Friday, December 11, 2009

The Devil's in the Detail

Just before Christmas in 1985 two teenagers, James Vance and Raymond Belknap, were smoking pot, drinking beer and listening to heavy metal music by Judas Priest. Raymond was first to rest the shotgun below his chin. He died instantly. James followed but survived with serious injuries.

What's this got to do with psychology you ask? According to Gary Greenwald, a christian fundamentalist preacher, backwards messages in rock music are satanic and can influence young people to a sinful life of sex and drugs. Judas Priest were subsequently sued for $6 million by the young men's parents for inserting the subliminal backwards message into the song that provoked the suicide attempt. Psychology proved them wrong.

On my recent trip to North America I visited the University of Lethbridge in Canada. I met a professor named John Vokey and spent some time working in his lab.

It was John who was asked to serve as an expert witness and to assist in the defence of Judas Priest. He conducted an experiment where he created a bunch of backwards messages, Psalm 23 from the bible for example, and asked people to identify the properties and the content of the messages.

He found no evidence that participants were influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by the semantic content of backward messages. His results suggest that the backwards messages people hear arise from active construction on their part.

In other words, people are very good at finding patterns in the noise of our environment so we hear and see things (faces, voices, etc.) that aren't really there. The effect is known as Pareidolia and is especially strong when someone tells you what to listen out for.

The case against Judas Priest was dismissed thanks, in part, to John (but Satan probably played some part too). See if you can pick John out from the heavy metal band in the picture below (click here to see the answer -- you may be surprised).

Matt Thompson

Judas Priest with Professor John Vokey

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1 comment:

  1. Hi, thanks for sharing your blog