The term “subliminal perception,” first used in 1860 by American psychologist E. B. Titchener, describes how the brain processes information without the conscious awareness of the process. It involves the intake and processing of stimuli that fall below the threshold of conscious awareness, meaning that even though people are not aware of them, they can nevertheless have an impact on their emotions, ideas, and actions. For many years, the notion of subliminal perception has captivated psychologists, marketers, and members of the public alike, igniting discussions on its veracity, efficacy, and moral ramifications.

The first research on subliminal perception was done in 1897 by psychologist Georg Elias Müller, who carried out tests to look into the issue. Müller discovered that despite their claims, participants could accurately identify quickly presented visual stimuli to be unaware of seeing anything. This research laid the foundation for further exploration into the realm of subliminal perception.

Notwithstanding the doubts over subliminal messaging’s efficacy, studies have demonstrated that subliminal perception can in fact affect a number of cognitive and behavioral processes. Research has indicated, for instance, that subliminal stimuli can influence attitudes, preferences, and decision-making processes. In one study, it was discovered that subjects who saw subliminal images of smiling faces exhibited higher favourable attitudes toward ambiguous stimuli than subjects who saw neutral or negative images.

Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that subliminal perception affects emotional reactions. Studies have revealed that emotional cues, including words or images, that are subtly conveyed can cause physiological responses and emotional reactions in participants even when they are not conscious of the stimuli. This implies that emotional experiences and reactions are shaped in part by subliminal perception.

Although the mechanics behind subliminal perception remain unclear, various theories have been put up by researchers to explain its operation. A well-known idea is the “dual-process model,” which postulates that there are two different ways in which subliminal processing might take place: an automatic, direct channel that functions outside of conscious awareness, and an indirect pathway that requires conscious processing of the stimuli after a pause. This paradigm suggests that behaviour can be influenced by subliminal stimuli through both reflexive, instinctive reactions and more deliberate, conscious processes.

An alternative idea, referred to as the “response priming model,” suggests that certain mental representations or response inclinations can be triggered by subliminal inputs, thus influencing subsequent action. This paradigm states that unconscious systems that direct behaviour without conscious awareness are activated by subliminal perception.

Types of Subliminal Perception:

Processing of visual stimuli provided below the threshold of conscious consciousness is a component of visual subliminal perception. These stimuli can be patterns, symbols, or images that flash momentarily or are obscured by other stimuli. Studies have demonstrated that these visual cues can affect people’s behavior, emotions, and decision-making even when they are not aware of them. Experiments have shown, for instance, that smiling faces can be subliminally presented to generate favourable emotional reactions and affect social perceptions.

Processing of audio stimuli that are provided below the threshold of conscious consciousness is known as auditory subliminal perception. This can include low-volume noises that are challenging to notice deliberately, backward masking, or whispered messaging. Despite the fact that audio subliminal perception has gotten less attention than to its visual counterpart, studies have suggested that subliminal auditory cues can influence mood, cognition, and behaviour. For instance, some research has explored the use of subliminal auditory messages in interventions aimed at reducing stress or promoting relaxation.

Processing of tactile stimuli presented below the threshold of conscious perception is known as tactile subliminal perception. This can include imperceptible touches or vibrations that people may not be aware of, but which nevertheless have the power to affect how they see the world and behave. Compared to visual and auditory subliminal perception, tactile subliminal perception has received less research; however, some studies have indicated that tactile cues may influence emotional states and social interactions. For instance, studies have looked at how subliminal tactile cues affect social cooperation and trust. Subliminal perception can be divided into two categories: gustatory subliminal perception deals with subliminal tastes, whereas olfactory subliminal perception deals with subliminal smells. Despite being less researched than other types of subliminal perception, olfactory and and gustatory subliminal cues may still influence mood, memory, and behaviour. For instance, research has explored the effects of subliminal odours on emotional states and cognitive performance, suggesting that olfactory subliminal perception may play a role in shaping human experiences.

Processing words, concepts, or ideas that are presented below the threshold of conscious awareness at a higher cognitive level is known as semantic and conceptual subliminal perception. This type of subconscious perception can affect attitudes, beliefs, and decision-making processes without the subject’s conscious awareness of the stimuli. Research has investigated the impact of subliminal priming, a technique in which people are exposed to subliminal cues that elicit particular concepts or objectives, on their subsequent behaviour and cognitive processes related to making decisions. The processing of subliminal emotional cues, such as words or facial expressions that elicit strong emotions, that can affect social interactions and emotional reactions is known as emotional subliminal perception. Studies have demonstrated that physiological and emotional responses can be elicited by subliminal emotional stimuli even when individuals are not consciously aware of the stimuli. For example, experiments have demonstrated that subliminally presented emotional faces can elicit emotional responses and influence social judgments.

Priming effects are a common phenomenon in subliminal perception, whereby exposure to subliminal cues can influence subsequent processing and behaviour. This can include priming of perceptual processes, semantic networks, or response tendencies, often leading to faster or more accurate responses to related stimuli. For example, studies have shown that subliminal priming can influence word recognition, memory retrieval, and decision-making processes, highlighting the pervasive nature of priming effects in subliminal perception.

 Bargh, Chen and Burrows investigated the effects of subliminal priming on social behaviour in a series of experiments that were published in the Journal of Personality and social psychology in 1996. In one experiment, words associated with the elderly, like “Florida,” “wrinkle,” and “bingo,” were subtly presented to participants on a computer screen. Following that, participants had to finish a task that required them to walk to an elevator down a hallway. The subjects who were primed with words associated with the elderly, as opposed to those who were not, walked down the hallway more slowly, the researchers discovered. This experiment demonstrated how subliminal priming can subtly alter behaviour, including social behaviours like walking speed.

Whalen, Rauch, et al. 2002 study, which was published in the journal Emotion, looked into how subliminal emotional stimulation affected emotional reactions and brain activity. Subliminal pictures of terrified faces were shown to participants in the experiment; these images were briefly flashed on a computer screen and were covered up by neutral faces. Self-report measures were used to gauge the participants’ emotional reactions, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure the participants’ brain activity. The findings showed that even in cases where participants were not consciously aware of seeing the frightening faces, subliminal presentation of the faces caused an increase in activity in brain regions linked to emotion processing, such as the amygdala. Furthermore, participants who saw subliminal images of fear as opposed to neutral faces reported feeling more alert and nervous.

Fitzsimons, Chartrand, and Fitzsimons (2008) investigated the impact of subliminal priming on consumer behaviour in a study that was published in the journal of Consumer Research. In one experiment, words like “succeed” and “strive,” which are associated with achievement, were subtly presented to participants on a computer screen. Following that, participants were given the option to select a reward from two categories: a luxury item (like a Rolex watch) or a useful item (like a coffee maker). Researchers discovered that individuals primed with words associated with achievement were more likely to select the opulent item than non-primed individuals. This study showed that, even in the absence of conscious awareness, subliminal priming can affect consumer preferences and decisions.

Subliminal perception in marketing is a fascinating and controversial topic that deals with the influence of consumer behavior on the subconscious mind. It revolves around the idea that individuals can be influenced by stimuli that are perceived below the threshold of consciousness. Although the concept of subliminal messaging is popular in various forms of media, its effectiveness and ethical implications remain controversial. In marketing, the subconscious mind is often used through subtle visual or auditory cues designed to influence consumer behaviour without the consumer realizing it. These notifications can take various forms. B. Background music that contains hidden images, embedded messages, or hidden messages. Goals can bypass rational thinking and appeal directly to your subconscious mind, influencing your purchasing decisions. A common technique of subliminal marketing is to include hidden images or words in advertisements. These images and words are usually incorporated into the design in a way that is not immediately noticeable to the conscious mind, but can be processed by the subconscious mind. For example, companies may subtly incorporate images of dollar bills or the word “sale” in the background of their advertisements to convey a message of prosperity or value. Another method is to use subtle auditory cues, such as background music or sound effects, to evoke specific emotions or associations in consumers. Research has found that background music can have a significant effect on consumer perceptions and behaviour, influencing factors such as perception of waiting time, product choice, and willingness to spend. By carefully selecting the tempo, volume, and genre of music, marketers can create a subliminal atmosphere that matches their brand image and message. Despite the appeal of subliminal marketing, its effectiveness remains controversial among researchers. Some studies suggest that subliminal cues can influence consumer behaviour under certain conditions, while other studies have failed to replicate these results or found only minimal effects. Additionally, there are ethical concerns surrounding the use of subliminal messaging, especially around issues of transparency, consent, and manipulation. From an ethical perspective, subliminal marketing raises questions about the limits of acceptable persuasion tactics and the potential for exploitation of vulnerable consumers. Critics argue that intentionally manipulating people’s subconscious minds without their knowledge or consent violates the principle of autonomy and respect for individual decision-making processes. Furthermore, the potential for unintended consequences and negative reactions to subliminal messages highlights the need for careful consideration and ethical oversight in marketing practices. In summary, subconscious perception in marketing is a complex and controversial phenomenon that studies the influence of subconscious cues on consumer behaviour. The concept of subliminal messaging has captured the imagination of marketers and psychologists for decades, but its effectiveness and ethical implications remain controversial. As technology continues to advance and our understanding of the human mind evolves, it is imperative that marketers approach the use of subliminal techniques with caution, transparency, and respect for ethics.

Subliminal perception is a subject of increasing investigation, yet there are still debates and unanswered concerns. The ethical ramifications and practical uses of subliminal messaging are a topic of continuous discussion. While some contend that subliminal methods could be applied therapeutically to encourage behaviour modification or lessen anxiety, others express worries about the possibility of exploitation and manipulation.

Furthermore, there is ongoing discussion regarding the usefulness of subliminal messaging in actual situations. Although subliminal cues have been shown in controlled laboratory settings to impact cognition and behaviour, it is ambiguous if these effects extend to real-world scenarios where inputs are more complex and variable. 

Ms. Priyanka Kaushik

Ms. Priyanka Kaushik

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology,
School of Humanities & Social Sciences
Geeta University, Naultha, Panipat