Marketing and political campaigns use less psychological influence than widely assumed

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Many presume that advertising and political campaigns meddle into psychological research to influence and control unconscious behaviors, but new research released by the Queen Mary University of London found people are still in control of their own choices, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, educational attainment or socioeconomic status. The results appeared in Consciousness and Cognition.

For the study, the team of researchers conducted three experiments. The first involved 399 participants who volunteered ways of which research on the unconscious impacted or influenced their behaviors.

“We know little about the commonality of folk beliefs around applications of psychological research on the unconscious control of behaviours,” according to Magda Osman, the study’s lead author.

“To address this, in Experiment 1 participants volunteered examples of where research on the unconscious has been applied to influence their behaviours. A subset of these were presented in Experiment 2, and Experiment 3.”

The participants were instructed to rate the significance of the behavior that influenced them. Examples given to the participants were mostly associated with marketing, advertising and politics. The participants resided in either the US, UK, Canada or Australia.

“Participants rated the extent to which the behaviour being influenced in these contexts was: (1) via the unconscious, (2) free, (3) the result of prior conscious intentions, (4) under conscious control,” the findings state.

“Relative to judgements about the extent to which behaviour was influenced via the unconscious, the remaining judgements regarding conscious control of behaviours were either higher (e.g., political contexts) or lower (e.g., therapy).”

The study found that subliminal advertising is regarded as a widely believed phenomenon, despite many experts refuting its effectiveness for influencing consumer behaviors.

“This study reveals two critical things, the first is that in peoples’ minds subliminal advertising still exists as a phenomenon, when really this is just a myth as psychological research over the last 60 years has shown that it cannot actually influence our consumer behaviours,” Osman explained.

“Although people across the different countries and individual backgrounds consistently volunteered the same kinds of examples, such as advertising and political campaigning, when assessing them, they still felt the choices they made in these contexts were under their own conscious control,” she added.

“This is important as we often see reports in the media on complex campaign tactics, particularly in politics, persuading people to make choices that they are unaware of, but our research suggests that people don’t believe they actually work.”

“This study is the first to show, using ecologically valid examples, the folk beliefs people share on psychological constructs concerning free will and determinism,” Osman concluded.