How scientifically valid is the idea that the subconscious recognises, interprets and processes symbols? By "symbols" I mean representations of one thing using another.

The context is the article "The Inner Language of the Subconscious" by Brenner in Psychology Today. I'm reading of attempts to coax certain behaviours/thought processes or eliminate bad habits by means of communicating directly with the subconscious, and I wanted to know if this is legitimate thinking or pseudoscientific claptrap.


1 Answer 1


You can start by checking out research on subliminal messaging. To summarize, subliminal messaging works to some degree, but it is much less effective than superliminal communication.

For example, will showing a dark gray coke bottle silhouette, so dark that you don't even know you're seeing it, in the momentary blank screen between movie previews cause people to decide to go buy a soda? It will probably influence a couple people, but not as many as would be influenced by just replacing the blank screen with a big, bright, picture of a coke, with the Coca-cola logo and condensation dripping down the glass. I say this because the benefits of conventional advertisements are well-established, but the effects of subliminal marketing are in doubt (Karremans et al., 2006).

That said, there is evidence that you can "prime" someone with subliminal information. Priming, though, is more about getting people to recognize something more quickly later than it is about getting them to change their behavior.

To your question, Greenwald has studied the effectiveness of subliminal messaging for self-help, and found it to be ineffective.


Greenwald, A. G. (1992). New Look 3: Unconscious cognition reclaimed. American Psychologist, 47(6), 766.

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.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. Do you have any reference materials to provide which back up your claims? We require answers to be backed up by research and as it stands, your answer could be open to challenge as just opinion. $\endgroup$ May 30, 2018 at 17:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Marvellous answer. So basically any plans to modify my behaviour through regular exposure to symbols is going to be less effective than just sticking a sign on my desk that says "don't eat donuts!" :D $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2018 at 10:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.