Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Subliminal priming and motivation

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Subliminal priming and motivation:
What is the effect of subliminal priming on motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

One of the fundamental questions in the field of psychology, and particularly in the study of motivation, is why do we do what we do? In fact, you could even ask why humans do anything at all beyond what is necessary to survive. In an effort to answer questions such as these and to understand how motivation can be influenced by a variety of factors, it is important to first define what motivation is. According to Baumeister (2016), motivation can simply be defined as wanting or a condition of desiring some change in oneself or the surrounding environment. A more formal definition is that a motive is an internal experience that gives behaviour energy, direction and persistence (Reeve, 2018). Furthermore, it is recognised that motivation is dynamic and can be influenced by a number of both internal and external factors.

Priming is one external factor proposed to influence motivation and is often defined as a phenomenon in which exposure to a stimulus influences an individual's response to a subsequent stimulus despite a lack of conscious awareness. Over time, people have become increasingly interested, and to some extent concerned, regarding the effect of priming on behaviour and motivation. An example of this is in the recent film Focus in which a conman, Nicky, makes a bet against a gentleman involving choosing the number of a football player from one of the teams in the stadium. In order to win, Nicky's partner must choose the same number as the gentleman despite not knowing Nicky's plan. Ultimately, they choose the same number and it is revealed that Nicky had been priming the gentleman to subconsciously recognise and choose that number by having it represented around him throughout the day. Subliminal priming occurs in a similar way to that described above, however the stimuli to which the individual is exposed is below the threshold of consciousness or perception (Elgendi et al., 2018).

Focus questions:

  • How does subliminal priming affect motivation?
  • What is subliminal priming and how does it work?
  • Which factors influence subliminal priming?
  • What are possible applications of subliminal priming?

Sources of motivation[edit | edit source]

In regards to motivation, there are three main sources or types of internal motives that need to be considered in an effort to understand how motivation can be influenced and how it in turn can influence behaviour. An understanding of these is particularly important when considering the effect of subliminal priming on motivation as many studies are focused on these internal motives as opposed to the broader concept of motivation. Each of these sources of motivation will be discussed briefly below.

Needs[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

The term needs refers to conditions within an individual that are essential for not just maintenance of life, but also for growth and general well-being (Reeve, 2018). Needs can be classified as either physiological needs, such as thirst and hunger, or psychological needs which include the need for autonomy, competence and relatedness. For more information, see Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Figure 1) or Alderfer's ERG theory. The drive to satisfy these biological needs and to grow is highly influential on human behaviour.

Cognitions[edit | edit source]

Cognitive sources of motivation refer to an individuals[grammar?] way of thinking, including their beliefs, thoughts, expectations, goals, attributions and appraisals (Bargh, 2016). An example of how cognition influences motivation is whether people go for a run in the morning. Someone who believes that running is good for their health and has goals to improve their fitness is likely more motivated to run than someone who thinks it does not help and is more effort than it is worth.

Emotions[edit | edit source]

Emotions are defined as complex reactions to situations in our lives that are generated automatically and involve feelings, arousal, purpose and expression (Reeve, 2018). They are considered the final major mechanism of motivation due to the adaptive role that they serve for individuals. To demonstrate the role of emotion in altering motivation, imagine someone who is scared of spiders. The fear produced as a result of seeing a spider drives the person to act in a certain way, such as moving away from the spider. Without the generation of this emotion, there would be little to no motivation to engage in the behaviour.

Effect of subliminal priming on motivation[edit | edit source]

Vicary's famous experiment

In the area of subliminal priming there is a well-known story about an experiment conducted at a movie theatre. In this experiment, Vicary tested subliminal messaging on individuals while they were watching a movie by displaying two messages, 'eat popcorn' and 'drink coca-cola', faster than the human eye can see (Karremans et al., 2006). Findings from the experiment demonstrated significant changes in motivation to buy popcorn and coca-cola, evidenced by dramatic increases in sales. This shocked many people, leading to both a ban on the use of subliminal messages within advertisement and a sharp increase in research on priming. It was later revealed that the experiment as a whole was a hoax, yet it raised important questions which others began to explore.

Vicary's experiment was fundamental to the concept of subliminal priming and made people question whether this type of priming works and, if so, what the effect would be on an individual's motivational state. Earlier studies typically focused on marketing, with the aim of changing motivation regarding an individual's consumption. Karremans and colleagues (2006) conducted a Lipton Ice study in which they attempted to subliminally prime individuals with that brand name to determine if doing so influenced later brand choices. Results from their study suggested that the priming process positively affected the participant's choice for the primed brand as well as their intention to drink it. The change in their intention and their decision making highlights that the process of priming altered their motivational state, such that there was an increase in motivation and this was directed towards choosing Lipton Ice over an alternate brand. These effects of subliminal priming on motivation were supported by a similar study conducted by Strahan and colleagues (2002). In this experiment, both thirst and sadness were studied, with results indicating that priming enhanced persuasiveness of an ad and thus also influenced motivation. For example, when sadness was subliminally primed and those individuals were expected to interact with others, an ad for mood-restoring music was considered more persuasive. This indicates that the priming combined with knowledge of future interactions motivated the participants to make attempts to repair their mood.

Whilst many of the initial studies on subliminal priming were focused on marketing and consumption, people soon questioned whether these same effects on motivation applied to different areas such as achievement. Chalfoun and Frasson (2008) considered whether subliminal priming could be utilised in the context of a 3D virtual tutoring system to enhance learning. The experiment consisted of visually teaching the construction of an odd magic square, with one group acting as a control and the other group being subliminally primed with the answer. Findings illustrated a significant difference in learning between the two groups, with those being subliminally primed demonstrating heightened learning. These positive impacts on learning and the stronger physiological reactions elicited implies a change in the participants' motivation. A related study by Takarada and Nozaki (2018) also emphasised the effect of subliminal priming on motivation, with results demonstrating that motivational goal-priming produces faster and stronger force exertion. The increased persistence of energy and behaviour witnessed indicates that priming was effective in increasing motivation.

The effect of subliminal priming on an individual's motivational state has also been considered in more social contexts. Bargh and colleagues (1996) were interested in looking at the automaticity of social behaviours as previous studies had demonstrated that the recent use of a construct or stereotype exerts an unintended influence on interpretation of behaviour. This alteration in interpretation of behaviour causes changes in subsequent cognition and emotion, therefore influencing motivation. In one of the experiments conducted in this study, participants were primed subliminally with the African American stereotype which led to them reacting with more hostility to a vexatious request. The participants' motivation to act in this way derives from the process of subliminal priming and the effect that it had on cognitive and emotional processes as mentioned above. Massar and Buunk (2010) also considered the effect of subliminal priming, focusing more heavily on emotion in social interactions. Specifically, their study aimed to determine the effect of a rival's facial attractiveness on jealousy in females. The participants were subliminally exposed to either an attractive or an unattractive woman before being asked to read a jealousy-evoking scenario which introduced a rival with no description of her appearance. Results indicated that participants unconsciously linked the subliminally presented female to the rival in the story and that those exposed to the attractive woman reported significantly more jealousy (Massar & Buunk, 2010). Those who experienced more jealousy also reported an increase in feelings of worry, anger and sadness. As emotion is one of the three main sources of motivation, the effect of subliminal priming on an individuals[grammar?] motivational state is highlighted through this study. The effect of priming on motivation is further emphasised by changes in persistence, energy and direction of behaviour that would likely occur due to the rise of those emotions.

How subliminal priming works[edit | edit source]

In terms of explaining how subliminal priming exerts effects on an individual, there are a number of different theories. A study by Bornstein and colleagues (1987) emphasised the role of the mere exposure effect in explaining subliminal priming. The mere exposure effect refers to the idea that even just being exposed to a stimulus makes us like it more, even if we are not consciously aware of the exposure (Zajonc, 2001). By subliminally priming someone with a stimulus, they become more familiar with it and thus have a greater preference for it. In turn, this preference for the primed stimulus alters emotions and cognitions regarding it, therefore influencing motivation. An example of this is a study completed by Moreland and Beach (1992) in which they arranged for four women to attend a college class a certain number of times during the semester. At the end of the semester, the students were shown pictures of these women and were asked to rate them. Students evaluated the woman they had seen most frequently significantly more positively than the woman they hadn't seen at all, despite having no interaction with either.

Web diagram of a cognitive associative network
Figure 2. Example of an associative network involving semantic and morpheme primes.

A second theory used to explain subliminal priming is the spreading activation theory. This theory is cognitive in nature and centres around the concepts of associative networks and schemas. Our brain organises information into networks or schemas to assist cognitive processing and creates links between associated bits of information as shown in Figure 2. When one item stored in our memory is activated, other related areas are also activated to provide us with more information from within that network (Masson, 1995). This is the basis for the spreading activation theory. When applying this theory to subliminal priming, we can begin to understand how it may influence an individual. A recently activated concept spreads activation to closely related concepts making them temporarily more accessible. As they are more easily accessed, they are then more likely to influence cognition and affect and, consequently, motivation.


If an individual was subliminally primed with the word yellow and then asked to choose a fruit, they are more likely to choose a banana than another fruit, such as a grape, due to the association between bananas and the colour yellow.

Another theory that can be used in explaining subliminal priming is the drive theory of motivation. According to Hull, drive refers to the state of arousal caused by physiological needs not being satisfied (Reeve, 2018). Ultimately, the aim is to motivate the organism to behave in such a way to satisfy the need. According to this theory, we are motivated to satisfy these internal needs and therefore, subliminal priming that is related to that need alters motivation. In considering the above research, this theory does not seem to apply to all areas but it can still contribute to our understanding of priming.

One other main theory to consider is evolutionary theory, particularly when faces or emotions are being used as the prime. Humans are social beings and as such, it is part of our nature to pay attention to other individuals as this is considered important for survival. The heightened attention paid to social cues and emotions means that they can have a strong impact even when presented subliminally (Reeve, 2018). For example, if someone is shown an image of a neutral stimuli that is continuously paired subliminally with an image of a face expressing fear, this is likely to alter thoughts, emotions and behaviour around that stimuli even if the effect is small. By considering the nature of humans and relating this to the process of subliminal priming, the effect on motivation is easier to understand.

Factors affecting subliminal priming[edit | edit source]

There are a number of factors that influence the process of subliminal priming, each of which will be discussed briefly below.

Situational factors[edit | edit source]

In considering the effect of subliminal priming on motivation, it is important to also explore which factors influence the effectiveness of subliminal priming on an individual. Experimental studies examining consumer behaviour found support for the effect of subliminal priming, however this was conditional (Bermeitinger et al., 2009; Karremans et al., 2006; Strahan et al., 2002). Each of these studies highlighted that effects on consumption were only apparent when an individual was already in a deprived state. Effectively, if there was a physiological need present, such as thirst or hunger, subliminal priming could be used to influence motivation and thus change subsequent behaviours. Despite what appeared to be general acceptance that priming effects on consumption are dependent on basic needs, further studies questioned whether this was valid. A study by Veltkamp and colleagues (2011) examined whether subliminal priming could motivate need-related behaviours despite no pre-existing deprivation being present. Results indicated that subliminal priming can motivate consumers as though there was already a deficit, suggesting that deprivation is not required for priming effects to occur. In addition, priming effects have been demonstrated in other studies, such as those mentioned above, that are not related to physiological needs. Overall, it is important to consider the role of physiological needs and environmental incentives as they are fundamental to understanding motivation and, in certain circumstances, may influence effects of subliminal priming.

Dispositional factors[edit | edit source]

A number of studies have emphasised that subliminal priming effects are stronger when the primes used correspond to a currently active or particularly important goal of the individual (Bargh, 2016). This relates to the role of physiological needs in that both propose that priming has a greater influence on motivation when the individual is already somewhat motivated in the specified direction. Ultimately, if the behaviour or cognitions being primed are seen as valuable or beneficial to the individual, the process of subliminal priming is likely to be more influential on that individual's motivational state. A second personal factor that influences subliminal priming is the individual's personality. Bustin and colleagues (2015) conducted a study with findings demonstrating that those categorised as high in sensation seeking are more influenced by subliminal priming, suggesting effects differ based on personal traits and attributes. In other words, people differ in their sensitivity to subliminal priming as their personality traits mean the primes are relevant and thus more likely to capture their attention, even unconsciously.

Prime characteristics[edit | edit source]

Both situational and dispositional factors seem to play a role in the effectiveness of subliminal priming, however it is critical to also consider characteristics of the prime itself. The effect of subliminal priming may be contaminated if the stimulus is consciously perceived by the individual (Elgendi et al., 2018). For example, if the prime is exposed to the individual long enough for them to become aware of it, the unconscious processing does not occur, therefore influencing the priming process. Elgendi and colleagues (2018) also highlighted that presentation of emotional compared to neutral stimuli produces differences in subsequent priming, particularly with affective priming. Subliminal priming tends to be more effective when emotional stimuli are used due to the greater attention directed towards them as they play a significant adaptive function in humans.

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Choose the correct answer and click "Submit":

Which of the following does not influence subliminal priming?

Sensation seeking
Type of stimuli

Motivational applications of subliminal priming[edit | edit source]

Based on the current literature on subliminal priming, there are a few practical applications that could be beneficial. Using subliminal priming in educational settings or the workplace could allow for greater persistence of behaviour and facilitate learning, both of which would be highly beneficial. This same idea can be applied to sporting contexts, in which subliminally priming an individual may increase energy and persistence of behaviour due to enhanced motivation, resulting in better performance. A third application for subliminal priming is evident when considering nudge theory. Nudge theory proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestion as ideal ways of influencing decision making and behaviour of both individuals and groups. In other words, it creates 'choice architecture' to encourage but not force people to make better decisions and behave differently. An example of this would be having fruit readily available in your home and not buying unhealthy snacks or making them harder to access. This does not force you to eat fruit over unhealthy snacks but it does have an influence on what you choose to do. Subliminal priming is another means through which nudge theory can be used in a range of situations. In considering these applications, it is critical to question whether it would be ethical and moral to implement them.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There is general consensus in the psychological literature that the effect of subliminal priming is to increase motivation as evidenced primarily by subsequent energy, persistence or direction of behaviour. Furthermore, subliminal influence does appear to be effective in a variety of situations, however there are a number of factors that come into play, including situational, dispositional and prime factors. Whilst there is the possibility for practical applications of subliminal priming, further research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of the process and consequences of priming an individual. In addition, there should be more studies into different areas and variables as there are inconsistencies in results, reducing the validity and reliability of priming.

See also[edit | edit source]

References:[edit | edit source]

Bargh, J. A. (2016). Awareness of the prime versus awareness of its influence: implications for the real-world scope of unconscious higher mental processes. Current Opinion in Psychology, 12, 49-52.

Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230-244.

Baumeister, R. F. (2016). Toward a general theory of motivation: problems, challenges, opportunities, and the big picture. Motivation and Emotion, 40(1), 1-10.

Bermeitinger, C., Goelz, R., Johr, N., Neumann, M., Ecker, U. K. H., & Doerr, R. (2009). The hidden persuaders break into the tired brain. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 320−326.

Bornstein, R. F., Leone, D. R., & Galley, D. J. (1987). The generalizability of subliminal mere exposure effects: influence of stimuli perceived without awareness on social behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1070–1079.

Bustin, G. M., Jones, D. N., Hansenne, M., & Quoidbach, J. (2015). Who does Red Bull give wings to? sensation seeking moderates sensitivity to subliminal advertisement. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 825.

Chalfoun, P., & Frasson, C. (2008). Subliminal priming enhances learning in a distant virtual 3D intelligent tutoring system. IEEE Multidisciplinary Engineering Education Magazine, 3(4), 125-130.

Elgendi, M., Kumar, P., Barbic, S., Howard, N., Abbott, D., & Cichocki, A. (2018). Subliminal priming—state of the art and future perspectives. Behavioral Sciences, 8(6), 54.

Karremans, J. C., Stroebe, W., & Claus, J. (2006). Beyond Vicary's fantasies: the impact of subliminal priming and brand choice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(6), 792−798.

Massar, K., & Buunk, A. P. (2010). Judging a book by its cover: jealousy after subliminal priming with attractive and unattractive faces. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(6), 634-638.

Masson, M. E. J. (1995). A distributed memory model of semantic priming. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21(1), 3–23.

Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. R. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: the development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(3), 255-276.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Strahan, E. J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Subliminal priming and persuasion: striking while the iron is hot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(6), 556-568.

Takarada, Y., & Nozaki, D. (2018). Motivational goal-priming with or without awareness produces faster and stronger force exertion. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 1-12.

Veltkamp, M., Custers, R., & Aarts, H. (2011). Motivating consumer behavior by subliminal conditioning in the absence of basic needs: striking even while the iron is cold. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 21(1), 49-56.

Zajonc, R. B. (2001). Mere exposure: a gateway to the subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(6), 224-228.

External links[edit | edit source]