by Tom Chivers
Friday, 21
May 2021
Idea
07:00

Social psychology nearly ruined my favourite film

Fight Club's not the same when you know 'subliminal advertising' doesn't work
by Tom Chivers
They’re talking about how the best findings in social psychology never replicate (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

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 Daniël 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.

Join the discussion


  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • To get involved in the discussion and stay up to date, become a registered user.

    It's simple, quick and free.

    Sign me up