Police Psychology | Manipulation Subliminal Style

Posted: July 2, 2015 in Rank and Leadership
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Police Psychology | Are You Being Manipulated?


A screenshot of the campaign video with the subliminal message "rats" in large letters.

Police psychology deals with media manipulation, like in the campaign video in which the word “rats” was subliminally written.

With the current feeling about racial issues in police psychology, perhaps we should review the research on manipulation and subliminal messages. If you graduated in the 80’s much of this might be new to you.


In 2000, there was a well-documented election scandal: in one of Bush’s campaign videos in which he discussed the Gore Prescription Plan, the word “rats” flashed across the screen following a picture of Al Gore. Following the discovery of this, a lot of media attention surrounded subliminal messages and how they affect our thoughts and behavior. Bush responded to the angry accusations saying first that it was a mistake and second that it was just a part of the word “bureaucrats” that had been formatted to appear in large letters on the screen. Suddenly, people were afraid that our thoughts would no longer be our own—that the choices we make would be controlled by external sources.


An Old Concept Mired in Falsehood


The idea behind subliminal messages dates back to 1957 when James Vicary, a market researcher, inserted two phrases into a movie: “Eat popcorn” and “drink Coke.” According to Vicary, this caused a marked increase in popcorn and Coke sales in the movie theaters. His claim: the messages he inserted into the movie (displayed for such a short amount of time that only our subconscious would have time to notice it) caused people to go out and buy popcorn and Coke. For years, this was believed to be true.   More recent studies have debunked this claim, proving subliminal messages are not as powerful as Vicary believed. (And in fact, Vicary came out with a statement that he made up some of his results as a joke. Sounds like he was doing a little marketing of his own!)

The True Power of Subliminality


Yet, while these two examples may be extreme and not worthy of concern, subliminal messages can still affect our lives in other ways. For example, colors may have an unconscious affect on our moods. Colors in the red spectrum tend to elicit feelings of warmth that range from love and comfort to anger. Colors in the blue spectrum tend to elicit feelings of coolness, ranging from calmness to sadness. In addition, the color of presidential candidate’s ties is designed deliberately to demonstrate different things, like power, or authority, or wealth. A second example of how subliminal messages may still play a role in our lives is in social psychology. A famous study was done in which it was demonstrated that when people are complimented by other individuals, even if they know the compliment is fake or it is only being said in order to manipulate them into doing something, they are still inclined to believe the compliment if they want this person to like them. Another study further demonstrated this idea: studies show that you should compliment a pretty girl on her taste, and compliment a plain girl on her looks (I don’t know if the same goes for men). In both cases, the individuals believe the compliments because they want to believe them. And going back to color, clothing in the color red has been shown to make men more sexually attracted to women. I guess they look more like Ferraris or something.


The reality: subliminal messages are really only useful as they can prime your behavior in a certain direction. For example, if you are thirsty and you are in the mood for soda, if a Coke bottle flashed across the screen at a rate too fast for you to consciously notice it, you may be more inclined to pick Coke over other soda options when you go get a drink. However, this is a time-limited effect, meaning if you have immediate access to Coke, then you are more likely to choose that drink over others, but if you need to go out to the store to go pick it up, the effects of the subliminal message might wear off by that time and you are no more likely to pick Coke over another type of soda. Thus, subliminal messages work best under highly controlled lab conditions, when you are already inclined toward that thought or behavior or when the access to target behavior is immediate. This doesn’t make it sound like we need to be worried about subliminal messages in police psychology and police stress. And yet…

Does the Media Control our Thoughts?


Do we need to be worried about the media controlling the election, or the media controlling the public’s perception of the police? Certainly in terms of subliminal messages, we need not fear this type of control unless it is a point of sale situation. That’s why they put stuff at counters of stores. Subliminal messages are not true manipulation, but rather they help push you in the direction in which you were planning on going anyway. If people want to believe cops are abusive to citizens, they can believe that based on a report. If people want to believe their country is the greatest in the world, subliminal message will tell them that. They do not cause a change in attitude; rather, it stimulates and reinforces your own beliefs. But even if subliminal messages do not have overt control over you that does not limit the power of the press. The media can still control the election and the public’s perception in terms of restricting what it shows. In fact, in police psychology, we are concerned about media manipulation. Certain websites and news reports will exclusively demonstrate examples of police brutality or the failings or accomplishments of the government. Does that make what they are showing a true representation of reality? Not really. But if you want to believe that it does, then it will for you.

Police psychology: simple steps3 Steps for Avoiding Subliminal Influence


  1. Research. Knowledge is power—if you don’t want the media to control your thoughts and opinions, then you need to research these topics on your own. Read both sides of every story. The more you research, the greater sense you will have of the reality of the situation, and the less likely you will fall into subliminal influence traps.
  2. Know Your Source. Everyone has an agenda. Know who you are dealing with when you get information and what their motivation is in the situation. The desire of most sources of information today is to first gain, and then hold a person’s attention. Some news outlets have started sensationalizing stories instead of reporting what is happening. Some internet sites have come to making outlandish claims to keep your attention.  Don’t get frustrated that you can’t get a straight story and get angry about it. Accept it, and use it in your own favor.
  3. Enjoy. In graduate school, many many years ago, we used to talk about the elegant solution. The elegant solution came from a combination of not letting anything get you too upset but still caring about outcome. Frankly, nothing is more entertaining than someone trying to manipulate you to think in their fashion. I have heard the same statistics used on both sides of an issue like gun control. I have had people try to convince me that abortion is the major issue of a presidential election. I never made the connection that how a person stands on Roe vs. Wade should determine who makes decisions about al-Qaeda or ISIS. Pretty girls, hunky men, fast cars, money, girls that were men, men that were girls, all the drippings to get my opinion swayed to one side or another or purchase a product. It is meant to be the entertainment in your life, the manipulation dance, or opera, or rock concert so you’d better enjoy it now instead of getting emotional. I need to remind myself of this one every day. THE ELEGANT SOLUTION.

Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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