Subliminal Stimulation: Fact and Fiction

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Are we brainwashed by subliminal messages, sent by multinational companies? Very unlikely, the science behind subliminal stimuli helps to separate fact from fiction.

Subliminal Stimulation

Subliminal stimulation is the effect of stimuli that are not consciously perceived, like very short exposure to certain visual or auditory stimuli. A lot of myths concerning subliminal stimulation are present, and most people believe them. This article discusses the scientific evidence so far.

Commercials at the Movies

One of the most well-known examples of subliminal stimulation, is the occurrence of subliminal commercials in movie theatres, making people buy more snacks. This made people feel somewhat unpleasant, the idea that you could be made to do something you don’t want to, is not one you can easily feel comfortable with.

The study results on which this idea was based, however, turned out to be fabricated to promote a marketing company that wasn’t doing well.

Self-help Tapes

In the ‘90s, self-help tapes were somewhat of a fad. By listening to tapes with soothing sounds and hidden subliminal messages, people could be stimulated to do many things, from improving their memory to losing weight. A scientific study concerning this phenomenon reported that people who were given such a tape indeed showed improvement in their memory and self-esteem.

What the researchers didn’t tell their subjects though, was that only half of them received the right tape. And yet, people who got a ‘wrong’ tape reported the same improvement. Placebo effect, anyone?


A last story about subliminal stimulation is that by playing a spoken text backwards can somehow transfer messages to the unconscious of the people listening. Many tales about famous songs playing satanic messages when playing them backwards have been spread.

Several studies have addressed this, every one of them unable to provide evidence for these stories.

The Facts

Thus, it turns out that there is a big difference between the idea that many people have of subliminal stimulation and the science behind it. Here are five scientifically proven facts about the phenomenon:

  • Subliminal stimulation exists, but doesn’t work when the test subject pays no attention to the stimulus.
  • All subliminal effects that have been proven are very simple, mostly limited to one word or picture.
  • So far, no subliminal effects have been found that are different from the effects of conscious stimuli.
  • The effects of subliminal stimuli do not last long.
  • People cannot be given new goals through subliminal stimulation. At most the relative importance of already existing goals can be adjusted.


  • Broyles, S.J. (2006). Misplaced paranoia over subliminal advertising: what’s the big uproar this time? Journal of Consumer Marketing. 23(6), pp. 313 – 312.
  • Greenwald, A.G.; Spangenberg, E.R.; Pratkanis, A.R. & Eskenazi, J. (1991). Double-Blind Tests of Subliminal Self-Help Audiotapes. Psychological Science. 2(2), pp.119 – 122.
  • Mayer, B. & Merckelbach, H. (1999). Unconscious processes, subliminal stimulation, and anxiety. Clinical Psychology Review. 19, pp. 571 – 590.
  • Pratkanis, A.R. (1992). The cargo-cult science of subliminal persuasion. Skeptical Enquirer. 16, pp. 260 – 273.

1 comment

Aunty Ann
Posted on Mar 24, 2011