Monday, March 19, 2007

We Are Responsible for Our Own Happiness: This I Believe

In this week’s post, I have decided to express a personal conviction that has driven my desire to pursue a career in psychology and business. The overarching theme in my blog has been to show the link between these two fields, and this post further expands that ideology by showing how my core belief is integrated into both psychology and business. I have been inspired by the This I Believe national media project, which encourages personal expression through writing about individual core beliefs. We can think of a core belief as foundational and central to an individual’s life outlook and personality. The core conviction this post focuses on influences not only my outlook on life but the goals and career aspirations I have developed. Specifically, I strive to pursue my professional and personal goals to the best of my ability and take advantage of the opportunities provided for me. I believe that everyone is responsible for his or her own happiness, which is defined by as the “state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” I will expand on this concept by describing happiness as a general satisfaction with one’s achievements.

I began building upon this philosophy a few years ago, in high school. Although I am not a very religious person, I went to a Benedictine school and took a theology class every year. In my junior year, during my sixth religions course, a beloved and radical teacher discussed basic philosophical ideas with us. Although his ideas were more complicated than this, the basic concept was that people are all given choices, and each decision helps to determine one’s own fate. For example, I once heard a young woman speak about her intense battle with cancer as a small child. Although she was in the hospital for years, she does not spend her life worrying or complaining about the past⎯instead, she has chosen to give inspirational speeches, be grateful for the help that St. Jude hospital (a picture from their website is shown below) gave her, and be excited about starting college in the fall. Of course it is reasonable to mourn or be emotional after a traumatic event, but at some point we need to move on.

This responsibility comes with multiple possibilities. In the article entitled 8 Ways to Happiness, from, they discuss ideas about how responsibility for emotions, emotional responses, beliefs, and actions can lead to greater happiness, stating that “you have control.” I achieve this by attempting to “look on the bright side” of every situation. Although I worked assiduously in high school, for instance, I was accepted to college as a late admit, meaning that I would have to come halfway through my freshman year. While I was upset that I had to miss those influential and important first few months, I hoped that it had happened for a reason and I would benefit in hidden ways. Initially, I could see that getting into my first-choice school was a great accomplishment and I should be proud and happy for the opportunity. However, it was not until later that I realized the true benefit of starting school belatedly. During that first semester, before I began school, I lived nearby with my grandparents and took extra classes and got a job to stay on schedule. Normally, I only saw my grandparents a few times every year. After my grandfather passed away unexpectedly, a few months later, it was apparent how special my few months living with him were.

Another possibility, in addition to finding the positive components to negative situations, is to do what is in one’s power to work towards happiness. This ability translates into the business world. For example, Reese Witherspoon, a famous and respected actress, recently underwent a difficult public divorce. Instead of hiding from public view and letting it be detrimental to her career, she has generated positive media responses by coming to events looking happy and refreshed. In the March edition of Harper's Bazaar, pictured above, she states: “I look forward to my work. I love my children…I'm very lucky. I have a really great life." Her bold actions and positive outlook will benefit her professionally and personally, as members of the film industry will not doubt her ability, commitment, and professionalism, and she has not allowed herself to be overcome by a challenging personal experience.

How does my belief relate to the field of psychology? I believe it is one of the main principles governing current psychological therapy and practice. Studies in psychology have literally focused on happiness, as psychologist Dr. Seligman’s “research has demonstrated that it is possible to… feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and… laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances.” Additionally, therapy that has been empirically supported as successful at helping individuals, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, teaches individuals to change their behavior. Unlike antiquated Freudian practice, in which “the theory is that, with relaxation, the unconscious conflicts will inevitably drift to the fore,” current psychology expands beyond the stereotypical therapist quietly listening to constant complaints. Additionally, it no longer focuses on blame⎯what good will it do a patient to learn that their mother or father is the source of all of their adult problems? Psychologists know that each individual must be responsible for changing their situation, no matter whose fault it is, in order to live a happy and satisfying life. Furthermore, business professionals must generate positive results and publicity in the face of challenging situations. Everyone is responsible for his or her personal happiness⎯this I believe.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Subliminal Advertising: Psychology and Ethics

A recent Food Network mistake caused a flurry of allegations that the network was attempting to use subliminal messaging on one of the network’s gourmet shows, Iron Chef, when a McDonalds symbol flashed across the screen (pictured below). Subliminal advertising, which plays on the theory that “one can influence behavior by secretly appealing to the subconscious mind with words, images, or sounds,” is clearly a controversial topic in the business world today, despite its widespread use for the past fifty years. Customers are frightened by the idea that their subconscious minds can be influenced, without their awareness, to respond to advertisements. Some of these adds feature sexual or otherwise-appealing hidden messages. For example, some have claimed the Starbucks Coffee symbol, pictured to the left, has sexual undertones (notice the strategic placement and suspicious number of the mermaid’s fins).

Are these fears justified, and what are the ethical implications of unconscious advertising? The first psychologist to coin the term “subliminal advertising” was James Vicary, who tested out his idea in 1957. He declared that over forty-five thousand moviegoers were subjected to images flashed briefly across the screen stating “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola,” which caused popcorn sales to increase by an incredible 57%. Although his widely publicized experiment is how many consumers and advertisers today became aware of this phenomenon, Vicary himself later admitted that his results were falsified, and there is evidence to show that he never conduced the experiment in the first place. Despite such evidence, sexually suggestive and even explicit subliminal advertisements consistently appear in television, magazine, and radio advertisements.

Recent psychological studies have begun to claim that there may be some truth to the effects of subliminal advertising. One psychologist, Hawkins, was able to show “increased thirst ratings following subliminal exposure to” Coca-Cola, which “have been used as empirical evidence that subliminal advertising can directly affect consumption-relevant behavior.” According to Jo Anna Natale of Psychology Today, companies like Potentials Unlimited are taking a new direction in admitting that their products are full of subliminal messages that will help consumers break bad habits (similar to hypnosis). Natale also cited a study in which groups were shown the same advertisement, either with or without a hidden sexual image (a naked woman). The findings supported the power of subliminal messages, as participants in the group “who saw the whiskey ad with the hidden image rated it higher…than did people who saw the whiskey ad without the image.” This is a similar concept to the picture of the flowers to the left, which contains a hidden word. Psychologist Johan Karremans was recently able to conduct one of the most convincing studies. In her article “Subliminal Advertising may work after all,” Alison Motluk of explains how his study showed that thirsty participants exposed to subliminal advertising for Lipton Ice were more likely to choose that beverage afterwards.

For each argument in support of the effectiveness of subliminal messaging, there is compelling evidence to the contrary. Follow up studies conducted on Hawkin’s study featuring Coca-Cola did not find convincing results. Another study by Trappey, which attempted to “scientifically evaluate whether or not subliminal marketing stimuli [were] an effective means for influencing consumer choice behavior” found that “… leading to the conclusion that subliminal advertising has little influence on the consumer’s decision to select between alternatives.” Potentials Unlimited tapes work like hypnosis. Individuals only claim to have been successfully hypnotized if, prior to being hypnotized, they were believers in hypnosis. Likewise, subliminal messages will most likely effect individuals who consciously think that such messages will alter their behavior. And, it is not yet clear how long the effects in the Lipton Ice experiment will last—it could easily only be a few minutes. As long as consumers are aware of why they are making their decisions as buyers, subliminal advertising will not have a harmful effect. In other words, if individuals think consciously and rationally before making purchases, subliminal advertisements will not influence their decisions. Additionally, while some ads blatantly display hidden sexual images or undertones, many of the claims made that ads feature suggestive elements are grasping for messages that are not there or were not intended by their creators.

If subliminal advertising does, however, have the potential to affect buyers’ choices, is it an ethical practice for businesses and psychologists to use and develop? Rebecca Clay’s article from the American Psychological Association gives examples of psychologists, such as Esther Thorson, who have been “analyzing ads to learn more about the art of persuasion” and make subliminal messaging into a kind of science that they can sell to advertisers. Psychologists, though, should not employ their knowledge of perception and cognition to alter behavior against consumers’ conscious wishes. In my view this would be a violation of free will. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commision does not support subliminal advertising, although the practice is difficult to prove and has not been formally defined. Realistically, subliminal persuasion is probably not going to stop, but if consumers become more educated on its methods the effects of such advertising will likely diminish.