A Subliminal Solution to Road Rage?

"I am a safe, courteous and considerate driver... I remain relaxed, even in rush hour traffic."

In the commuter's world of gridlock, blaring horns and middle-fingered gestures, it may come as little surprise that some will soon look to these mantras to control their road rage tendencies.

What is surprising, though, is the way in which these messages are delivered. Developers of a new CD called "DriveTime Rx," due on shelves in April, say that these and other phrases are mixed into music on the disc in such a way that they are completely drowned out by the instrumental tracks.

But they say that even though drivers will never hear the "affirmations" being spoken, the messages will subliminally register in drivers' minds -- and possibly lead to safer, less aggressive driving.

Researchers in the field of subliminal messages panned the idea behind the new musical offering, maintaining that there is no research yet to suggest that hiding verbal cues in music affects behavior.

"I know of no good evidence that sub-audible messages have any effect on behavior at all," said Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

But Steven Halpern, the mind behind the 15-track compilation, said he believes the brain is able to pick out these messages.

"The brain is able to decode and perceive information when it is upside-down, backwards and even distorted," he said. "In some ways, it is able to perceive information that is even below the threshold of conscious awareness."

Reading Between the (Traffic) Lines

Subliminal persuasion refers to the use of messages presented to individuals beneath their threshold of awareness aimed at influencing their attitudes, decisions or actions. By their very nature, subliminal messages are designed to be unnoticeable, flying under the radar of consciousness and setting up shop in the mind.

"The whole key is that you don't want to hear the words," Halpern said. "You want to blend the words into the music."

If, indeed, subliminal messages do work to change behavior, there could be little argument that road rage would be a good place to start. One 1997 report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety lists a gruesome assortment of cases of road rage gone wild.

In a case in Massachusetts in 1994, a 54-year-old bookkeeper shot another man dead with a crossbow after the two had antagonized each other on the Interstate for several miles. In another, from 1996, road rage led to a vehicular duel between two 26-year-old drivers in the Washington, D.C., area, which ultimately led to an accident that killed three people.

According to AAA statistics, road rage is a problem that kills or injures 1,500 people in the United States each year.

Still, Epley said most of the evidence that exists on subliminal messages deals solely with what we see, not what we hear.

"Our visual system is extremely sensitive," he said. "We can notice and attend to information to an excruciating degree of sensitivity."

But he said that as humans, our ears are not as finely tuned to bring in the same wealth of information that our eyes do.

Anthony Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who has conducted research in the past on subliminal self-help audiotapes, agreed that there is a dearth of similar research on such products that shows any kind of effect.

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