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Subliminal Tapes: How to Get the Message Across


Brady J. Phelps and Mary E. Exum

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 16.3, Spring 1992

Pseudoscience is alive and well. One reason for this is that members of the scientific community do a poor job of communicating their arguments and findings (Sagan 1987). In publicizing criticisms of pseudoscience, scientists may actually cause those sympathetic to pseudoscience to stop listening (Kurtz 1988). Furthermore, members of the scientific community and adherents of pseudoscience do not share much common ground. They do not use the same methods or have the same understanding of the importance of rigorous scientific procedures. They do not share a similar scientific language (or at least the same referents to the words used), and they do not use the same journals to communicate their findings. Most important, scientists and pseudoscientists have vastly different backgrounds, different reasons and motivations for conducting and publicizing their respective findings, and very different audiences.

One who identifies as a scientist and conducts scientific research regularly is usually associated with an institution of higher learning or a research center devoted to specific types of issues. Such a person may hold a doctorate or masters degree from a university whose goal, in part, has been to teach how to conduct sound, replicable research with clearly defined independent and dependent variables and with minimal interference from confounding extraneous variables. A graduate from a research program presumably has learned to value the scientific process. Association with a reputable institution helps to ensure that researchers conduct and publish work that meets the scientific standards of that institution. Scientists usually do not make money from their research findings. They may earn prestige among other scientists and may receive benefits for writing successful grants. A scientist typically does not have the time, knowledge, or motivation to engage in the marketing of a finished product for mass consumption.


“Pseudoscientists” usually do not assign this label to themselves. Rarely does one say “Hello, I’m a pseudoscientist from Brand X Institute [or, I am just freelancing]. Please make that distinction. I’m a pseudoscientist, not a scientist.” The problem arises when a person promotes unscientific findings as scientific and attempts to get others to behave in accord with the findings as though they had been obtained in a scientific manner. To lend credence to their findings, some pseudoscientists may establish a prestigious-sounding organizational name to which benefactors can make donations. Those who mislead people by labeling unscientific research findings as scientific tend to incite scientists to call them “pseudoscientists” and to call those they deceive “gullible believers in nonsense.”

The name-calling and arguments typically take the form of attack and ridicule. But what is the forum for these interchanges? Given that scientists and pseudoscientists travel in different circles, the scientific viewpoint needs to be presented in the arena where pseudoscience finds its believers, that is, in everyday forms of information dissemination. A letter to the editor may not be published, or if published it may not be read. Asking a newspaper to cover the scientific position of a sensationalized pseudoscientific finding may be helpful if reports of both positions are published at the same time, which assumes you have advance notice of such stories. Countering paid advertising by pseudoscientists with paid advertisements for the validity and superiority of the scientific method is possible, but not probable, since pseudoscientists run advertisements to make money and scientists would be paying for an ad to keep people from wasting money. However, a common means of communicating information is through day-to-day conversation. Personal testimonials are a powerful form of persuasion.

But why would believers in commercial pseudoscientific products want to hear what we have to say? They wouldn’t, unless we as scientists can offer something of more value and utility than the pseudoscientists do. We suggest that if scientists were to adopt the role of consumer watchdogs and consumer educators, more people would be likely to listen.

subliminal tape

Among the most widely marketed pseudoscience products today are “subliminal” tapes. These tapes, which their manufacturers claim will provide quick, effortless solutions for many personal problems, can be found virtually anywhere. They are even advertised in publications devoted to promoting science, such as Discover magazine. Although such tapes are ubiquitous, there is a lack of empirical evidence for any effectiveness beyond that of a “placebo” effect (Grover 1979; Dutto and Galli 1982; Treimer and Simonson 1986). Psychology, the scientific discipline supposedly devoted to the explanation of human behavior, has had little success in disputing the viability of such products (Anastasi 1964; Dudley 1987; Goldiamond 1966; Moore 1982, 1985; Saegert 1987; Schulman 1981). Part of psychology’s lack of success in countering the claims for these products may be attributed to points made earlier concerning communication problems and the motivation of the proponents.

As is well known, subliminal tapes typically have an audible side, on which the message is clearly present. On the opposite side, however, all one typically hears is subdued music intended to “lull the listener into relaxation wherein the subliminal messages can work.” Of course one can’t hear the message, only the music. It is at this point that a scientist may suggest that it is impossible for a weak stimulus to compete successfully against more powerful stimuli (Dixon 1971) for either selective attention or control of behavior. Unfortunately, while this logic may be perfectly obvious to us, many subliminal subscribers would now stop listening to the scientist.

How to continue the conversation at this point depends upon your time and patience as well as your motivation to educate or irritate. You may decide to assume the message is there and ask the proponent or salesperson why we can’t hear it. Predictably, the answer will be that the message only interacts with the unconscious mind without our awareness. Now you counter that whether the message works with the unconscious or the conscious mind, such a message still needs to impinge on the nervous system through auditory receptors. So why can’t our ears hear the message?

Most often, the proponent will say either that the message has been increased to such a high frequency that it is beyond our range of perception or that it is at too low a frequency or volume, but that it certainly is there. Such a reply acknowledges that the message is beyond the range of human auditory perception! If you then raise that point, ironically the subliminal proponent will agree. You might now ask if a dog or a bat could hear the message. We have, in fact, received affirmative answers to this question from clerks intent on sales. Our next question has been, of course: Can these tapes help my dog lose weight, or help my bat to develop a more positive self-esteem? At this point, we have been asked to leave the store, had the phone suddenly disconnected, or found fellow customers laughing as the ludicrous nature of subliminal tapes became apparent. But such an approach does little to teach people to engage in scientific thinking or to become discriminating, thoughtful shoppers.

Actually, the messages on subliminal tapes can’t be heard because they are in fact not there. Merikle (1988) conducted a spectrographic analysis of several subliminal audiotapes and found no evidence for the presence of any identifiable speech sounds. If you were to present this data to the subliminal subscribers, they would stop listening, because they prefer to believe individual testimonials. They choose to believe something, anything, that will offer them even the hope of relief from their problems.

Instead of a direct confrontation, one might ask them if they can think of alternative hypotheses to account for any beneficial effects of such tapes. Remember, the intended message is audible on one side. Presumably people will listen to the audible side at least once so they will know what it is they are supposed to hear on the subliminal side. After hearing the message, when they subsequently listen to the inaudible side they may rehearse to themselves what they are supposed to be hearing. Even if they do not listen to the audible side, the label on the tape will prompt them to think about what it is they want changed and how they might achieve those changes. Your providing plausible reasons for the positive results from the testimonials may help demystify the operation of such tapes. In addition, it may be helpful to point out that 30 testimonials from 30 people would be vastly different from 30 testimonials from among 500 people. In other words, how many negative or neutral outcomes were there?

You may also question the high cost of the tapes and explain that paying a lot for a product makes one more likely to persist in believing that there are qualities for success residing in the product’s use. You may question the bottom-line motivation and qualifications of the seller and the product researcher. You may inquire about the consumer’s knowledge of the scientific method and offer to fill in missing facts. You should use commonly understood examples of consumer safety and the rigorous testing most products must pass depending upon the category of the product. For example, why must a tire for a car meet higher testing standards than a pressurized tire for a toy? If a product can be marketed without passing rigorous tests, how effective can it be, and what kind of product can it be? There is a big difference between testing that proves a product does not cause harm and testing that proves that a product actually has a beneficial effect.


In addition to all of the above depending on your ability to be personable and patient, you need to be able to offer people alternatives for solving their problems other than buying subliminal tapes, resorting to drugs, or joining the latest New Age fringe group. What do you have to offer them in the way of incorporating scientific thinking and principles into their lives to help better solve their problems? First, one might try to convince them that there are no quick and painless solutions for maladaptive behaviors or thought patterns that have developed over many years. Part of this involves warning them about charlatans who in order to make a quick profit encourage the belief that there are quick cures. Effective and lasting behavior-changing of any kind actually involves concentrated effort, also called work, and adherence to certain data-based prescriptive guidelines. Second, people need reassurance that they can solve their problems by resorting to the use of professional, legitimate, and scientifically supported materials and personal commitment. Low-cost self-help groups based on scientific principles are always a viable option. Third, you need to try to convince them that learning some basic, logical, scientific principles, and how to define problems objectively, will help them solve future problems or avoid them altogether.

Finally, as a result of these actions, you will demonstrate that scientists are concerned about their fellow human beings and that they want to share scientific knowledge where the impact is greatest. If a scientist only applies the scientific method in his or her research and is not able or willing to share the applicability of this method for solving everyday human problems, then there is little ground to argue with the pseudoscientists, who are more than happy to fill the void.


Brady J. Phelps and Mary E. Exum

Brady Phelps and Mary Exum are in the Department of Psychology, Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322.