Thoughts on the Begg et al. study on the effects of backward messages on listeners

This study, published in 1993, chiefly looked at the effect of reversals on listeners, and is motivated by previous claims of influence of backward messages in rock music. It does not address Reverse Speech.

In the study, the authors played backward messages to one group and the forward speech content to another group. Afterwards, to both groups, the backward speech examples were played along with other examples which were not in the original examples. Their findings showed that the group that listened to the backward speech were able to recognise more of the actual backward speech played again to them than the ones that heard only the forward speech. As expected in the study, those who heard backward messages were able to recognise more than those who heard the forward speech of the backward examples played again. Acoustics (backward message group) were recognised more than meaning (forward speech group).

A second part to the study had groups read forward speech examples and decide whether they were what they had heard. The forward speech group recognised more of the speech than the backward speech group.This, of course, is understandable. Asking people to recognise the forward speech behind backward speech examples of a set of examples they heard once is asking their conscious mind to recognise something supposedly subconscious, soon after hearing. The conscious mind gets in the way, of course. The subconscious is sub … conscious. Play forward speech statements and then ask a group to recognise typed statements they had heard … well, how significant will the result be compared to the other group? Tests of this sort are only really worthwhile through a longer term observation of behavioural change through the influence of the subconscious. Yet, even then, those who listened to the backward speech recognised the forward statements at a proportion of 0.53 compared to the forward speech listeners at a proportion of 0.55, which is not a great difference.

In any consideration of Reverse Speech, there is little that is particularly informative here – the effect of reversals on the non-speaker listener is of interest, of course; however it is secondary to the consideration of whether real speech occurs, and what this means for the speaker himself. Secondly, asking the conscious mind to simply recognise what the subconscious is supposed to recognise, is just as likely to produce error, and, therefore, having those who heard forward speech and then seeing the typed forward speech, will, naturally, have an outcome greater than one who did not hear it. Thirdly, in Reverse Speech, intelligible language occurs in both modes. This study refers to forward speech played in reverse as gibberish.

A further point – the authors note that subjects were inexperienced at listening to backward speech. They suggested that people who were skilled at converting forward speech into backward speech (and vice versa?) could be good candidates for detection of backward messages. Of course, consciously-aware conversions have little to do with subconscious influences of messages. Again, there is nothing in this that has value in any consideration of Reverse Speech.

Prompted language

The authors state, “the target may be missed many times unless listeners are warned to listen for it”. This is an argument brought up by other researchers such as Newbrook and Curtain (1997) – that suggestion prompts hearing. Their point is quite correct –  suggestion can and does manipulate what people hear/believe etc. And, in regard to listening to backward messages, there is validity in the claim. However, it becomes a case of this can happen, therefore in all situations and cases it can be nothing more than suggestion.

The authors put forward the premise that potential meaning is there, but actualised meaning is not unless it can be heard by the listener. So, for meaning to be actualised, it must be decoded by a listener; therefore, if a listener fails to decode it, then there is no meaning. On the other hand, meaning is simply potential unless there is a listener with the right skill/ability can decode it, such as in understanding a foreign language. Their implication seems to be that, unless listeners can pick up messages independently, free from prompting, the message remains potential, and not actualised; in other words it may not be there at all. A message, then, may not be heard as something easily comprehensible,  and it would require either a particular decoding skill, or someone pointing out that it is there, aka suggestion.

Surely, if a backward message that approximates language is played, it stands to reason that more people will hear the message if pointed out than if not indicated. A study by Thorne and Himelstein (1984) found that 18% of listeners who were told to listen for messages in rock music (but not specifically satanic messages) heard satanic words, while 41% who were told to listen for satanic messages heard them. Of course, people will not always pick up short snippets of language that appear suddenly and unannounced, and that are not well enunciated – if two or three words from rock music, or from fast, casual speech were played amongst gibberish, surely more will pick up language that has been first indicated?

So, yes, there is no argument that people are influenced by verbal suggestion. Yet, if one played short segments of backward messages amongst gibberish, it is understandable that people will be more likely to recognise it if prompted. This, quite frankly, may be found to be true for forward speech. Play rock music or fast casual speech as short snippets of three to six words, and place it amongst gibberish, which group will hear significantly more? The prompted or unprompted group? The fact that more will hear speech that is prompted than unprompted does not ‘prove’ the lack of existence of backward messages. In addition, it must be realised that backward speech is not exactly the same as forward speech. Although many linguistic processes are shared by both modes, backward speech has its own nuances that occur through the subconscious communicating at the same time and space as the conscious speaker. People are not used to hearing speech in its backward mode. Just as people do not hear some accents as well as others, people will be less likely to pick up speech easily (and unprompted) that can be different to what they are used to hearing.

There are three questions that inform my thinking about Reverse Speech.

The first question is, are there substantial amounts of grammatically acceptable, linguistically-viable language in the reverse of speech? The answer is yes, there is. This can be proven. The next question is, can this language inform us about the person? The answer is yes, it does appear so. There is substantial evidence that is contextually/person-relevant (although I admit this can also be a product of projection and wrongful interpretation). The next question is, who/what is producing this language, what is the situation actually referred to, and, who does the message refer to? Any worthwhile interpretation would, and needs depend upon which subconscious aspect is communicating (if one is to differentiate aspects rather than see the subconscious as a single entity), and the actual situation/experience referred to, and who the referent is.

Begg, I. M., Needham, D. R., & Bookbinder, M. (1993). Do backward message unconsciously affect listeners? No. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 47(1).

Newbrook, M., & Curtain, J. (1997 ). Oates’ theory of Reverse Speech: a critical examination. The Skeptic (17)3

Thorne, S.B., & Himelstein, P. (1984). The role of suggestion in the perception of satanic messages in rock-and-roll recordings. Journal of Psychology (116), 245-248

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