Friday, June 16, 2006

Successful Lies

The term "subliminal" came up in a recent Usenet thread. I had a vague memory that the conventional account, according to which people could be persuaded to buy things by flashing messages at them too fast for conscious perception, was at least debatable.

It turns out, if you believe the account on Snopes, which I gather is a usually reliable source, that the conventional account is not merely debatable, it is false—the result of deliberate fraud by one James Vicary. From Snopes:

" You see, Vicary lied about the results of his experiment. When he was challenged to repeat the test by the president of the Psychological Corporation, Dr. Henry Link, Vicary's duplication of his original experiment produced no significant increase in popcorn or Coca-Cola sales. Eventually Vicary confessed that he had falsified the data from his first experiments, and some critics have since expressed doubts that he actually conducted his infamous Ft. Lee experiment at all."


"As numerous studies over the last few decades have demonstrated, subliminal advertising doesn't work; in fact, it never worked, and the whole premise was based on a lie from the very beginning. James Vicary's legacy was to ensure that a great many people will never be convinced otherwise, however."

What struck me as interesting about the account is that Vicary's fraud worked. I don't know what its long term effects were on his career, but the long term effect on our culture was to strengthen the idea that human beings are not all that rational, that what appears to be voluntary choice is often really due to fraud or coercion. Vicary's flashing messages provide a memorable and convincing argument against freedom of choice on the marketplace, and one that I see echoed in many arguments. And the fraud continues to work long after it was exposed.

For another, and perhaps more debatable, example of the same pattern, consider Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa. It was a very popular book, widely used in college courses. Part of its implicit message was that the traditional pattern of sexual behavior in our society was a mistake—an unnecessary and damaging repression of natural impulses, as demonstrated by the happy and sexually liberated youth of Samoa. While the changes in sexual behavior during the course of the 20th century surely had multiple causes, it's reasonable to view Mead's book as one of them.

Many years later, Derek Freeman, in Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, convincingly argued that Mead's entire account was bogus. Mead did not know the language when she arrived in Samoa, was not particularly skilled in languages, and it is at least debatable whether she ever became fluent. She did not live with the people she was studying but with an American family in the village. By Freeman's account, she was heavily dependent on what she was told by a couple of teenaged informants through a translator; he thinks they were deliberately misleading her in the direction of what she wanted to believe, for their own entertainment. And she made no attempt to check the available crime statistics, which would have shown that her peaceful paradise had high rates of murder and rape.

Freeman's book set off an extensive controversy, with some anthropologists accepting his view, others defending Mead. The most interesting response I saw was by a friend and ex-colleague of Mead, who accepted Freeman's factual claim and argued that what Mead was really doing was not research but the creation of a myth, and that the spreading of that myth in our culture had good, not bad, effects.

After reading some of the controversy I think Freeman is probably correct; I remain uncertain as to whether, if so, Mead was a victim of her informants, as Freeman suggests, or deliberately dishonest. But either way, however false her account of Samoa, the effect on Europe and America, good or bad, remains. Lies can succeed.


At 4:20 PM, June 16, 2006, Anonymous js290 said...

Lies can succeed.

See organized religion... ;-)

At 4:48 PM, June 16, 2006, Blogger Rick and Gary said...

And then there's the question of why people were so eager to believe these lies in particular.

At 7:07 PM, June 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lie is a statement that can be disproved.

I am not a religious man, but you cannot disprove the existence of God.

At 7:16 PM, June 16, 2006, Blogger SheetWise said...

Lies can succeed.

Even if they're subliminal?

At 8:06 PM, June 16, 2006, Anonymous HongKonger said...

Even if they're subliminal?

I think so. Lies works in making people believe what is wrong as right. As long as a lie can do this, it doesn't matter if it is subliminal.

But the interesting question is, what is a subliminal lie? If it is something in our sub-conscious mind, how do we know its existence? And how can we know that little something is a lie?

At 8:16 PM, June 16, 2006, Anonymous js290 said...

I am not a religious man, but you cannot disprove the existence of God.

What does the existence or non-existence of God have to do with organized religion? Isn't that part of the lie?? ;-)

At 4:06 PM, June 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may be remembering this incorrectly, (hell, it could be another myth), but didn't the same kind of thing happen with William Randolph Hearst and marijuana? That sure has had some lasting negative effects.

At 12:32 AM, June 18, 2006, Anonymous js290 said...

This could be part of the myth, but the story I've heard about Hearst is that his financial interests in paper would have greatly suffered had hemp not been criminalized.

At 8:16 AM, June 20, 2006, Anonymous albatross said...

IMO, the interesting phenomenon here is the set of surrounding beliefs that allow the lie/mistake to go more-or-less unchallenged. And what that might tell us about:

a. What lies we would be likely to fall for uncritically.

b. What lies other people are probably going to fall for uncritically.

For example, if I want to slip a bogus explanation for some social problem past the readers of _Reason_, I'll make sure my villians are incompetent bureaucrats and corrupt politicians. If I want to slip a bogus explanation past the listeners of NPR, I'll probably need a different set of villians.

At 3:42 PM, June 28, 2006, Blogger The Naked Journalist said...

I am Samoan and it is not the success of lies that concern me, but rather the effect of their success. Since Mead wrote that book, I the Samoan woman have been branded as promiscuous and my fellow youth, the same.
Margaret Mead
1. did not speak the language,
2. her research was done on one island (closer to American Samoa),
3. her informants, young Samoan women.

and so to dispute her
1. she did not understand what the young women were saying, how reliable was the translator?
2. The culture of American Samoa like her other islands were greatly affected by America, so the values and the traditions of the FaaSamoa (Samoan way) were modified
3. Emotions in Samoa are suppressed, we do not talk openly or honestly about sex, this subject is taboo and therefore whatever they may have said were nothing but jokes (the women later admitted to this)

So as a Samoan I am offended by what this woman wrote about us, what right does one anthropology have to portray such an immoral perception of my culture and my people to the world.


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