The Psychology of Communication


7.5 Subliminal Perception And Advertising

At a conference in Baden Baden in 1993, I argued that psychology lost consciousness in the 1920s and didn't regain consciousness until the 1960s. What I didn't point out was that we did not return to the introspection tradition of Wilhelm Wundt, which characterized psychology before its behavioristic interlude, but turned to evolutionary psychology.

Owen Flanagan explains why we have turned to Charles Darwin rather than returned to Wilhelm Wundt. Introspection, the methodology of the pre-behavioristic approach to consciousness, is increasingly suspect. It reveals only the tip of the iceberg. (Of course, our consciousness assures us that this is the most important part because that is all our consciousness knows.) "Introspection is, at most, a methodological check-and-balance system whose authority can be - and often is - vetoed." [FLANAGAN 1991, Page 26].

Darwin helps pin consciousness down in terms of its evolutionary function. In a hunter-gatherer society, we moved a lot to follow scarce food. We had to be quick students of new niches. Consciousness is that function which gives organisms that possess it the ability to adapt quickly to novel states of affairs [FLANAGAN 1991, Page 35]. Flanagan distinguishes between informational sensitivity and experiential sensitivity and argues that the former far exceeds the latter. He describes a long series of empirical studies, in which subjects are influenced by information of which they are not aware.

Daniel C. Dennett also points to the limited role of consciousness within an evolutionary framework [DENNETT 1991]. In his controversial claim to explain consciousness, he makes the distinction between auto-phenomenology (the inside subjective point of view) and hetero-phenomenology (the outside objective point of view). The former is unproductive as a means of self-understanding; whereas the latter is productive but no different from the means available to other people. That is, we do not have a privileged information about our own behavior but learn about our own behavior by the same means as other people learn about our behavior. I don't know what I think until I hear what I say or read what I write.

Tor Norretranders makes the same argument in his book The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size [NORRETRANDERS]. He bases his case not on either of the above related but "distinct" distinctions, but on an analogy. Before I noticed the subtitle, I assumed this book was about the user illusion created by programmers for users of computers. That is, the illusion that, as I work on my Macintosh computer, I am moving documents in and out of files sitting on a desktop and occasionally dropping them into a trash can (which, in an illustration of how analogies sometimes break down, is on my desktop!). Norretranders however is arguing that consciousness is my user interface with the "bio-computer" of my brain. This, like the other, is a useful illusion, but an illusion nevertheless. Underlying what enters my consciousness there is a much vaster domain of which I am not aware.

All three authors point to the implication of this emerging view of consciousness for subliminal perception. Indeed, the literature on subliminal perception indicates that for each sensory modality there is a level of stimulation below which experience fails to occur but in which information about stimuli is received and processed. For example, emotionally threatening words presented below the experiential visual threshold cause changes in auditory sensitivity and vice versa [FLANAGAN 1999, Page 331]. Not only are minds accessible to outsiders; some mental activities are more accessible to outsiders than to the very 'owners' of those minds [DENNETT 1987, Page 162]. Norretranders quotes Dennett and adds: "Which is disturbing in general and is particularly so in a society where many people's jobs consist of enticing the rest of us to do things we cannot afford to do." [NORRETRANDERS, Page 165]