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Social psychology nearly ruined my favourite film

They're talking about how the best findings in social psychology never replicate (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

May 21, 2021 - 7:00am

In the best film ever, Fight Club, the antihero character Tyler Durden has various jobs which he uses as opportunities for social terrorism. He is, for instance, a waiter at a fancy hotel, and pees in the soup. But he also acts as a projectionist at a cinema, and (this being the days before digital projection) cuts single frames of pornography into children’s movies.

“So when the snooty cat and the courageous dog with the celebrity voices meet for the first time in reel three, that’s when you’ll catch a flash of Tyler’s contribution to the film,” says the narrator. “Nobody knows that they saw it, but they did.” In the next shot, children in the cinema burst into tears.

This is, essentially, “subliminal advertising”: the idea that momentary appearances of images or words, too fast for the conscious mind to detect, are picked up by our unconscious minds and influence our behaviour. It arose out of the work of a man called James Vicary, who claimed that by flashing an image of the words “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca-Cola” for 1/60,000th of a second to audiences in cinemas, it increased the sales of those goods by 57.5% and 18.1% respectively. He said he’d shown it to 50,000 moviegoers over six weeks.

Since then, subliminal advertising has developed an almost spooky hold on the public imagination. It is banned in the UK, but companies still try to use it. 

I had assumed that the original research was garbage, because so many flashy and well-publicised claims about social psychology are. More specifically, subliminal advertising seems to fit the model of “social priming”, a subfield of psychology based on the idea that you can subconsciously put ideas in people’s heads and get dramatic changes in behaviour: making them think of words like “bingo” and “wrinkle” made them walk more slowly because they’re “primed” to feel old, for instance. 

Social priming has suffered badly in the last decade: dozens of its best-known findings have been shown to be false. I’d assumed subliminal advertising would be much the same, given that it made ludicrous claims like a 57.5% increase in sales.

What I hadn’t realised, and learnt recently via the statistically savvy psychologist DaniĂ«l Lakens, was that the original Vicary study was a total fraud. Vicary never performed the research at all. There was no published paper, and the owner of the cinema denied that Vicary had ever carried out a test. It was just made up out of whole cloth.

And yet
everyone still believes in it! “Subliminal advertising” is a phrase we all know. It’s a staple of popular culture (to pick a random example, the plot of an episode of Columbo relies on it). But it’s based on nothing.

(There was, I should admit, a 2006 study called “Beyond Vicary’s fantasies” which apparently found a weaker effect in some circumstances, making people buy Lipton ice tea but only when they were thirsty. But all studies before about 2011, especially un-preregistered ones like this, are suspect; this in particular was statistically suspect. I would bet at quite low odds that it wouldn’t replicate; in fact, a BBC documentary which did try to replicate it found nothing.)

Luckily, the plot of Fight Club doesn’t turn on it: I would be very sad if psychology’s statistical failings ruined this film. But it’s yet another victory for my heuristic that, if you are not a psychologist, it’s worth assuming that every exciting psychological finding that you’ve actually heard of is probably false.


Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

But it’s yet another victory for my heuristic that, if you are not a psychologist, it’s worth assuming that every exciting psychological finding that you’ve actually heard of is probably false.
Jordan Peterson has said that probably the only provable conclusion from a century of mainstream psychology is that IQ is the main predictor of economic success.
So far as the effect of social psychology on Fight Club goes, I’m a total believer in the willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to movies. If it’s a gripping movie with strong characterization, I tune out the real world and enjoy the show.

Last edited 3 years ago by J Bryant
Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
3 years ago

Subliminal advertising isn’t necessary. Why would it be when one man in the early decades of the previous century was able to make millions of women take up smoking by branding the habit as symbolic of rebellion? At a time when it was socially unacceptable for women to smoke, Edward Bernays (hired by the tobacco companies) staged a display of women smoking at the Easter Day Parade in New York, and that lit the touch paper.

The key point is that none of the women who subsequently took up smoking – and over time that means millions and millions – ever knew that they had done so not out of free choice but because they were manipulated. In fact, they must have believed that by smoking they were exercising their freedom.
How would you characterise that episode? It must be an instance of pure immorality. It is such a clear cut example of the ability of a single person, or group of people, to directly influence the will of countless of their fellow human beings without their knowledge or consent, that it should have served as a clear warning for the future. Instead, the world of business and commerce were thrilled by the success and this kind of subterfuge has become endemic.

Now politicians are doing it. The ghastly, unholy alliance of behavioural manipulation and representative democracy has given us the crimes of which this government is guilty.

Last edited 3 years ago by Kremlington Swan
David Fitzsimons
David Fitzsimons
3 years ago

A few months ago, on Sky Sports, a couple of frames of an advert for a wrestling show was spliced into another segment – subliminal advertising banned you say?

But it’s yet another victory for my heuristic that, if you are not a psychologist, it’s worth assuming that every exciting psychological finding that you’ve actually heard of is probably false.

Very good!

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

I think Tom’s almost right with his heuristic, but he should leave out “exciting” and add “or totally blindingly obvious” at the end.

After all – do bears…..

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Next Chivers will be telling us Freud’s Oedipus Complex is not a fact and that all men do not want to kill their fathers and marry their mothers.
As far as Fight Club, I saw it and thought it dull and have no idea what the twist was, or even what the story was but some recreational fighting. Odd how one thing means something to one, but entirely different things mean something to another.

Scott Carson
Scott Carson
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Fight Club is one of those films that has somehow acquired the almost mythical status of a “cult” movie. Like Withnail and I, which I only saw recently, I suspect that for every viewer who considers it a classic there will be dozens, like myself, who just don’t understand what the fuss is about. Next time Fight Club is on I’m going to watch it and find out.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

That Amazing book ‘Marching Morons’, is all about a vast conspiracy theory to get rid of most of the useless people, and a salesman who invents it, in a future world where the less bright had all the children and the public are not smart. The conspiracy is a (one way) Trip to Venus is being offered as normal, to get the excess morons off Earth, and they are being made to think it is good, and always has been. – much like the whole Covid conspiracy to wreck the West now.
“”The freud will see you now,” said the nurse, and Mrs. Garvy tottered into his office.
His traditional glasses and whiskers were reassuring. She choked out the ritual: “Freud, forgive me, for I have neuroses.”
He chanted the antiphonal: “Tut, my dear girl, what seems to be the trouble?”
“I got like a hole in the head,” she quavered. “I seem to forget all kinds of things. Things like everybody seems to know and I don’t.”
“Well, that happens to everybody occasionally, my dear. I suggest a vacation on Venus.”
The freud stared, open-mouthed, at the empty chair. His nurse came in and demanded, “Hey, you see how she scrammed? What was the matter with her?”
He took off his glasses and whiskers meditatively. “You can search me. I told her she should maybe try a vacation on Venus.” A momentary bafflement came into his face and he dug through his desk drawers until he found a copy of the four-color, profusely illustrated journal of his profession. It had come that morning and he had lip-read it, though looking mostly at the pictures. He leafed through to the article Advantages of the Planet Venus in Rest Cures.
“It’s right there,” he said.
The nurse looked. “It sure is,” she agreed. “Why shouldn’t it be?”
“The trouble with these here neurotics,” decided the freud, “is that they all the time got to fight reality. Show in the next twitch.”
He put on his glasses and whiskers again and forgot Mrs. Garvy and her strange behavior.
“Freud, forgive me, for I have neuroses.”
“Tut, my dear girl, what seems to be the trouble?””

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

Rather a relief to know subliminal advertising may not be that effective, and no, Fight Club isn’t ruined just because Vicary’s study is a fake. The ending of Fight Club is magnificent: “Marla, look at me. Trust me. Everything’s gonna be fine. You met me at a very strange time in my life.”