We had a discussion last month on the sister blog regarding the effects of subliminal messages on political attitudes. It started with a Larry Bartels post entitled “Here’s how a cartoon smiley face punched a big hole in democratic theory,” with the subtitle, “Fleeting exposure to ‘irrelevant stimuli’ powerfully shapes our assessments of policy arguments,” discussing the results of an experiment conducted a few years ago and recently published by Cengiz Erisen, Milton Lodge and Charles Taber. Larry wrote:
What were these powerful “irrelevant stimuli” that were outweighing the impact of subjects’ prior policy views? Before seeing each policy statement, each subject was subliminally exposed (for 39 milliseconds — well below the threshold of conscious awareness) to one of three images: a smiling cartoon face, a frowning cartoon face, or a neutral cartoon face. . . . the subliminal cartoon faces substantially altered their assessments of the policy statements . . .
I followed up with a post expressing some skepticism:
It’s clear that when the students [the participants in the experiment] were exposed to positive priming, they expressed more positive thoughts . . . But I don’t see how they make the leap to their next statement, that these cartoon faces “significantly and consistently altered [students'] thoughts and considerations on a political issue.” I don’t see a change in the number of positive and negative expressions as equivalent to a change in political attitudes or considerations.
Unfortunately they don’t give the data or any clear summary of the data from experiment No. 2, so I can’t evaluate it. I respect Larry Bartels, and I see that he characterized the results as the “subliminal cartoon faces substantially altered their assessments of the policy statements — and the resulting negative and positive thoughts produced substantial changes in policy attitudes.” But based on the evidence given in the paper, I can’t evaluate this claim. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying that I can’t express judgment on it, given the information provided.
And Erison sent along a note which I said I would post. Erison’s note is here:
As a close follower of the Monkey Cage, it is a pleasure to see some interest in affect, unconscious stimuli, perceived (or registered) but unappreciated influences. Accordingly I thought it is now the right time for me to contribute to the discussion.
First, I would like to begin with clarifying conceptual issues with respect to affective priming. Affective priming is not subliminal advertising, nor is it a subliminal message. Subliminal ads (or messages) were used back in the 1970s with questionable methods and current priming studies rarely refer to these approaches.
Second, it is quite normal to be skeptical because no earlier research has attempted to address these kinds of issues in political science. When they first hear about affective influences, people may naturally consider the consequences for measuring political attitudes and political preferences. These conclusions may be especially meaningful for democratic theory, as mentioned by Larry Bartels in an earlier post.
But, fear not, this is not a stand-alone research study. Rather, it is part of an overall research program (Lodge and Taber, 2013) and there are various studies on unconscious stimuli and contextual effects. We name these “perceived but unappreciated effects” in our paper. In addition, we cite some other work on contextual cues (Berger et al., 2008), facial attractiveness (Todorov and Uleman, 2004), the “RATS” ad (Weinberger and Westen, 2008), the Willie Horton ad (Mendelberg, 2001), upbeat music or threatening images in political ads (Brader, 2006), which all provide examples of priming. There is a great deal of research in social psychology that offers other relevant examples of the social or political effects of affective primes.
Third, with respect to the outcomes, I would like to refer the reader to our path analyses (provided in the paper and in The Rationalizing Voter) that show the effects of affect-triggered thoughts on policy preferences (see below). What can be inferred from these results? We can say that controlling for prior attitudes affective primes not only directly affected policy preferences but also indirectly affected preferences through affect-evoked thoughts. The effects on political attitudes and preferences are significant as we discuss in greater detail in the paper.
Fourth, these results were consistent across six experiments that I conducted for my dissertation. Priming procedure was about the same in all those studies and patterns across different dependent variables were quite similar.
Finally, we do not argue that voters cannot make decisions based on “enlightened preferences.” As we repeatedly state in the paper, affective cues color attitudes and preferences but this does not mean that voters’ decisions are necessarily irrational.
Both Bartels and Erisen posted path diagrams in support of their argument, so perhaps I should clarify that I’ve never understood these path diagrams. If an intervention has an effect on political attitudes, I’d like to see a comparison of the political attitudes with and without the intervention. No amount of path diagrams will convince me until I see the direct comparison. You could argue with some justification that my ignorance in this area is unfortunate, but you should also realize that there are a lot of people like me who don’t understand those graphs—and I suspect that many of those people who do like and understand path diagrams would also like to see the direct comparisons too. So, purely from the perspective of communication, I think it makes sense to connect the dots and not just show a big model without the intermediate steps. Otherwise you’re essentially asking the reader to take your claims on faith.
Again, I’m not saying that Erisen is wrong in his claims, just that the evidence he’s shown me is too abstract to convince me. I realize that he knows a lot more about his experiment and his data than I do and I’m pretty sure that he is much more informed on this literature than I am, so I respect that he feels he can draw certain strong conclusions from his data. But, for me, I have to go what information is available to me.
P.S. In his post, Larry also refers to the study of Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo on college football games and election outcomes. That was an interesting study but, as I wrote when it came out a couple years ago, I think its implications were much less than were claimed at the time in media reports. Yes, people can be affected by irrelevant stimuli related to mood, but it matters what are the magnitudes of such effects.