being much “colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had ...held a cup of hot java.” NY Times. July 31, 2007.

So just holding a hot or cold cup of coffee influenced the way the subjects responded and they had no idea this was happening?

Yes, and here’s a study that you’ll really like Rob as it has to do with business and negotiation.  In a study in 2004 at Stanford, psychologists had students take part in a “one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player.” The subject sat at a large table and on the other end was either a briefcase and black leather portfolio or a backpack. Half the subjects played the game with the briefcase and leather portfolio at the other end and half played with just the backpack on the other end of the table.

What the researchers found was that the students who played the game with the briefcase and leather portfolio were much stingier with their money than those who played with the backpack on the table. Researchers argued that the “mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related..  expectations...leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no idea of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.” NY Times, July 31, 2007.

So what are these studies really showing us and how can our viewers use the information?

What the researchers were doing is referred to as “priming” the subconscious mind. The hot or cold cups and the briefcase or backpack “primed” the subconscious mind to respond in a certain direction.

So can our behavior be influenced on a subliminal basis? Yes it can, however only to activate goals or motives that we already have. The Manchurian Candidate is pure fiction. And priming doesn’t work if you’re aware of it and know that someone is trying to manipulate you.

These studies demonstrate that “we are not alone in our consciousness. We have company, an invisible partner who has strong reactions about the world that don’t always agree with our own...” NY Times, July 31, 2007.

They also demonstrate the power of our subconscious brain and how it can direct our behavior without our conscious awareness. If you ever find yourself doing something and then later asking yourself why you did it, you’re likely looking at the subconscious older part of the brain in action.

So does this mean that we should go out and try to use “priming” to control others to get what we want?

Not really. However, we can use this concept of priming, not to manipulate others, but to improve our chances of success with others. For example, you can likely prime conditions for a successful negotiation by paying attention to the way you set up the room. Really, what we’re talking about is that by following the Golden Rule and being sensitive to others primes them to be good back to us.


®2007 All rights reserved. Gregory A. Ketchum, Ph.D.

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