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Subliminal Persuasion Techniques

Humans, sadly, are easy to manipulate with techniques that work on a subconscious level. Whether or not it is ethical to subliminally influence a person so he or she thinks or acts a certain way might depend on whether you are doing so knowingly or not, and for what purpose. But even if you do not want to influence others with such methods, it is good to know how they work, so you can protect yourself from them. With that in mind we're going to look at three techniques, but first we must briefly answer the question...

What is subliminal persuasion?

Subliminal simply means below the threshold of conscious recognition. Persuading a person at that level can be done purposely or inadvertently. Whether you realize it or not you often influence others subconsciously by smiling, for example. Research has shown measurable positive effects on drink sales when bartenders smile more, making this a potentially profitable subliminal technique. Since most smiles are natural responses neither the customer or the server usually know what effects they are having, but here are a few more subtle methods which salesmen and others use more consciously.


If we have insufficient information in a particular circumstance, we typically give weight to whatever information is introduced regardless of its relevance. For example, if a group of people are asked to guess the year when Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born, the guesses might average out around the year 600. But if first they are told, "Claudius Ptolemy was born in the year 120," and then asked to guess when Muhammad was born, the guesses would typically be much earlier than the year 600. The statement would not be relevant in the least, yet it would affect the guesses subliminally.

Experiments like this are done most often in the field of behavioral economics, and the resulting phenomenon is called "anchoring." Of course if people knew the date of birth they would not be swayed by this trick, but "insufficient information" is a common occurrence in life, so this subliminal technique works well.

You can watch yourself being affected by it if you pay attention. Imagine a late-night television advertisement for a real estate investing course. The announcer says "other real estate courses sell for $49, but today only you can get this one for only $39." Now consider (if you have any interest in such a course), what you might feel if he said, "other real estate courses sell for $499. " Either number is pretty much irrelevant, since you don't have any of the courses in front of you to compare, and no way to know if the numbers were just invented. Yet they do influence you.

Now, before you start thinking that this is all about unfairly manipulating people, consider another way to use this technique on yourself and others. Suppose you want to be a writer. If you got to know a writer who writes forty pages daily, you might see this as "normal," if you didn't know any other writers. You would have an "anchor" and be more likely to become prolific yourself than if you hung out with writers who produced five pages weekly. You can imagine how you might use this trick to help friends who do not have the best "anchor" in some area of their lives. You could give them examples that will subliminally anchor them in beneficial ways.

Subliminal Persuasion Using Inflection

It is easy to assume that a sentence like "I can't promise you that price." has only one meaning. In reality, though, inflection provides much of the actual meaning. Look at the each of the identical six sentences below, each with a different word emphasized, and followed by the implied meaning.

I can't promise you that price. (But maybe someone can.)

I can't promise you that price. (There's no way I can do it.)

I can't promise you that price. (But maybe you'll get it.)

I can't promise you that price. (But I can promise it to someone else.)

I can't promise you that price. (But maybe I can promise a good price.)

I can't promise you that price. (But I can promise something else.)

The meaning of our statements is determined by which words we emphasize, and it is a subtle process. If you can't promise him that price, you can tell him "I can't promise you that price," and he may still feel good about the situation, especially if you immediately follow with what you can promise him. You probably know what you want to say. Understanding the subtle and often subliminal power of inflection will mean you actually say it.

Using Their Own Words

This can be a fairly powerful subliminal technique: You restate what a person has already said he wants, and then show him how you can give him that. We all need to have some internal consistency, and so we don't like to act against what we have previously said. This is why, as long as you have what the person needs, this technique will often work. For an example, we'll suppose you are selling a woman a vacation.

Once you listen to what she wants, you find something that fits her needs, and then you say to her, "If I remember right, you said you wanted a warm beach, to keep the trip under $2,000 for the week, and with nearby nightlife.' You might wait for her to agree or ask her if you got her criteria correct. Then you continue with, "I think you're in luck. Both of the packages we just looked at fit your criteria, so do you like Cancun or the Bahamas better?"

That last line also uses the "forced choice" technique. Answering the question about which one she likes implies that she is ready to book the trip. But more importantly it's tough for her to say she's not interested when you just found exactly what she said they wanted, and reminded the woman of her words. She probably won't even notice that you are using her exact words. If done well she'll just feel uncomfortable contradicting what she has already said, and so find it easier to agree.

Maybe one or two of these persuasion tricks has been used on you...

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How to Detect Lying
Eye Tricks
Persuasion Techniques
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