Scientists investigate: Does subliminal authoritarian imagery encourage citizens to obey?

New research examines whether being subliminally exposed authoritarian iconography encourages the public to comply with and support the state.

The study of 123 adult residents of the United Arab Emirates —  a federation of absolute monarchies — found that subliminally flashing images of the country’s ruler had no statistical impact on the participants’ compliance with or support for the ruling regime.

The study, “The Effects of Authoritarian Iconography: An Experimental Test,” was published in the journal Comparative Political Studies.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Sarah Bush of Temple University. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Bush: My co-authors (Aaron Erlich, Lauren Prather, and Yael Zeira) and I became interested in the topic while attending a workshop at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). We were struck by the outsized images of Abu Dhabi and Emirati leaders displayed prominently on buildings and roads around the city, which we had also encountered during previous research in the Middle East and former Soviet Union. We began wondering whether these images encourage citizens to comply with or support the regime.

To explore this topic, we decided to return to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to conduct a laboratory experiment at NYUAD. The UAE is a firmly authoritarian country but NYUAD has an environment with academic freedom, enabling us to dynamics that might otherwise be dangerous or prohibited. Our study exposed randomly assigned individuals to official portraits of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan and then measured how likely they were to comply with and support the Emirati regime.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Contrary to the literature and our own expectations, we did not find that exposure to authoritarian portraits caused greater compliance with or support for the regime.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

As with any laboratory study, it is difficult to know whether our conclusions – in this case a null finding about the effect of images of authoritarian leaders – will generalize to other settings. It is possible that a different type of experiment – perhaps using a different image or different measures of compliance and support – or a non-lab-based research design would generate different conclusions. It is also possible that the same design would yield positive results in a different country. We hope that our study will encourage further research in this area.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One unique feature of this article is that it was published in a special issue of the journal Comparative Political Studies on research transparency that involved results-blind peer review. My co-authors and I pre-registered a detailed pre-analysis plan for the study through the website of Experiments in Governance and Politics. The editors pre-accepted our article to the journal based on anonymous reviewers’ evaluations of the pre-analysis plan before data collection in the UAE began. Interested readers can learn more about this unique publication model here.