- People fear subconscious manipulation by external forces (e.g., advertising).
- People greatly overestimate the manipulative power of subtle messaging in a variety of contexts.
- These concerns are not evidence-based. Most messaging is woefully ineffective.
In some recent posts, I’ve talked about the science of belief, information, and internet technologies (in particular, social media). I have argued that much of the concern about the spread of misinformation and radicalizing conspiracies online is misguided.
There are many reasons for this. Surveys show that people tend to worry that other people are gullible and easily misled, and that social media algorithms direct masses of users to more extreme content. But these concerns are largely unfounded and driven by ignorance and misunderstandings about psychology. Some well-intentioned citizens are too eager to regulate and control others’ beliefs.
But why? Where do these prevalent concerns really come from? Here we’ll look at research that may provide a few clues. Studies show a high amount of fear about masses of people being targeted for subconscious psychological manipulation all the time in their everyday lives. This unease seems to have taken shape with the advent of mass media communication. People fear that manipulative messages are everywhere.
Why Are We Afraid?
Fears about subconscious manipulation are not new. As far back as the 1950s, people were afraid that advertisers were using subliminal messages to trick people into buying their products. But while researchers performed rigorous follow-up studies to show that this was not possible, the popular myth nevertheless persisted.
In fact, the false belief in the power of subliminal messages was featured in Scott Lilienfeld’s book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. He describes the story of James Vicary, a marketing guru who claimed to have manipulated people in a movie theater by flashing messages on the screen for a split-second, urging the audience to buy snacks. Vicary later admitted to fabricating this demonstration, but that didn’t stop people from believing in the power of subconscious messaging anyway.
People also feared subliminal communication in rock music (e.g., Judas Priest) such that if the songs were played backwards, listeners would hear Satanic messages that may drive people to immoral behaviors or suicide. These ideas were wholly unsubstantiated.
People Think Their Minds Are Being Invaded
More recent studies show that fears about psychological manipulation are alive and well. Magda Osman and Christos Bechlivanidis found that in addition to marketing messages, participants were also concerned that they are being actively manipulated by supermarkets, car dealerships, political campaigns, scientists and researchers, therapists, and social media.
As with previous studies, the researchers found evidence that many people suspect that their minds are being manipulated outside of their conscious awareness or control. This was tested by gauging participants’ responses to scenarios such as: “Social Media that is designed in such a way so that the people experience it in such a way that it influences the way that they think.” Many participants also expressed belief in the debunked idea that subliminal messaging is effective at getting people to buy products.
This gives us insight into the cultural zeitgeist in 2022. Popular distrust toward social media companies and internet technologies in general may stem from fears about subconscious manipulation. People think their minds are being invaded.
Importantly, these fears are rooted in misunderstandings about how our minds actually function. It’s not possible for anyone to invade someone else’s brain and control or manipulate their thoughts. Telepathy and “Jedi mind tricks” are the stuff of science fiction and fantasy.
It's a bit ironic to consider that the gurus (especially those in marketing or advertising) who promote fantastical ideas about subconsciously manipulating mass audiences are themselves mostly frauds and hacks, who have little evidence to support their ideas and generally lack a basic understanding of psychology. But if we believe in their claims, we may inadvertently end up enriching them.
Part of the reason that internet-based companies are so profitable is because those who advertise on their platforms believe that they have developed some “secret sauce” to psychologically influence their users. This leads to a lot of ad sales revenue on social media platforms. Again, there is little evidence for this.
Most ad campaigns are notoriously ineffective, with one study showing that over 80 percent of brand ad campaigns had negative return on investment. The results for political advertising are even worse. Several papers led by Alexander Coppock found that political ads are abysmally ineffective at influencing voters’ favorability ratings or vote choice. These results show just how difficult it is to change people’s attitudes or move their behavior.
Conclusion: Let’s Be Skeptical of Mind Manipulation
If masses of people were indeed so susceptible to subtle messaging, it should be relatively easy to demonstrate large persuasion effects with controlled experiments. The fact that the research evidence has not borne this out means that we should approach claims about mind manipulation with a healthy skepticism.
I am heartened to see more scientists openly questioning these popular misconceptions. Arvind Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor run a Substack called AI Snake Oil which has a series of refreshing and informative perspectives on the limited capabilities of digital technology. I highly recommend checking them out. And I encourage more voices to publicly challenge mainstream assumptions about the susceptibility of the average person to unwanted psychological influence.
Coppock, A., Green, D. P., & Porter, E. (2022). Does digital advertising affect vote choice? Evidence from a randomized field experiment. Research & Politics, 9(1), 20531680221076901.
Coppock, A., Hill, S. J., & Vavreck, L. (2020). The small effects of political advertising are small regardless of context, message, sender, or receiver: Evidence from 59 real-time randomized experiments. Science Advances, 6(36), 1-6.
Osman, M., & Bechlivanidis, C. (2021). Public perceptions of manipulations on behavior outside of awareness. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.
Shapiro, B. T., Hitsch, G. J., & Tuchman, A. E. (2021). TV advertising effectiveness and profitability: Generalizable results from 288 brands. Econometrica, 89(4), 1855-1879.