Mommy and I are one - subliminal messaging is bloody weird

August 13, 2015

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Subliminal messaging is more subtle, and weirder than we typically imagine.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


We're about to talk about the equivalent of a psychological ouija board; there's probably a good explanation, but it's creepy as heck. Subliminal perception refers to having a message or a stimulus displayed to you too quickly for conscious perception. Normally, in the lab we use something like a tachistoscope.

Now, the effects of subliminal messaging are questionable, at best. We've talked before about how it is not nearly as potent as commonly displayed. We've also talked about how confusing consciousness and unconscious processing can be. However, subliminal information does appear to have some effects on us and when it does work, it's truly puzzling.

One of the most recognised effects of attraction started out as a subliminal effect

First of all, lets talk about Rob Zajonc's mere-exposure effect, one of the most well studied and accepted features of social psychology. We've spoken before about how familiarity is an essential key to attraction and that by simply being seen more often, one can increase how attractive they are perceived dramatically. What we didn't talk about there is that this can take effect even with exposures as short as one millisecond, which is way too short to process consciously. The mere exposure of a weird shape for 1 millisecond makes us prefer it over previously unseen shapes.

Subliminal messages can make us comfort eat

More recently,  we've found that by flashing words related to abandonment at people, like 'lonely', for about 4 milliseconds, which is still short enough that people legitimately don't consciously think anything was flashed, or at least can't make out what it was, will make people eat more later on from a pile of crackers than those flashed neutral words. Yep, priming us for abandonment makes us comfort eat, apparently.

One of the creepiest effects we've come across

But these aren't the weirdest things. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Lloyd Silverman and his colleagues found one of the most bizarre effects known to the psychological world. They showed people the sentence 'MOMMY AND I ARE ONE' for four milliseconds. Seems a bit creepy so far. But what they found is even more unnerving. Showing people this sentence consistently improved performance on some tasks, particularly those related to adaptivity. But also a reduction in negative symptoms when compared with neutral sentences (like 'people are walking'). They called it 'subliminal psychodynamic activation' and it's a singularly peculiar thing.

Since then, the sentence has been shown to be related to helping to quit smoking, lose weight, reduce anxiety, reduce schizophrenic symptoms, improve mood and even improve academic performance. But more strangely, this effect doesn't happen if it's shown supraliminally. Meta-analyses (reviews of all the studies) shows that there is a robust, if moderate, effect here, with a few variations of the theme being looked at. Moreover, males appear to be more affected and those who are more 'separated' or distant from their mothers react more intensely too.

What!?

Yep. That one sentence appears to have all sorts of puzzling improvements on our cognitions. Why? Well Freudian psychologists might say it's to do with the Oedipus complex. More likely, it has something to do with attachment. The reminder of our relationship with our mother might prime our feelings of attachment, and recent research has shown that there are some interesting effects there (although nothing particularly conclusive yet.

Essentially, however, we have no idea what's going on here. Which makes it a little concerning that the sentence has been found in some strange places (like in the coding for an Atari cartridge). My advice? Add it to the list of stuff you google when you can't sleep at night, because I know I'm gonna want to know what's going on as soon as someone finds out.

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