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.

"There is a very simple message I have on this -- to determine whether something works, you do the research on it," Greenwald said. "It turns out that almost all the products marketed as subliminal products have not been the subject of peer-reviewed research."

Halpern said he has tried the CD out informally on drivers in New York, Florida and Los Angeles. He said that those who listened to the CD reported that they felt they noticed more as they drove and were more alert and aware of their fellow drivers.

But beyond this, Hapern admits, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that the CD will actually work to quell aggressive driving.

"Can you test this in a lab? Yes you can, but it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars that I don't have," he said.

But Greenwald said that anecdotal evidence from driver testimonials is "pretty much the same as no evidence at all." And Epley said that a double-blind, placebo-controlled test for this music could easily be done on the cheap, simply by creating a version of the songs without the subliminal content and comparing the experiences of drivers listening to either version.

"There are almost an infinite number of ways to test this," he said. "If there was research, it would show that this would not work."

Greenwald, however, takes a less conclusive approach. He said that he and other researchers in the field have "published research showing some subliminal effects, so we're not 100 percent skeptical about the possibility."

Drivers May Get What They Expect

Regardless of whether the subliminal content on the CDs lodges itself in the mind, both Epley and Greenwald said that those who purchase the album might still reap some of its purported benefits, thanks to what he refers to as the "expectancy effect."

"If [consumers] listen to the tapes and think they contain messages that reduce road rage, they may be effective -- but only because of the expectation you have for what's on the tape," Epley said.

Indeed, Greenwald co-authored a 1991 study in the Journal of the American Psychological Society that seems to back up this idea. In a study of 237 people who listened to tapes that supposedly contained subliminal messages designed to enhance either memory or self-esteem, all of the subjects who listened to the tapes after seeing their labels reported improvements in these areas -- what the researchers termed a non-specific placebo effect.

Plus, Epley added, "Calming or soothing music can calm people down without any sub-audible signals at all. ... You shouldn't delude yourself into thinking that whatever help you're getting from this particular method is from the subliminal content."

However, Halpern said sub-par subliminal audio products in the past have "perpetuated the message that all subliminals are a hoax." Specifically, he said, some companies in the 1980s sold tapes that they claimed contained helpful subliminal messages, when, in fact, they did not.

"Just because one company was a sham does not mean all companies were a sham," he said.

The DriveTime Rx CD will join about a dozen other titles Halpern has mixed with subliminal message-laced tracks. A spokesperson for Inner Peace Music, the company that sells Halpern's CDs, said the titles have racked up about 750,000 sales so far. Best-sellers have been a CD that Halpern said would help accelerate learning, and another aimed at helping people achieve an ideal weight.

And then there is one that he said should never be slipped into your car's stereo.

"The one that helps you go to sleep, you should never listen to while driving," he said.