According to the U.K.'s Independent, an experiment by British researchers shows that not only is the human brain capable of picking up a message or word that has been flashed for a mere split-second, but more importantly that the message's emotional meaning is more likely to be recalled if it is negative.
The Independent's Cahal Milmo writes of a study at University College London in which a subliminally transmitted word with negative connotations was more frequently spotted by participants than were words with positive or neutral associations.
In the study, volunteers were shown a series of positive, negative and neutral words for as little as 17 milliseconds. The participants were then asked to recall and identify words with an emotional value.
In those cases where volunteers identified a word with emotional associations the positive ones ("flower," "peace," "cheerful") were identified 59 percent of the time. But words with negative associations ("agony," "despair," "murder") were correctly spotted 77 percent of the time.
Researchers said that the results show humans are programmed on a subconscious level to respond to a stimulus containing a potential threat.
"We have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words," said Professor Nilli Lavie, who led the research. The study was published in the APA journal Emotion.
Bad news, perhaps, for marketers, for whom the area of subliminal advertising has been reputed or castigated (and in some instances banned) for making barely-perceptible sales pitches.
For more info:
Study: Subliminal Messaging "More Effective When Negative" (University College London press release)
UCL Institute of Congnitive Neuroscience