For all the millions that are poured into electoral campaigns, a voter’s choice can be influenced by the subtlest of signals. Israeli scientists have found that even subliminal exposure to national flags can shift a person’s political views and even who they vote for. They managed to affect the attitudes of volunteers to the Israeli-Palestine conflict by showing them the Israeli flag for just 16 thousandths of a second, barely long enough for the image to consciously register.
These results are stunning – even for people right in the middle of the one of the modern age’s most deep-rooted conflicts, the subconscious sight of a flag drew their sympathies towards the political centre.
In some ways, it’s not surprising. The last decades of experimental psychology have shown us that the our conscious view of the world is a construct created by our brain. We simply cannot consciously process the barrage of information constantly arriving through our senses and to save us from a mental breakdown, our brain does a lot of subconscious computing.
The upshot of this is that our decisions can be strongly influenced by sights, sounds and other stimuli that we’re completely unaware of. Have a look at this video of mind-manipulator Derren Brown for a classic example of this.
Our political views are no different. In an ideal world, we would base them on a rational consideration of the relevant facts and our own beliefs, but in the real one, subliminal symbols pull on the puppet-strings too. National flags should be capable of this; to many people, they carry a weighty importance out of all proportion to their nature as rectangular sheets of cloth
Ran Hassin from Hebrew University and Melissa Ferguson from Cornell University have clearly demonstrated this by showing subliminal images of flags to Israeli volunteers. Their partners, Daniella Shidlovski and Tamar Gross, asked 53 people about how strongly they identified with Israeli nationalism and how being an Israeli affected their identity. According to their responses, they were separated into a High or Low based on their penchant for nationalism.
They were then asked to answer on-screen questions, half of which were about the Israeli-Palestine conflict (read the full list here). The answers worked on a scale from one to nine, with nine reflecting the most strongly nationalistic attitudes. Before the questions came up on screen, the researchers briefly showed the volunteers an image of the Israeli flag (right above) or a control flag (right below) with the same elements jumbled up. The flags flashed up so quickly that none of the volunteers saw it, even when they were explicitly quizzed about it later.
When they were shown the control flag, the High group, as expected answered the on-screen questions with a nationalistic bent, averaging a score of 6. The Low group’s average score was closer to 2.5. However, when both groups saw the subliminal Israeli flag, they both converged to a middle-ground score of 4.
Sixteen milliseconds of exposure to the flag was enough to close the ideological gap between the two groups. In a second experiment, Hassin showed that the flashed flag had the same moderating effect on opinions about Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. At this point, it’s worth noting that the flags didn’t wield an irresistible mind-altering power. There was still variation in the volunteer’s choices, but the average trend changed in a statistically significant way.
In a final test, Hassin and Ferguson repeated their experiment in a real-world setting, before and after a local election. They worked with 101 new volunteers and asked them to reveal who they were planning on voting for before the event, and who they eventually voted for. The candidates were given a score from 1 to 6, with higher scores reflecting right-wing stances and lower ones reflecting left-wing ones.
Amazingly, they found the same effect. Volunteers who saw the subliminal real flags, but not the control ones, claimed that they were more likely to vote for the center candidates, and actually did so. It’s a shocking testament to the power of subliminal imagery – a quick flash in a laboratory can prime a person’s behaviour some time later. It can even affect the most important political action of all – voting.
Hassin’s group note that they’ve uncovered a fascinating phenomenon but they’re still in the dark about how it works. Do the symbols affect the weight we give to different views or do they affect our innate biases? Why does the Israeli flag drive people towards the political centre, and would symbols used by more extreme ideologies shift political stances away from it?
The answers to the questions will have to wait. For now, the study serves to reiterate how important a simple symbol can be.
For more on the Israeli-Palestine conflict: In conflicts over beliefs and values, symbolic gestures matter more than reason or money
Reference: Hassin, R.R., Ferguson, M.J., Shidlovski, D., Gross, T. (2007). Subliminal exposure to national flags affects political thought and behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0704679104