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Subliminal Messages Can Influence People In Surprising Ways

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ex ungue leonem… from the claw we may judge of the lion. Flag waving is a metaphor for stirring up the public towards adopting a more nationalistic, generally hard-line stance. Indeed, “rally ’round the flag” is a venerable expression of this phenomenon.

A brief presentation of the Israeli flag — so brief, that people didn’t even notice it — was sufficient to make people adopt more moderate views. (Credit: iStockphoto)

It comes as some surprise, then, that studies conducted by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have shown that exposing people to a subliminal image of the national flag had just the opposite fact — moderating their political attitudes.

Further, the researchers say that their studies indicate that, in general, subliminal messages — that is, messages that are processed by our brains but never reach our consciousness — do indeed influence explicit attitudes and real-life political behavior, a significant extension to what we know about the effects of non-conscious processes.

The studies, led by cognitive scientist Dr. Ran Hassin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Psychology Department, show that the subliminal presentation of a national symbol affects not only political attitudes, but also voting intentions and actual voting in general elections.

In an article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by Hassin reported on a set of experiments that examined the effects of the subliminal presentation of the national flag. The experiments involved over 300 participants who were recruited on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.

In the first experiment, the Israeli participants, divided into two groups at random, were asked about their attitudes towards core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prior to answering these questions, half of them were exposed to subliminal images of the Israeli flag projected on a monitor and half of them were not. The results show that the former group tended to shift to the political center.

In other words, a brief presentation of the Israeli flag — so brief, that people didn’t even notice it — was sufficient to make people adopt more moderate views. Another experiment, that was conducted in the weeks that preceded the Israeli pullout from Gaza, replicated these results and reflected centrist views in relation to the withdrawal and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

The third experiment was held just prior to Israel’s last general elections. The results were identical. The subliminal presentation of Israel’s flag drew right wing, as well as left wing, Israelis towards the political center. Crucially, participants who were subliminally exposed to the flag said they intended to vote for more central parties than those who had not been exposed to the subliminal message. The researchers then called the participants after the elections, and found out that people who were exposed to the flag indeed voted in a more moderate way.

Why this exposure to a national symbol should have what appears to be a surprising moderating effect remains yet to be studied and analyzed.

“I think these results are interesting for two reasons,” says Hassin. “First, they provide sound empirical evidence for the non-conscious ways in which national ideologies subtly affect our thoughts and behaviors. We are now extending this research to examine what other ideologies can do so and in what ways this is expressed. ”

“Secondly,” he continued, “these results significantly extend the empirical knowledge regarding the nature and influences of unconscious processes. We are now investigating the mental mechanisms that underlie this phenomenon, and I am confident that this journey will yield new insights to our understanding of the cognitive unconscious — and hence, of consciousness itself.”

PNAS | December 11, 2007 | vol. 104 | no. 50 | 19757-19761

Subliminal exposure to national flags affects political thought and behavior

Ran R. Hassin*,{dagger}, Melissa J. Ferguson{ddagger}, Daniella Shidlovski*, and Tamar Gross*

*Department of Psychology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem 91905, Israel; and {ddagger}Department of Psychology, 211 Uris Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853

Edited by Edward E. Smith, Columbia University, New York, NY, and approved October 29, 2007 (received for review May 20, 2007)

Political thought and behavior play an important role in our lives, from ethnic tensions in Europe, to the war in Iraq and the Middle Eastern conflict, to parliamentary and presidential elections. However, little is known about how the individual’s political attitudes and decisions are shaped by subtle national cues that are so prevalent in our environment. We report a series of experiments that show that subliminal exposure to one’s national flag influences political attitudes, intentions, and decisions, both in laboratory settings and in “real-life” behavior. Furthermore, this manipulation consistently narrowed the gap between those who score high vs. low on a scale of identification with Israeli nationalism. The first two experiments examined participants’ stance toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Experiment 3 examined voting intentions and actual voting in Israel’s recently held general elections. The results portray a consistent picture: subtle reminders of one’s nationality significantly influence political thought and overt political behavior.

automaticity | nationalism | social cognition | unconscious | voting

Author contributions: R.R.H. and M.J.F. designed research; D.S. and T.G. performed research; R.R.H., D.S., and T.G. analyzed data; and R.R.H. and M.J.F. wrote the paper.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

This article contains supporting information online at

§ The transformation of voting intentions into a Likert-type scale was done by R.R.H. and D.S. Consensus was very high, and all disagreements were resolved in a thorough discussion of the issue. The transformation rule was: Balad, 1; Hadash, 1; Aleh Yarok, 1.5; Meretz, 2; Yerukim (greens), 2.5; Avoda (labor), 3; Tafnit, 3.5; Kadima, 3.5; Likud, 5; Shas, 5; Ihud Leumi/Mafdal, 6; Israel Beytenoo, 6; and Heroot, 6.

¶ The seven political questions that appeared in this study were taken from Experiment 1. Replicating the results of that experiment, there was a significant 2 (priming) x 2 (IWIN: high vs. low) interaction [F(1,96) = 4.23, P < 0.05]. In the control condition, the average of low IWINs was 2.89 (SD = 1.45), whereas that of high IWINs was 5.50 (SD = 1.73). In the priming condition, the average of low IWINs was 3.27 (SD = 1.93), whereas the average of high IWINs was 4.38 (SD = 2.11). IWIN in itself strongly affected the responses (P 0.3).

{dagger}To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

© 2007 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA

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