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Volume 3, No. 3, Spring 1989

L. L. Ainsworth
Indiana University Southeast

ABSTRACT: The current revival of interest in subliminal perception offers

some applications of subliminal stimuli which are, predictably, new. Evidence
for the effectiveness of the use of subliminal stimuli for business purposes,
however, seems to be no better now than it was more than thirty years ago. This
article is concerned with some of the questions which should be considered
before a commitment to any use of subliminal stimulation is made.

"Subliminal perception" has been controversial at least since it was

brought to popular attention by Packard (1957). Although Packard
presented no good evidence for his claims, the belief became widespread
t h a t behavior could be influenced by the manipulation of subliminal
stimuli. Possibilities for business uses seemed obvious, especially in
advertising. Since 1957, the popularity of the subject has waxed and
Interest in subliminal perception appears to be on the rise. Within
the last few years, for example, "backmasking" has become popular,
although Vokey and Read (1985) seemed to have disposed of it effec-
tively. Other examples include current advertisements on late-night
cable TV, the subliminal messages in computer software reported by
Miller (1984), and some books by Key (e.g., 1981). It seems appropriate,
then, to look at some of the basic ideas related to subliminal stimula-
tion. The purpose is not a detailed examination of the subject, but only
to show where some important problems lie. With t h a t framework, man-
agers should be able to evaluate more effectively information about
possible organizational applications of subliminal s t i m u l a t i o n - - m a t e -
rials promoting its use for discouraging theft, for example.

Some of the ideas for t h i s paper were suggested by D. D. Walker, an u n d e r g r a d u a t e

s t u d e n t at I n d i a n a U n i v e r s i t y Southeast.

361 9 1989 HumanSciencesPress



One problem is t h a t there are m a n y definitions for the term percep-

tion. For example, Floyd Allport (1955) said t h a t " . . . a perception can
be regarded as . . . a discriminatory response" (p. 53). Hebb (1972) said
"Perception is . . . mediating processes to which sensation gives rise
directly . . . . " (p. 217). Reflexive behavior, says Hebb (1972, p. 217),
cannot yield perception. Spear, Penrod, and Baker (1988) see perception
as " . . . how we interpret our sensory environment" (p. 78).
One point here is t h a t meaningful discussion of perception is im-
possible without first defining the term. Popular reports of subliminal
perception usually do not bother to do that; the importance of precise
definition for scientific work is either unknown to, or ignored by, their
authors. For scientific goals, definitions must be in terms of operations
used for measurement--operational definitions. Without them, terms
mean a n y t h i n g at all. There can be no science in such circumstances; in-
deed, no meaningful communication of any kind.
A second point is not so obvious. All of the definitions acknowledge
the central role of "sensation."


The term sensation refers to activity in receptors, and the transmis-

sion of t h a t activity, as nervous impulses in sensory fibers, to sensory
parts of the brain. Some (e.g., Graham, 1951, p. 870) have said t h a t
sensation and perception are so alike t h a t there is little reason to distin-
guish between them. Others (e.g., Hebb, 1972, pp. 217-218) consider
t h a t they are different. There is general agreement, however, t h a t sen-
sation is necessary for perception, except, perhaps, in such extraor-
dinary events as hallucinations. If nervous impulses don't reach the
sensory cortex, then there is no sensation; if there is no sensation, then
there is no perception.
Many popular reports of subliminal perception ignore the critical
role of sensation, and leave one to guess about how information gets to
the brain. Others propose, or imply, some process which by-passes recep-
tors and permits direct stimulation of the brain. Since "extrasensory"
perception is not our topic, it is enough to say t h a t the subject is deeply
involved with magical thinking; it is best reacted to with skepticism.
Another approach suggests t h a t behavior can be influenced by
stimuli of which the individual was unaware (or of which there is no
recall of awareness) when the stimuli were present. That is consistent
with what we know about latent learning--learning which may not be
revealed in behavior for long periods of time. That explanation, how-

ever, confuses subliminal stimulation with unawareness of being af-

fected by supraliminal stimuli. The person who drives along several
miles of busy highway, but who is unable to recall long stretches of the
road later, cannot be said to have been responding to subliminal stimuli
during the time for which there is no recall. Obviously, the cars, noises,
etc., are just as much above the limen during the "unaware" period as at
any other time.
Another example of the same kind of confusion is "subliminal art"
(Key, 1981). It involves the design of pictures so t h a t certain things will
be "subliminally" perceived (e.g., genitalia embedded in a picture in an
ad for cologne). Questions about whether advertisers deliberately do
such things aside, the lines which make up the embedded figure can be
seen easily by anyone with average vision. Thus, the figures cannot be


Sometimes reports suggest t h a t subliminal perception is real be-

cause any activity in receptors or sensory fibers can stimulate the sen-
sory cortex. Such suggestions lead into the very complex subject of the
limen, or threshold. The kind of limen important for subliminal percep-
tion is the absolute threshold, which is the point where a stimulus is just
strong enough to cause sensation. Unfortunately, thresholds are not
fixed; they vary from person to person, and from time to time in one per-
son. " . . . it shifts about from moment to moment . . . the threshold is
then an arbitrary point within a r a n g e . . . " (Stevens, 1951, p. 33). Com-
mon procedures for estimating absolute thresholds are the methods
of limits and constant stimuli, and signal detection theory (see, e.g.,
Coren, Porac, and Ward, 1979, pp. 12-23).
At another level, the absolute threshold may be defined as the
amount of stimulation needed to produce a spike potential (a nervous
impulse) in a neuron (see, e.g., Woodburne, 1967, ch. 6). To oversim-
plify, some combinations of spike potentials are what usually cause the
changes in synapses which connect neurons to each other. That genera-
tion of impulses in sequences of fibers leads to stimulation of the sen-
sory cortex and so to sensory experience.
Other forms of activity in neurons are the several kinds of graded
potential. Unlike spike potentials, they show summation. S u m m a t i o n
means t h a t a series of discrete stimuli, no one of which can produce a
spike potential, can result in a spike potential through their cumulative
effect. According to Morgan (1965, pp. 65-68), subliminal stimulation
can occur, but it ceases to be subliminal, by definition, when the spike
potential is generated.

The definition for limen is critical for discussion of subliminal per-

ception, but most reports neither specify the method used to determine
thresholds, nor mention that absolute thresholds, if they exist, have not
been found. So, people unfamiliar with the subject draw erroneous con-
clusions from those reports--e.g., that thresholds are fixed, or that the
meaning of "subliminal" is agreed upon.
Equally serious is the tendency to unlimited generalization from
laboratory studies. Laboratory determination of thresholds is a tightly-
controlled process, impossible in other contexts. But without tight con-
trol, one can only guess about causes for a particular reaction. Generali-
zation is even more dangerous with this subject, because there are even
questions about adequacy of controls in some laboratory studies, them-
selves (see, e.g., Weiner and Schiller, 1960). Finally, laboratory determi-
nations of thresholds use relatively small samples, and generalizations
to much larger groups, especially about something so variable, are espe-
cially questionable.


Popular reports of subliminal perception commonly omit such criti-

cal details as definitions for terms and descriptions of procedures. In
addition, they often ignore the mechanisms and processes known to
control the nervous system, without specifying substitutes for them
which can be objectively demonstrated to be acceptable.
An important practical question about any contemplated business
procedure i s - - " D o e s it work?" Inevitably, however, the accuracy of the
answer depends upon the quality of the evidence used to arrive at it.
If the concern were with something less spectacular, then most of us
might agree with Saegert (1979). He said that ethical questions raised
by the use of "subliminal perception" can be ignored until there is
evidence that it exists. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for some
ideas, especially magical ones, to persist in spite of the lack of support-
ing evidence. Maybe it isn't too soon to begin serious consideration of
the objective evidence related to the matter. Perhaps, too, we should
begin to think about the legal and ethical questions associated with
representations of subliminal perception as having a scientifically es-
tablished base, and with attempts to use it even when such a base
doesn't exist.


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