TSP Project Feature – Subliminal Perception

First Year TSP students: Ashley Adolphe, Fiona Anderson, Shivani Dewan, Victor Khou, Sandra Li and Philippa Specker
Third Year Leader: Erainia Wu
Academic Supervisor: Professor Frans Verstraten, School of Psychology

Inspired by a famous experiment by James Vicary, an American market researcher, in 1957 which investigated the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, a group of six first year TSP students chose to delve into the topic of subliminal perception for their first taste of scientific research.

The famous experiment, which put the concept of subliminal advertising on the map, involved Vicary flashing the words 'Eat popcorn' and 'Drink Coca Cola' quickly in 0.03 second showings throughout the screening of a movie, which he reported had the effect of increasing popcorn and coke sales at the cinema during the movie. The results have not been able to be replicated since, however the Vicary experiment had a huge impact on psychological and marketing research.

“Vicary’s experiment instilled much fear in the public at the time, as the possibility of being unconsciously manipulated seemed to be a reality. Our TSP group chose to research whether subliminal stimuli are able to significantly affect human perception, so that subjects might unconsciously, for example, prefer one product over another in a supermarket aisle,” said Sandra Li.

“My part of the group project focused on the definition of subliminal perception, and how the history of experiments on subliminal perception were often somewhat contradictory, due to the slightly ambiguous measure of the subliminal threshold.”

The group did literature based research, reading studies and past experiments that attempted to solve the issue of the effect of subliminal perception on behaviour.

Shivani Dewan said, “There has been little proof which supports the notion that subliminal priming can occur, however it is still a topical and fascinating issue revolving around ‘free will’. Our research was based around investigating arguments for and against subliminal perception and attempting to a draw a conclusion on whether it is a reputed and sustained phenomenon. We also researched future applications of such a technique and the ethical issues surrounding the concept.”

With all six TSP students who worked on this project studying first year Psychology, they were all keen to explore this intriguing topic and work with Professor Frans Verstraten, Head of the School of Psychology.

“I found the topic completely fascinating! I was really intrigued by the notion that you may be able to perceive stimuli below your consciousness. This mere fact demonstrates how complicated and astounding the human brain is,” said Shivani.

Sandra said, “I chose this topic for my first TSP project because I, personally, have always found an interest in advertisements and how they may unknowingly influence one to buy certain products. The idea of subconscious things going on inside our mind is also very intriguing, as we often think of ourselves as smart beings, in control of our mental processes, when in fact the reality is that we do not know even half of what is going on in our minds.”

“The best part of the TSP was being able to work in a group with other talented students, and building each other up on ideas about both the topic of subliminal perception and in the presentation, and how our different skills fit together. The actual content of the experimental papers themselves were also very interesting,” said Sandra.

“I would 100% recommend doing a TSP project – I found so many benefits in doing the showcase, such as: developing team work, research and time management skills; the opportunity to delve into a topic that I’m passionate about; and really extending ourselves to think outside the box when it comes to presenting the project,” said Shivani.