The current technology around this subject is somewhat hard to gauge. For obvious ethical reasons, there is not a lot of empirical precedents. Also, given that it's subliminal, it is by nature difficult/if not impossible to perceive for the targets. For these reasons, extrapolating into the future (50 years or so) seems quite challenging.

I'm trying to convey a dystopian near-future earth where people are forced to undergo weekly subliminal programming:

Platform: VR Headset, immersion chair set

Media: static, ultra-fast-paced video (chaos to the conscious mind, only registering with the subconscious)

Duration: Uncertain, 1-2 hours / week?

Age Group: People of all ages

Goal: to pacify people and implant social directives for them to live their life by. (who they can be friends with, what topics to talk about at lunch, ect)

Other notes May be used in conjunction with sedative medicines / hypnosis.

Effectiveness Metric Effectiveness is the feasibility of achieving the goal: pacification/instilling social directives. The goal is not to make them brain dead, although I don't know that much about psychology, maybe that is what would end up happening anyway.

So my question is, given what we know about the bleeding edge/ frontier psychology today, can my sci-fi plot hold up to a discerning reader?

In your answer you can include how far such a facility could brainwash someone. I realize we cannot 100% know, but thoughtful speculation is welcome. For example, you may gauge part of your assessment of the degree of brainwashing on a continuum -- would they wind up being total vegetables, or would it be more of a joke (no effect).

This will help me figure out how much creative liberties I need to take in order to fill the technological/psychological "gaps".

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    $\begingroup$ Is the premise of your question that subliminal stimuli works, like, at all, and is able to make someone do something he didn't meant to, and you are only asking how effective it would be for total brainwash? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    May 17, 2017 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ Please don't "simplify" by removing significant information without putting it in any other visible place, OK? Not after there are answers posted. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    May 17, 2017 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ Subliminal messages have either very low efficacy or are not effective at all, depending on the study; even those studies which show some non-zero efficacy don't find that they work in general or that they can be made well-directed. Sorry. Brainwashing is so much more easy to do with conventional agitprop that nobody bothers with subreptitious means. Didn't you like such masterpieces of agitprop as Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman or The Right Stuff? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 17, 2017 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ I hope very much that you have read A Clockwork Orange before you proceed further in your endeavor. A lot of people have and more have seen the movie. What you describe sounds very much like the Ludovico procedure. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    May 18, 2017 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ Are you Sure You Need to Write The Title Like That? $\endgroup$
    – DrakaSAN
    May 18, 2017 at 9:33

8 Answers 8


Directed subliminal brainwashing is not possible. Sorry.

The thing about ultrafast video isn't that it's "chaos to the conscious mind, only registering with the subconscious". Most of it's going to be thrown out as garbage by the visual cortex (before it even reaches the conscious or subconscious mind). Anything that does reach the subconscious won't necessarily be what you wanted to reach the subconscious. And even if what you intended reached the subconscious, it's not necessarily going to be interpreted in the way you want it to.

As it turns out, humans are really bad at interpreting their own emotions and behaviors. An example: researches had test subjects (all male) traverse one of two bridges over the same gorge. The first bridge was made of stone, broad, and solidly made. The second bridge was an incredibly rickety wooden bridge. At the end of each bridge was the same female "researcher" who gave them a survey. Later, test subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness of the female "researcher". The female "researcher" was rated as more attractive by the subjects who went across the rickety bridge. The subjects misinterpreted their real feelings (I'm getting a real adrenaline rush from this terrifying bridge) into a vastly different interpretation (I'm getting a real adrenaline rush from this woman who's talking to me).

Any guy who's taken a woman to scary movie on a date is operating under the same principle.

Now, turn this about into subliminal brainwashing. What exactly do you think is going to happen when you pump chaotic signals into a human? Say you have a simple goal (even though your stated goals are actually really complex): vote for politician A, not B. So you try and do things like pairing happy images with politician A and fearful images with politician B. Except, as we've already established, it's chaos, so not everything's getting through. Maybe you lose your happy images. Maybe a "neutral filler" is actually the phobia of the subject and gets paired with politician A. Maybe you pair ice cream with politician A, and the person likes ice cream less instead of politician A more.

And this isn't even your biggest problem. Your biggest problem is that you're strapping someone into a VR headset for some amount of time and piping noise into their face. The number of people who don't just shut their eyes for the duration is going to be tiny. If you pry open their eyelids, they'll do their best to ignore it (and we're really good at ignoring things at the visual cortex level, i.e., before the subconscious). Essentially, you'll be providing the same experience as sensory deprivation by way of sensory overload. If you don't do this for very long, you'll make people angry at you but otherwise unaffected. If you do it for too long, they'll just go insane.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent examples, it reminds me of finding the signal from the noise that Elon Musk always raves about. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2017 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ Did you just exposed our trick? If it goes public we will be doomed to romantic or shitty movies! $\endgroup$ May 18, 2017 at 12:09

100% effective method. Allegedly in use in... China

[citation on effectiveness needed; intended as humor]

Here's how.

Optional Step 1: Heavily criticize any opposition to the government. In all forms. This will make step 4 easier.

Step 2: Introduce your citizens to social media. Basically, create Facebook or an equivalent. Regulate it lightly, you want people to like it and use it. A lot.

Step 3: Introduce a new "social score" feature that allows people to vote up or down various posts. Allow anyone to query anyone else's score (e.g. display it prominently on their profile page).

Crucial Step 4: Every vote impacts not only the poster but all of the poster's friends, family, and other network connections.

Step 5: Mandate participation, no ability to opt-out. Link this score to their offline identity, e.g. their social security number, driver's license, etc. Treat it like a credit score: users with low scores can be legally denied jobs, loans, and other services. Users with high scores can receive preferential treatment, such as fast-pass visa access to leave the country.

By making a user's social score dependent on their friends and family, it becomes a lot harder to speak out as you'll be quickly hushed by your network connections as they don't want to be impacted. Anyone who does continue to speak out will see those network connections severed and be effectively isolated and ostracized. As that feeling of loneliness is already ingrained in the human brain (we are, after all, social animals) people will brainwash themselves by only saying things that will raise their social score. And the only thing that will raise their social score will be the things that the government wants you to say.

Will anyone notice? Is it actually subliminal?

Well, People would be flocking to their version of Twitter to post and be proud of their high scores. Everyone outside such a country would be horrified. But notice that once the system is implemented, the government itself never needs to step in. Instead the system is self-regulating.

Majority opinion will dominate and continue to dominate due to the isolating nature of negative reception. The government can actually claim that no, they are not suppressing alternative political views, the system is in place to punish people who talk about murder, or child pornography, or sharing stupid memes because they're stupid and no one wants to see that garbage. It's not their fault that people are down-voting radical ideologies, but if people feel that that isn't what they want to see in their feed, that's their prerogative.

End result: a population that thinks what you want it to think. And they did it to themselves.

Sooo... maybe?

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    $\begingroup$ [Meta-commentary] Stack Exchange sites operate on this very mechanic: the people in charge have high scores. They have high scores because they followed the rules. The rules are written by the people in charge. Creepy, innit? $\endgroup$ May 17, 2017 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ So if this question gets downvoted, I know why...The powers that be among the Meta Community must not like we're on to them. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2017 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ This method is interesting but seems totally unrelated to question as asked. Question is reality-check. This would be a good answer for "how to..." type of questions. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    May 17, 2017 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question $\endgroup$
    – smurtagh
    May 17, 2017 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is essentially the premise of Black Mirror S3E1: Nosedive $\endgroup$
    – Unsigned
    May 18, 2017 at 18:56

(EDIT: purposefully ignoring the "subliminal" part.)

Given how effective current brainwashing (aka "advertising") techniques are -- because of the billions of dollars spent by advertising agencies on psychologists -- I'd say it could be spectacularly successful.

Caveats are:

  • Current brainwashing techniques are relatively voluntary (most people choose to not actively pursue media with no advertising),
  • brainwashing must be Subtle with a capital S, using people's base desires rather than ham-fisted govertment decrees.
  • 30 years of multiculturalism means that society is a lot less homogeneous than it was 50 years ago. Brainwashing thus will have to be culturally sensitive.
  • There will be a noticeable minority on the Left and Right who will resist the standard methods. They'll have to be handled with different techniques.

My answer will be boring, but I'm afraid true. Given what we know about subliminal stimuli - we don't know, with bias towards no.

Subliminal message can't change response to commercials in any measurable way. [link]

There are reports that shows subliminal stimuli to be able to bias choice between options someone was already considering anyway. [link]

There is no consensus if this kind of stimuli works at all. At the moment, you can say it does, or you can say it doesn't, and it will be believable and you will find scientific papers to back you up. However, given how weak it is if it actually works, you shouldn't expect any drastic changes in behavior, these wouldn't be feasible.

  • $\begingroup$ That all makes sense, but are you making distinctions between subliminal messaging and subliminal programming? At least to me there are differences. Subliminal Programming is more intrusive, while I think of Subliminal Messaging as the much more subtle, yet often controversial advertising technique. Perhaps that's just my particular understanding? I'm starting to think maybe there is not a meme for Subliminal Programming. If you watched Lost, then maybe you'll recall a similar facility. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2017 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ You can't program someone if message isn't even getting thorough, right? Also, in papers about it these terms seems to be used mostly as synonyms (if programming is used at all). $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    May 17, 2017 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ Good point, I'm starting to see it your way now. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2017 at 21:06

As other answers have pointed out, subliminal programming in the traditional sense (show people a bunch of images too quick for their conscious mind to process but which somehow sink into their subconscious) has no proven record of working.

However, it is possible to adjust people's behaviour through other methods of varying effectiveness and subtlety. The example of the Chinese "social score" given by Draco18s is an almost gamified version of the kind of social pressures used in many communities, especially more oppressive ones. Such systems can be susceptible to being gamed though - once people see their "score" as being the important part of the system, they will tend to act in ways that benefit the score even if they're not the kind of behaviours the designers wanted to incentivise; a classic example of such gaming is when governments have tried to combat rodent infestations by paying rewards for people bringing in rat corpses, which just results in people breeding lots of rats.

Perhaps closer to the idea you're looking for would be varying ideas of training the behaviour into people. There's stuff like hypnosis (which is not quite as effective as the movies would have you believe, but which applied over a long period of time could give you the desired results), possibly enhanced by drugs; or conditioning as studied by Skinner and Pavlov. The general idea of conditioning is that you reward desired behaviours and punish undesired ones, although Pavlov's version was more passive (getting the subject to associate two events with each other) while Skinner's was more active (getting the subject to associate their own actions with a particular result).

If you combine the things, then you might get a process like:

  • Somehow expose the populace to a chemical that makes them slightly more open to suggestion.
  • Get them to come in to a government centre on a weekly basis for some kind of "standardised aptitude testing".
  • Make the testing a VR game, and in addition to testing reflexes or whatever make there be a number of social choices the player must make. You can throw in some kind of techno-babble about how being in a state of hyperconcentration reduces your ability to reject ideas that go against your better judgement.
  • When the player does well in the game (good reflexes or choosing a desirable behaviour), give them both an in-game score and some kind of pleasant external stimulus. When they do poorly, reduce their score and give them an unpleasant stimulus.
  • Repeat this as much as necessary until they have internalised the idea that "doing what you're supposed to = feeling good".

Make sure that the earlier stages of the game involve choices where the right and wrong behaviours are already understood by the players, and then gradually introduce the stuff that you want them to take on as desired behaviours. So in early stages you stick with stuff like "hurting other people = bad" and "picking up litter = good", then after a while start putting in things like "turning traitors in to the police = good" and "voting for anyone other than the ruling party = bad".

At the same time, you can link performance in the tests to social standing. People with good scores get a bonus from the government, or some other kind of preferential treatment, while people with particularly bad scores get recommended for some kind of remedial community service (you might even have the government fake some kind of study that suggests that low scores are related to likeliness of criminal behaviour, or something).

This is probably only slightly impossible, as opposed to the completely impossible nature of subliminal programming - research is still a bit on the fence about what extent being exposed to particular kinds of media affect our behaviours, but if it's all about making small changes that add up to something larger then it's a bit more believable.


Two points...

  1. In this particular crowd I suspect you may find an overabundance of skeptical people who may not reflect your target audience.

  2. If you want to sell it to a readership you have to base it on things that they believe and understand.

As many have noted commercials are masterful at manipulating emotions. If you use social status measures as a basis and throw in a presumption you can gauge emotional responses to visible stimuli and adjust programming on an individual basis I don't see why you couldn't sell it.

All you need is a incentive/disincentive to ensure your society watches their programming regularly and assume there is an additive effect that gets reinforced by societal forces while they are not getting programmed. At the same time, if you going to such lengths you could engineer the disappearance of truly problem citizens who are not acting appropriately in society -- whether or not they respond to their "treatment" appropriately.

Some basic examples that someone with writing skills might be able to develop into something interesting...

  • User is given cues or scenarios, user reacts appropriate to or makes choices in VR, user gets a more enjoyable session and social accolades (riches, recognition, attention, etc) in VR or possibly outside VR based on some criteria with possibly longer lead times.
  • User reacts inappropriate to or makes a bad choices, user deals with unpleasant experiences due to happenings in VR (and you know what the user finds pleasant or unpleasant based on sensors and cameras involved in their VR experience). Possibly engineer some bad luck in their day once in a while depending on severity of transgression.

This of course gives you some insider elites who help bring tie in the VR conditioning to the real world and provides you with a bit of "A Scanner Darkly" in terms of people on the inside who may represent a weak point against whoever might be working against the regime.

Perhaps "enforcers" are fed targets by showing them VR crimes that they are supposedly involved in... such that people may believe they are doing the right thing when they are culling folks that are breaking down the general society norms. Note, you can walk back and forth between subliminal and perceptible inputs as you like.

In short, most sci-fi is not truly plausible (regardless of whether or not much sci is involved). Aim for difficulty in disproving the possibility of plausibility and you've got a lower bar that allows your audience to get entertained by your ideas.

I really hope you are writing a fiction and not implementing the next social order or I've done humanity a disservice.


I think the simpler methods are the most effective.

This is already possible. Look at the effects of the main stream media over the last 30 to 40 years. The key to brainwashing is symbolic shifting of meanings and the break down of norms and standards people hold within their minds.

Symbolic Shifting:

Symbolic shifting requires that you redefine the meaning of things. If you re purpose a symbol to mean something else, you can, over time, change the loyalty of those who follow it. One day, the flag represents freedom and individualism. Over time, you change it to represent communism and mediocrity. However, people are still pledging allegiance to the same flag. You have re purposed the symbolism of it to mean something else entirely while retaining the loyalty "to it" rather than to its meaning.Now you have a dictatorial army rather than a free people's militia. Both pledge to the same flag, both take orders from the same authority, but now they fight for totally different end goals. The media does this with words and symbols constantly already.

Breaking Down Norms:

The second way is to break down norms, thus inhibiting one's capability to question inconsistencies or morally objectionable material. Normalizing things that have traditional taboo is a prime example of how this happens daily around the world. If everything is "normal" then nothing is "abnormal" and questioning such abnormality is then indicative of bigotry or mental illness since abnormality would not exist.Such equality is not used to obtain individual equivalency but rather remove all culture of criticism and competing thought.

Real Weaknesses:

Together, both of these would brainwash a large number of people over time. The key word here though is time. These methods, while simple in concept, must be implemented subtly over a long period of time. Too fast and they can see through it.

A second weakness to the above methods is perspective. If you have free speech, or an internet or some other massive democratic means of information transfer, the inconsistencies become much harder to hide despite the subtlety with which they were employed. Eventually the truth wins out when information is allowed to freely aggregate. The only counter to this is to remove free speech or inhibit people's ability to communicate effectively. Again, you see this happen daily around the world- even in first world countries. They limit free speech, bully people away from the truth, hide details, etc. Doing so is the only way to maintain the illusion.

Weaknesses are important. These are what allow societal change in your setting. The rebels use these weaknesses to gain followers and become free of it themselves. By using a real world context, you get real world weaknesses to work with. Such are good for believable limitations.

This is obviously not a "Sci-fi" approach, but I don't think such approaches are believable, and those that are somewhat believable are quite cliche at this point. A more nuanced and down to earth method of believable brainwashing will yield a more holistic setting in my opinion.


What you describe is perfectly plausible as a sco-fi scenario, and would hold up in any novel or movie I'm sure if it were spliced with a degree of originality and litarary skill. However, the idea of a passive, non-violent, possibly benign method of significantly altering the will of a healthy and functional human is highly unlikely. Especially if "covertly" was another box you wanted to tick. What would work, and has "worked" to a marked degree, is Pain-Drug-Hypnosis. This is a violent and I'd say barbaric method of altering the will and actions of a human being, which was the subject of MK-ultra and other such experiments, historically we hope. The story line of the Jason Bourne franchise is I believe pretty close to where MK-ultra was heading. But the act of reducing the self-determinism always comes with a price. It seems you can't subdue, trick or short circuit the spirit of man, to the point where he'd do something against his original will, and expect him to continue with anything approaching normal functionality. In my humble, but considerably wise and well informed, opinion!


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