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Subliminal exposure to national flags: Branding at work?

April 24, 2013 0 Comments

The title of this post refers to a December 2007 article in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by psychologist Ran R. Hassin and colleagues, “Subliminal exposure to national flags affects political thought and behavior”.  The full article is available here.

israeli-flagUnlike most academic article titles, this one says it all, thank you.  Hassin reports on three experiments performed in Israel in the weeks prior to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the week before the Israeli general election in March 2006.  The experiments asked people about their political opinions and voting intentions, but unbeknownst to the participants, half of them were “primed” with a subliminal image of the Israeli flag, while the other half were primed with a control image, a scrambled picture of the flag’s elements.

The surprising result:  People significantly moderated their opinions in the flag condition vs. the control condition, moving more toward the center of the political spectrum when exposed to the flag.  In addition, people stated more middle of the road voting intentions when exposed to the flag, and a follow-up call revealed that they actually voted more centrally as well.  The authors’ conclusion?

In all three studies, the subliminal presentation of national flags increased unity by drawing participants to the political center.

There is much about this study that is interesting from the perspective of political opinion polling, and it strongly reinforces the findings of another set of political opinion studies discussed in a previous post here.

Equally, if not more interesting, is the question of whether the American flag would have the same effect on a sample of American citizens.  Would the flag activate more central opinions, or would it possibly activate more extreme opinions?  Somebody needs to replicate this study to find out.  It all depends on what the flag has come to represent in the minds of Americans.  Is it still the symbol of our unity, or has it been cognitively “captured” by one side or another of the political spectrum, so that it now activates thoughts of political divisions, not unity?

I wonder if Israel has ever had a debate about whether a politician’s “patriotism” can be judged by how often he wears a flag pin on his lapel?

If we think about the political questions this study raises, we are naturally drawn to some wider questions about cognition and judgment, for which the political world is but one of many potential arenas within which these issues play out.

I’d like to touch on two of these questions here:

  1. How concepts are organized in our minds and influence our opinions, attitudes, and behaviors.
  2. How exactly subliminal priming works, and whether it creates nonconscious associations beyond our control or simply activates nonconscious associations that already exist.

I hope I am not offending anyone when I say this:  Flags are logos, and the brands they represent are national political perspectives.  We may bemoan the civic implications, but the fact is that for most people, the “golden arches” probably evokes as many associations with direct personal salience as the “stars and stripes,” maybe more.  In each case, the logo is a shorthand symbol that has come, through repetition and reinforcement, to represent the larger concept, the brand.  Whether the symbol is political or commercial, it works in the same way – by activating and making more accessible to conscious processing a network of associations in long-term memory.  These associations are both semantic (associated meanings) and emotional (associated feelings).

In this Israeli flag example, the subliminal priming task tells us something important about the prime – the flag – that we probably could not have discovered by asking people directly.  The task reveals that the Israeli flag is a symbol of a moderate, centrist political orientation – that is, for the Israeli citizens in this study, their flag subliminally activated more moderate political opinions, even for those whose declared political orientation should have led them to express more extreme views.

This is why the question of how the American flag would prime political opinions is so interesting.  If we ask people directly what the flag means, we will probably get the socially-correct answer.  But if the flag actually activates a different kind of effect, well, that is something new that we wouldn’t have discovered by just asking.

So the more general point is that concepts are organized in our minds as multi-dimensional associational networks.  These networks affect our conscious opinions, attitudes and behaviors in ways we are not consciously aware of.  As associations get repeated and reinforced over time, they become more automatic and hard-wired in neuronal connections in our brains.  These connections are persistent, but they can be changed.  In fact, every experience we have minutely changes all the mental networks associated with that experience.  Every experience. This is why persuasion, education, training, and, sometimes, just watching the world go by, can literally “change our minds.”

What’s all this mean for subliminal priming?  That subliminal priming works at all is of course astounding.  It astounds us because it reveals that our brains are at work “behind our backs”, so to speak, helping us interpret and react to the world in ways we cannot consciously perceive (obligatory reference to this post).

But what Hassin et al. also illustrate is the fact that subliminal priming does not create associations so much as it activates associations that already exist.  To get their priming effect, Hassin et al., had to subliminally flash their subjects 50 times (through a clever distracter task at the start of the experiment) before the opinion questions were even asked.  Once the flag prime had been activated, it was participants’ existing associations with the concept represented by that prime that influenced their answers to the opinion questions.  In other words, the task did not change their associations with the Israeli flag, it just revealed how those now-activated associations operated.  It thus tells us much more about the the prime than about the opinions.

Which takes us, finally, to the concept of branding.  We see in this study of national flags that subliminal priming is a powerful tool for revealing real attitudes toward brands.  The prime – which can be any representation of the brand – is a symbol that triggers some associations more than others.  If you want to influence that set of associations, you utilize all the tools of persuasion at your disposal.  In some cases, paradoxically, engaging in active persuasion may actually move the associational network in the wrong direction, as we saw in our post on Robert Heath.  But the lesson is that you use subliminal priming to test for changes, not to make changes.

The web of associations activated by your brand and your competitors’ brands is the cognitive battlefield on which brand warfare is waged.  In that battle, subliminal priming is your Intelligence Service, not your Artillery Division.  It can tell you how you’re doing, but don’t expect it to win the battle for you.

Hassin, R., Ferguson, M., Shidlovski, D., & Gross, T. (2007). Subliminal exposure to national flags affects political thought and behavior Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (50), 19757-19761 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0704679104

Originally posted on my former blog, October 10, 2009.


Update (2011)

A follow-up study by Hassin and colleague Travis Carter in 2011 found an even more striking effect in the United States using the American flag as a brief, peripheral prime. Here is the abstract:

There is scant evidence that incidental cues in the environment significantly alter people’s political judgments and behavior in a durable way. We report that a brief exposure to the American flag led to a shift toward Republican beliefs, attitudes, and voting behavior among both Republican and Democratic participants, despite their overwhelming belief that exposure to the flag would not influence their behavior. In Experiment 1, which was conducted online during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, a single exposure to an American flag resulted in a significant increase in participants’ Republican voting intentions, voting behavior, political beliefs, and implicit and explicit attitudes, with some effects lasting 8 months after the exposure to the prime. In Experiment 2, we replicated the findings more than a year into the current Democratic presidential term. These results constitute the first evidence that nonconscious priming effects from exposure to a national flag can bias the citizenry toward one political party and can have considerable durability.

Carter, Travis J., Melissa J. Ferguson, and Ran R. Hassin. “A single exposure to the American flag shifts support toward Republicanism up to 8 months later.” Psychological science 22.8 (2011): 1011-1018.

About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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