Subliminal messaging contends the unconscious mind can be reached by tricking the conscious one. Want to sell more popcorn at the movies? Flash popcorn on the screen fast enough so that the word seems invisible and wait by the cash register for your customers. The theory had its heyday several years ago, but died when multiple studies debunked the idea. Still the notion persisted and because of it, retailers lay out their stores in the belief that products displayed in one part of the premises, usually, the front, will promote impulse buying.
Lately, the idea of subliminal influence has picked up a little scientific support. The method isn’t called subliminal any more. It’s called nudging. Defenders of the method emphasize the goal isn’t to control human behavior but to give people the ability to make better choices. The structure is called choice architecture: the attempt to move us in a direction based upon positive information. Cosmetic advertising is a prime example. When we arrive at a beauty counter, we don’t see pictures of old crones who refused to buy face creams. We see pink cheeked girls who did.
Writers Jon Jackomowicz and Sam McNerney suggest government should use choice architecture to influence attitudes on a host of public issues, including climate change. (“The Positive Power of Nudges,” Scientific American Mind, 9/10/2015 pgs. 22-23) According to them, studies confirm that what we chose can be controlled by the order of choice. People tend to select the first option over those that follow. (Ibid, pg. 23). If that choice is also positive, its influence becomes stronger. In the case of climate change, for example, instead of talking about a carbon tax, supporters of the program should talk about a carbon offset. (Ibid pg. 23.)
Giving people too many choices is negative, by the way. Obamacare is an example. Too many options confused people and “their ability to make smart choices plummeted.” (Ibid pg. 23) A better way to nudge is to present people with fewer options.
Our government nudges when it encourages those of retirement age to defer their benefits until 70 and beyond. The reward is higher payments when those benefits kick in. Of course, the government benefits too. Deferred payments extend the program’s funding. Fewer dollars flow out over time and fewer beneficiaries live long enough to collect.
Frankly, I continue to take a dim view of old wine in new bottles. Call it subliminal messaging, a nudge or choice architecture, it’s mind manipulation and Orwellian at its worst.