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Behavior: Secret Voices

4 minute read

Messages that manipulate

A shopper in a department store picks up a scarf, glances furtively about, crumples it up and shoves it into her pocket. Then come second thoughts. She fishes out the scarf, smooths it again and returns it to the counter. Another victory for honesty? Not quite. Credit for the would-be shoplifter’s change of heart really belongs to what the store’s managers call their “little black box,” a kind of electronic conscience.

Basically a sound mixer like those used by disco deejays, the box mingles bland music with subliminal anti-theft messages (“I am honest. I will not steal”).

Repeated rapidly—9,000 times an hour —and at very low volume, the words are barely audible to shoppers and employees. But they do register in some deep recess of the brain and apparently influence behavior.

About 50 department stores in the U.S. and Canada have installed the device to reduce shoplifting and employee theft. One undisclosed East Coast chain is said to have cut the number of thefts by 37%, for a saving of $600,000, during a nine-month trial. The device also seems to be catching on with other businesses.

In Toronto, a real estate office uses a black box to inspire sales personnel (“I love real estate. I will prospect for new listings for clients each and every day”). Says black box Inventor Hal C. Becker: “I see no reason why there won’t be audio-conditioning the same way we now have air conditioning.”

Becker, founder and head of his own little company in Metairie, La., Behavioral Engineering Center, may be a little premature in his Orwellian zeal. But the idea of subliminal communication has long intrigued behavioral scientists. In the mid-1950s a marketing researcher named James Vicary broke ground of sorts by inserting rapidly flashing words between the frames of a film to stimulate refreshment sales (“Hungry? Eat popcorn”) in a Fort Lee, N.J., moviehouse. Pictures of a skull and the word blood were also added to two horror movies. But this practice soon fell out of favor after it was exposed in Vance Packard’s alarming bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders.

Now the persuaders seem to be making a comeback. A television commercial for children’s toys included the subliminal message “Get it!”until the Federal Communications Commission issued a warning against further TV or radio subliminations. In the movie The Exorcist the image of a death mask was flashed before audiences to give them an extra scare. The tactic may have worked. Warner Bros, is being sued by an Indiana teenager who fainted during the movie, breaking his jawbone and several teeth. His lawyer contends that the fleeting death mask is “one of the major issues” in the case.

Becker and his former partner, Louis Romberg, who has established his own operation in Toronto, think that black boxes are especially useful in sports. Romberg says that he is providing subliminal pep talks to hockey’s Montreal Canadiens, and Becker is working with an unidentified National Football League team.

The box is also being used by psychologists to help people lose weight, stop smoking and overcome phobias like the fear of flying. If subliminals were put on TV, explains Becker, they could be directed specifically at such killers as obesity, drugs and bad driving. Says he: “We could eliminate weight problems in one generation, reduce auto Insurance by 50%.”

Becker is not worried about abuses.

He says that he has already turned down politicians and advertisers who wanted to hire him, and explains that his black boxes include a “fail safe” mechanism that prevents clients from playing anything but the message he has programmed into them. Still, many Americans would undoubtedly be outraged by any secret at tempts to influence their behavior for better or worse. As Aryeh Neier, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, puts it, “People have a right to go about their business without being subjected to manipulation they don’t even know about .” ∙

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