What does a nation’s flag really stand for? That’s the question posed by researchers at Hebrew University, who studied the effect of flashing subliminal images of the Israeli flag at subjects of a study aimed at measuring the images’ effect on political behavior and beliefs among Israelis. The results are surprising: Rather than making Israelis more nationalistic (i.e., shifting them to the right), the effect of the images was to shift their opinions away from extremes and towards the political center. As the Jerusalem Post reports:
In the first experiment, the Israeli participants—divided into two groups chosen at random—were asked about their attitudes toward core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were then asked again to share their opinions on the subject, but this time, prior to answering the researchers’ questions, half of the participants were exposed to subliminal images of the Israeli flag projected on a monitor and the rest were not. The results showed that the former group tended to shift to the political center.
Another experiment, which was conducted in the weeks leading up the the disengagement from Gaza, replicated these results whereby participants subliminally exposed to the Israeli flag expressed centrist views in relation to the withdrawal and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
The third experiment was held just prior to Israel’s last general election. Here too, the subliminal presentation of Israel’s flag drew right-wing, as well as left-wing, Israelis toward the political center.
Participants who were subliminally exposed to the flag said they intended to vote for more central parties than those who had not been exposed to the subliminal message. The researchers then called the participants after the elections and discovered that people who were exposed to the flag indeed voted for more moderate candidates.
Neither the report nor the article ventures a guess as to why Israelis moderate their views in light of their own flag. One answer might be that citizens are reminded of the high responsibility that a national conscience represents, and of the nuance of belief that such responsibility may sometimes entail.
Yet there is another possibility. As the Post reports, “The team did not study the effect of subliminal images of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas flag on Palestinian political leanings.” Perhaps Palestinians would moderate their views in light of their own flag, just as Israelis do—but perhaps not. One wonders whether some flags (such as those flown over free, democratic countries) trigger a different set of unconscious associations than do others. To find this out, we’ll have to wait for the comparative study.