Subliminal Motivation


People often do things and can’t say exactly why they did them. While it might seem that “acting without explanation” is the result of poor attention or irrational impulse, it turns out that our brains are wired to do this. It is possible, researchers at INSERM in Paris found, to motivate half the brain without the other half being aware of what’s going on.

The INSERM researchers discovered this by measuring how hard subjects could squeeze a grip with each hand. Then, they showed the subjects a picture of a high value (one-euro) or low value (one-cent) coin. The subjects were told they would earn a fraction of the coin’s value depending on how hard they squeezed. Naturally, one would expect that they would squeeze harder when they saw the image of the more valuable coin.

Here’s where the experimenters got tricky: they showed the coin image only to one eye, and only for 17 milliseconds. All possible combinations of eye and hand were tested, i.e., right eye & right hand, left eye & right hand, etc. Here’s what the researchers found:

Although the subjects could not correctly guess which coin they had seen – confirming that they were not conscious of what they saw – they squeezed harder when presented with the larger coin if the hand grip was on the same side of the body as the eye that had seen it. Their squeezes did not change depending on what the opposite eye saw, indicating that only half the brain was being motivated at a time. [From Scientific American Mind – Split Motivation by Melinda Wenner Moyer.]

Co-author of the study Mathias Pessiglione calls this motivation “subpersonal,” in that “one part of a person can be motivated while the other is not.”

The neuromarketing implications of this work aren’t clear. Advertisers are hardly in a position to direct subliminal images to one eye or the other, and even if they could (think 3D goggles that alternate frames) I doubt if there would be a great benefit. The main takeaway for me is confirmation that our brain is processing fleeting images that we can’t consciously recall seeing. Hence, as described in No-Attention Branding, we have to assume that consumers can process brand impressions even without being able to consciously recall that exposure.

If you couple our brain’s propensity to prefer familiar images and brands (see Subliminal Branding in Milliseconds and Brain Branding: The Power of Strong Brands) with its ability to process fleeting images without awareness, one can make a powerful argument for getting one’s brand identity in front of consumers whenever and wherever possible.

  1. Gabriele Maidecchi says

    Although the research is surely interesting per se, it doesn’t change what the final goal of marketers has always been: getting your brand in front of the largest amount of people possible, as often as possible.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Quite true, Gabriele. Perhaps the real takeaway is that conventional measures of brand recall (“Did you see a logo on the luggage cart? What company’s was it?”) may underestimate the power of unconscious brand exposure.

    Nice post, BTW – good to see you are following your own advice!


  3. Steven says

    Interesting findings. I remember there being a lot of controversy about subliminal messages in marketing, and I thought at one point they were thoroughly debunked. Now I am seeing some studies that confirm that non-conscious stimuli can indeed affect our actions. Crazy how the brain works sometimes…

  4. Anonymous says

    In 1897, the director of Yale Psychology laboratory E.W. Scripture, PhD, published a paper which described the basic principles of subliminal messages.

    Since the research by Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Wolcott Sperry in the 1960s on split-brain patients, variants of lateralized/subliminal messages surface up about every ten years.

    The only time a subliminal message was ever found was in a 1973 television ad, and because of this incident, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission decided to ban the use of hidden messages. The regulations were scrapped in the early 80’s because there was no scientific proof that subliminal messages actually worked. Since then, there have been no regulations at all in the use of hidden messages.

  5. Jerry Hobbs says

    Who would guess the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packages would acknowledge spur cigarette cravings? Read “Buyology” by Martin Lindstrom to learn more. I’d also suggest reading “The Culture Code” by Clotaire Rapeille and “How customers think” by Gerald Zaltman for more insights into how we as researchers and marketers can get closer to the unconscious mind. As Zaltman says, “Most of what we know, we don’t know we know.”

  6. Nallini says

    Isnt that how intuition/ hunches work? Stuff thats described in Gladwell’s BLINK? Subliminally?

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