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Subliminal messages may be most effective when the concepts being conveyed are negative, a finding that could have implications for future ad campaigns or public-safety announcements, according to a study by researchers from University College London (UCL).

The study, which was led by Professor Nilli Lavie of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, involved showing 50 UK participants a series of words on a computer screen. Each word appeared on screen for only a fraction of second – at times only a fiftieth of a second, which is too fast for the participants to consciously read the word.

The words were either positive (e.g. cheerful, flower and peace), negative (e.g. agony, despair and murder) or neutral (e.g. box, ear or kettle). After each word, participants were asked to choose whether the word was neutral or ’emotional’ (i.e. positive or negative), and how confident they were of their decision.

The research found that the participants answered most accurately when responding to negative words -? even when they believed they were merely guessing the answer.

According to UCL, the study offers proof that people are able to process emotional information from subliminal images, and reveals that when delivered subliminally, negative information is more accurately detected than positive.

Previous studies have hinted that people can unconsciously pick up on subliminal information intended to provoke an emotional response, but limitations in the design of the studies have meant that the conclusions were ambiguous, according to UCL.

“There has been much speculation about whether people can process emotional information unconsciously, for example pictures, faces and words,” said Lavie.? “We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words.”

LaVie suggested that the processing of negative information may be an evolutionary reflex. “Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information,” Lavie said. “We can’t wait for our consciousness to kick in if we see someone running toward us with a knife or if we drive under rainy or foggy weather conditions and see a sign warning ‘danger.'”

Subliminal images, those? shown so briefly that the viewer does not consciously ‘see’ them – have long been the subject of controversy, particularly in the area of advertising. Subliminal advertising is not permitted on TV in the UK, but is still practiced in the US.

About the study:?The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust, and is published this month in the journal Emotion.

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