International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 6, 2015, 48-59.Psychological Manipulation, Hypnosis, and Suggestion
Jose Fernández Aguado
Pehuén Institute of Psychology, Barcelona, Spain
A widespread vision links hypnosis to psychological manipulation. The mass media favor this image, thus making it popular. Traces of that point of view can even taint scientific views at scientific forums. Nevertheless, this widespread vision is essentially false. In this paper I deal with some of the possible causes of that confusion, the main one being that a major characteristic of hypnosis (namely, an increase in suggestibility one experiences while under hypnosis) is also a key characteristic of people in manipulative and abusive environments. I will give some well-established and agreed-upon definitions of hypnosis and explain why one’s suggestibility is enhanced while hypnotized. My conclusion is that one’s confidence in the process and the hypnotizer plays a major role in any enhanced suggestibility while under hypnosis. I compare what occurs during hypnosis to what occurs in the mildly or overly manipulative contexts of seduction and coercion, where suggestibility is also enhanced. I conclude that the main difference in the case of hypnosis lies in the ease with which one can exit that enhanced state of suggestibility. I introduce the concepts of dissociation and integration for the purpose of increasing readers’ understanding about the twofold route to higher states of suggestibility and the way back from them, and of showing how this way back can be hampered in manipulative contexts.
Keywords: hypnosis, psychological manipulation, suggestibility, dissociation, integration
One of the oldest questions in the literature on hypnosis is whether deeply hypnotized individuals can be induced to perform antisocial or self-destructive acts (Orne, 1962), or whether those individuals can be induced to perform acts that are against their core principles and that they would never perform if they were not under hypnosis.
The answer that many have given to these questions is “No” (Capafons, 2001; Lynn and Kirsch, 2006; Orne, 1962). The impossibility of getting persons to do anything under hypnosis that they would not do without hypnosis, therefore, has been widely proven.
Nevertheless, Wells (1941), Rowland (1939), Young (1948), Estabrooks (1993), Wolberg (1945; 1948), and Weitzenhoffer (1949) have been leading proponents of the view that, provided the hypnotist’s technique is adequate, the subject in hypnosis may be forced to do anything. But according to Orne (1962), the evidence shown by all of these authors to support their view is inconsistent, if not clearly biased. Orne points out that, before asserting that by means of hypnosis a person can make someone act against her will, one must prove that, without hypnosis, the individual would not have been predisposed to carry out such an act. Orne skillfully proves how none of these authors had controlled the influence the hypnotist may have had on the subject prior to hypnosis, which Orne considers a key shortcoming of these studies.
Therefore, confusion continues to reign. This confusion has been present since the beginning of the modern history of hypnosis in the 18th century, with Mesmer, whose utilization of what he termed animal magnetism was related to confusion and deceit. The confusion has continued to the present day, enhanced by the popular vision that the mass media have attributed to hypnosis. More seriously, though, is the fact that mental-health professionals and academicians as well often ascribe these characteristics to hypnosis. For example, Hassan (1988) states that it is possible to get people who are under hypnosis to carry out acts that they would not do if they were not hypnotized.
In this paper I deal with the main causes, from my point of view, of this confusion: primarily that the increase in suggestibility produced while one is under hypnosis, which is a major characteristic of hypnosis, is also a core feature of contexts in which people are being manipulated.
However, despite this similarity between hypnosis and manipulation, there is a key difference: Persons under hypnosis have the freedom to reverse the process under which their suggestibility has been heightened. In other words, they have total freedom in choosing when to come out of hypnosis (a state that they also entered freely) whenever they desire to do so. I will give some examples of this difference.
States of high suggestibility can be attained in many ways (ways that imply a lesser or higher degree of manipulation). Hypnosis is merely one of these ways.
To offer a better explanation of this distinction, I will first pay attention to what hypnosis is, and what its essential components are. Then I will compare what occurs during hypnosis with what happens in other high-suggestibility contexts. I will pay special attention to what occurs when these states are manipulative, such as in cases of seduction and coercion.
To conclude, I will observe that what occurs during hypnosis is more because of the characteristics of human beings than of any characteristics associated with hypnosis. In other words, the strength to make us more suggestible is internal, stemming from our cognitive and affective architecture, rather than external, stemming from hypnosis.
Hypnosis and Psychological Manipulation
I am not going to pay much attention to explaining the impossibility of getting someone to do something through hypnosis that he would not do without it. Instead, I will offer some references that have been widely agreed on (Capafons, 2001; Lynn & Kirsch, 2006; Orne, 1962) for those wishing to expand their understanding about this issue. To give one example, Barber and colleagues (Barber, Spanos, & Chaves, 1974) obtained from highly motivated but not hypnotized participants, and from hypnotized participants, in one task, the same responses to the same suggestions. The researchers concluded that hypnosis was not needed, or at least that no more than high motivation was needed, to account for the responses to the suggestions.
Orne (1962) points out that the view sustained by the likes of Wells (1941), Rowland (1939), Young (1948), Estabrooks (1993), Wolberg (1945; 1948), and Weitzenhoffer (1949)—that under hypnosis the subject can be led to do anything—becomes untenable when one poses the question as follows: “Does hypnosis increase the amount of social control that the hypnotist has over the subject above that which existed before the induction of hypnosis?”
However, it is fair to say that Orne leaves a door open for the potential of hypnosis to increase the amount of social control one may have over a person under special conditions. These conditions would be when the person is ambivalent toward the realization of an action. Orne (1962) says that
In such a situation, he might well refuse to carry out the behavior in his normal waking state, but he could be induced to carry it out under certain special circumstances. One condition sufficient to resolve the ambivalence might be hypnosis. (…) Quite possibly, in some instances hypnosis, like alcohol, might provide the necessary rationalization for the execution of normally unacceptable actions. (pp. 186–187)
It is of note, though, that any shift in behavior in these special circumstances would be as a consequence of the significance the person who is hypnotized attached to the term hypnosis rather than a consequence of hypnosis itself. That significance would affect both the hypnotized and the hypnotizer, as the following quotation from Lynn and Kirsch indicates in reference to clinical hypnosis (2006):
Other meanings attached to the term are responsible for its therapeutic efficacy. As we mentioned earlier, hypnosis can provide a disinhibiting context, allowing patients to exhibit responses that they do not realize they are capable of making. That is why people are more responsive to suggestion—including therapeutic suggestions—after a hypnotic induction than they were before it. It also can disinhibit therapists by providing a context for therapeutic behaviors that might seem inappropriate in other settings (T. X. Barber, 1985). For example, the hypnotic context permits the therapist to repeat statements over and over, which enhances their forcefulness and salience. Outside the hypnotic context, this style of communication would seem strange and inappropriate. (pp. 35–36)
Bearing in mind the circumstances just mentioned, the existence of huge misconceptions in the general understanding of hypnosis has been widely agreed on. The Society of Clinical Hypnosis (SCH) (APA- Division 30) has listed some myths with regard to commonly held beliefs about hypnosis. One of these myths is that under hypnosis a person can be induced to do acts that he would not do without hypnosis. My main aim in this paper is to clarify, to the extent possible, some of the possible causes of the error that leads to this particular myth. Another related myth the SCH lists is that people may not be able to come out of hypnosis, and thus become stuck in a hypnotic state. Again, the mass media has had a significant role in spreading these myths as if they were true.
Where does this confusion come from? Apart from the historical reasons sketched above, the main cause of these misconceptions is, from my point of view, that a characteristic of the hypnotic state, namely, a rise in suggestibility, is also a characteristic of people who find themselves in manipulative contexts.
What Is Suggestibility and What Are Its Constituents?
Yapko (1995) defines suggestibility as an openness to accept and respond to new ideas and information. According to Spiegel and Spiegel (2004), we can refer to situations as being conducive to states of high suggestibility when we find the following:
low critical thinking
These two elements, high dissociation and low critical thinking, are the essential constituents of suggestibility.
It will be of use to our discussion to look first at what we understand dissociation to mean. Dissociation is one of the more controversial terms in psychiatry and psychology. Recent developments (Cardeña, 1994; Spiegel & Cardeña, 1996) establish a basic distinction between pathological and nonpathological dissociation. An example of the first is dissociative amnesia, wherein we are unable to retrieve basic information about our identity. An example of the second is daydreaming, a state of concentration that makes us dissociate from everything lying outside the focus of our attention. Daydreaming, to be concentrated in our thoughts while we are driving to the extent of not remembering anything of our journey afterward, is an example of this second type of dissociation. This second type of dissociation is the one I will be referring to in this paper because it is the dissociation implied in hypnosis. However, it is likely that the line that separates pathological dissociation from nonpathological dissociation is blurred.
We could characterize dissociation as looking at one part and forgetting about the whole: One sees the trees but not the wood, and not necessarily all the trees, but perhaps just a few. In this state, a person concentrates so much on one part that she loses perspective of the whole of which it is a part. However, dissociation could also imply one seeing the wood without seeing the trees. In that case, the person centers herself so much on the big picture that she loses touch with the particulars. When a mind can switch easily between a vision of individual trees and that of the whole forest, and vice-versa, then integration is reached, and that is considered the healthy way to perceive. This ability of perception to change perspective easily allows a person to have a more accurate view of reality. This integrative capacity is lost or impaired in certain more or less pathological situations.
Two examples of these perspectives are provincialism and fundamentalism (I will let the reader judge which category these examples fall into). Provincialism occurs when you can pay attention only to some trees without seeing other trees or the entire forest. Fundamentalism occurs when you can see only the forest and therefore want to apply a theory to all cases, without paying attention to the individuality of each tree. We may speculate that the line that separates pathological from nonpathological dissociation lies in the difficulty or ease with which one can reach this perceptual integration (this is at least one of the lines that separates the two; there will surely be others). Thus, pathological dissociation would be characterized by an incapacity or a difficulty in being able to change one’s point of view. Sticking to the example of the trees and the forest, the person would be trapped in her perception either of one part or of the whole, without being able to swap her point of view from one to the other, or to change viewpoint without difficulty. In contrast, in nonpathological dissociation, the person would be able to easily change her perception of one part for that of the whole, and vice versa, and thus achieve perceptual integration.
Critical thinking is something we all understand, and I do not see the need to expand on the concept further. However, it is important to note that the increase in dissociation and the decrease of critical thinking are two sides of the same coin. Each is enhanced by the other. That is to say, the more evidence of dissociation, the less critical thinking will be on display, and the less critical thinking is evident, the more dissociation there is. Here lies the essence of suggestion. Let us look at an example.
A drug addict who has been able to abstain for some months, and who is in what is considered, according to Prochaska and Di Clemente (1983), the maintenance phase, suddenly sees his drug of preference and craves it (conditioned abstinence). In the addict’s mind in those moments, only the good experiences related with the drug are being considered, despite the fact that these experiences represent only a tiny proportion of his story with the drug. In accordance with our example, the addict sees only some of the trees in that situation. This is clearly a dissociation. He sees only a part, which actually is the smallest part, and does not see the rest: the long and painful history of disastrous consequences of his addiction. This high level of dissociation stimulates a very low level of critical thinking, since he will derive no evaluation of the negative consequences related to the consumption of the drug from remembering only the good moments associated with it. In such circumstances, he does not regard his perspective of consuming the drug as highly dangerous—an assessment which, in turn, feeds a high dissociation, in a vicious circle in which both factors provide feedback to one another. The floating state of a former cult member would be another example of this process.
Different Ways of Eliciting High-Suggestibility States
According to Spiegel and Spiegel (2004), there are three basic ways of putting people into a high suggestibility state, or trance, as they refer to it:
In other words, as Figure 1 depicts, by means of hypnosis, seduction, or coercion, a state of high suggestibility can be induced in another. Thus, this similarity in the outcome can lead to confusion with regard to the cause; that is to say, hypnosis, seduction, and coercion all lead us to the same place, but they do so along different routes and are therefore not the same thing.
The great difference between these ways of getting to the same level of suggestibility lies in the ease with which one can get out of each circumstance. That outcome depends on the way one takes to get there, and it also has direct consequences on the person’s freedom (see Figure 2).
Figure 1. Contexts of hypnosis, coercion, and seduction and a high-suggestibility state.
Figure 3. Components of hypnosis.
Figure 4. Theory of hypnosis. (Adapted from Spiegel & Spiegel , Trance and Treatment, American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, DC (p. 20.)
Going to the cinema to see a movie is a good example in which all these conditions—consent, change of focus, and suggestion—are met. In fact, while watching a film, we are essentially under hypnosis (Capafons, 2001). Going to the cinema is a voluntary action (consent) that raises some expectations about what will happen in that place. When we enter the cinema, we sit down and the lights are lowered; we change the focus of our attention (change of focus) so that we concentrate totally on what is on the screen, forgetting or dissociating ourselves from anything else. We get so involved in the movie that we experience the events in it as if they were real, although we know, deep down, that they are not. We temporarily forget that knowledge, suspending our disbelief and letting ourselves go, drawn in by what the director is presenting to us (suggestion).
If we were constantly fully aware of the falsity of what is happening on the screen, it would be very difficult for us to let ourselves go, and therefore difficult to be moved by the film. Nevertheless, even when we let ourselves go and are drawn into the movie, forgetting it is a mere representation and experiencing it as reality, we retain the capacity to withdraw from that experience at any moment. We will use this capacity if for any reason an intense stimulus distracts us from the film, or even if the film is just not to our liking. When the film finishes, we often need a few seconds to adapt ourselves again to the external world.
Although we can experience a film with intensity, in no case can we get stuck in it to the point at which we confuse film and reality. An honest presentation of hypnosis must inform us that what occurs while we are in hypnosis is similar to what occurs when we go to the cinema.
Hypnosis vs. Seduction and Coercion: A Comparison
To help us better to understand the differences of hypnosis with regard to psychological manipulation, it is useful to compare what occurs while one is under hypnosis with what occurs while one is in the manipulative contexts of seduction and coercion. This is the focus of the following subsections.
Seduction can be sexual, nonsexual, or both simultaneously. We are seduced when someone has something we do not have but wish to have. Let us consider amorousness as a means of seduction. When we are in love, we are seduced by the other person. This means that we are dissociated from all that is negative about them. Although we can perceive things that we do not like in the other, it is as if we do not actually see them. This state is what dissociation involves: seeing without seeing. This dissociated way of perceiving is truly a hurdle for critical thinking, so much so that critical thinking will disappear under such circumstances. That absence of critical thinking will be a stimulus for the continuation of dissociated perception. Thus, dissociation will enhance low critical thinking, and vice versa, as in the following example of what might occur when a person is feeling the initial stages of strong attraction, or amorousness, toward another person. Amorousness results in the following:
↑ Dissociation: I see only the good. Any bad that I see, I do not truly perceive (We see through the eyes of the mind)
↓ Critical Thinking: Everything is good.
We understand coercion as a relationship based upon fear, guilt, or both. Thus, the following two sentences stated by the leader of a cult group are oriented to provoke fear and guilt, respectively, in the recipient:
If you go away, you will be miserable.
After all we have done for you, you cannot be so selfish as to abandon us.
Because fear and guilt are two powerful emotions that strongly interfere with freedom of thought, these sentences are coercive because they are intended to elicit in the recipient a certain behavior and way of thinking by means of fear and guilt respectively. When these situations are repeated over time, they will clearly contribute to establishing a manipulative context that will stimulate the victim’s high dissociation and decrease in critical thinking. This combination will provoke a state of heightened suggestibility that will favor the aggressor. In that state of high suggestibility, the recipient loses perspective of the portion of reality he is being dissociated from; he begins to lose even the very notion of being in a coercive environment, up to the point at which he feels himself to be totally free and able to make any decision required. A person in such a state will not even see the aggressor as such. That is why we say that the victim’s heightened state of suggestibility will favor the aggressor in this coercive context. Let us examine two examples.
Example 1: Stockholm syndrome. In this context, a person in a hostage situation dissociates from the whole situation and perceives merely a part of it. So at each instance of care exhibited by her captor, for instance, the victim may lack the ability of seeing the whole context, even beginning to feel, as a consequence, an affective closeness toward that captor. If the victim saw beyond the immediate concern, she would perceive the global situation in which she was being held and deprived of her liberty by the very same person from whom she is receiving care. But the victim does not see this because she has become dissociated. Such dissociation from the global situation will greatly facilitate a situation in which any sign of affection from the captor will cause the victim to consider her captor as considerate, which clearly shows a lack of critical thinking in that situation. This lack of critical thinking will stimulate, in turn, the perceptual dissociation from the global situation, and so on, in a vicious circle. To summarize:
↑ Dissociation: I don’t see the harm they have done me, depriving me of freedom being the main one.
↓ Critical thinking: They take care of me, so they are good.
Example 2: Battered women. The dissociated thinking that we are referring to here, “seeing without seeing,” is stressed in the following example. A woman receiving systematic maltreatment from her partner is aware of it. However, a mental mechanism we call dissociation allows her not to pay attention to that reality, despite having it right in front of her.
Dissociation is a mental mechanism that we all use within our daily lives, and it has adaptive functions. In our daily lives, dissociation allows us to turn our back on painful situations so we can fully focus on survival tasks, or the achievement of our goals. Thus, the worried father in the morning leaves his son at home with a fever and goes to work, where he has a very important meeting and is able to totally forget about his son (dissociate) while in the meeting because that meeting is also very important to him.
When we are concentrated on something significant to us, we are able to completely forget anything else, no matter how dear to us this “anything else” may be. This capacity to dissociate is adaptive. It allows us to perform better in each concrete situation we face without being distracted from the relevant stimuli to that situation, or rather, thanks precisely to our attention not being distracted from the relevant stimuli to that situation.
However, this mental resource that allows us to dissociate, while adaptive in everyday life, in extreme contexts of maltreatment or psychological manipulation can end up contributing to a dysfunction. In such situations, we may dissociate from the relevant stimuli that would help us recognize the maltreatment or psychological abuse we are the victim of. This disassociation can lead us to fixate our attention on other stimuli that absorb us totally, and that are irrelevant, or contradictory, with regard the global situation we are in.
In the case of the battered woman, despite living in a reality in which her partner treats her badly 99% of the time, she focuses her attention on that portion of time when her partner treats her well and that represents 1% only of her reality. Having dissociated from 99% of her experience, the woman takes the 1% of her reality as a representation of the whole 100%. This is possible because, while concentrating on the 1% in which her partner treats her well, she totally forgets anything else, just as the father who leaves his son with a fever at home does during that important meeting at work. Both are able to do this because of their capacity to dissociate. The fundamental difference between these examples lies in each individual’s ability to get out of the dissociation. Thus, when the meeting is finished, if he is not very absentminded, the father will probably remember his son’s fever; he will connect once again with the perception of the whole of his day. Meanwhile, the woman, as long as no drastic change occurs in her life, will remain stuck in her dissociation, interpreting that 1% for 100% of her reality. The father whose focus of attention can fluctuate from his work to his son achieves a better perception of the whole of his life; in other words, he has a perception in which there is a sound integration of those two parts of his life.
It is precisely the coercion exerted upon the battered woman, in the other example, that is responsible for her permanent dissociation. Such dissociated perception will have drastic consequences on her critical thinking, which now is based merely on 1% of her reality, that percentage in which her partner behaves well toward her. Her vision of reality will then be partial or nonintegrated:
↑ Dissociation: I perceive the 1% of the time in which he treats me well, and not the 99% of the time in which he treats me badly.
↓ Critical Thinking: My husband is good.
Many means of psychological manipulation, if not all of them, are based upon seduction and coercion, or a mixture of both, which will produce the natural effects of increased dissociation and decreased critical thinking.
Hypnosis, where we can also find these phenomena, is based on the opposite extreme; it is based on confidence and freedom. Actually, confidence and freedom are the elements that in the context of hypnosis promote an increase in dissociation and a diminishing of critical thinking. Confidence has its origins in relevant and true information, among other factors.
People under hypnosis will let themselves go, and due to a heightened state of suggestibility, will experience the responses the hypnotizer or the people themselves (when under self-hypnosis) have suggested to them as if they were real, even though they always know this is not really the case (Capafons 1998, Lynn & Kirsch 2006). In the event of any setback or unforeseen circumstance, persons under hypnosis will return to their normal state of awareness. This is not guaranteed under manipulative contexts. In such cases, as we have seen, persons can get stuck within the artificial construct. Here lies the fundamental difference between hypnosis and psychological manipulative environments, namely, the reversibility that in the case of hypnosis has the process of making us more suggestible by the increase in our dissociation and reduction in our critical thinking.
We are all potential victims of manipulation because of our ability both to dissociate and to renounce critical thinking. However, it is because of those abilities that we also are creative.
Both abilities represent two sides of the same coin.
Both abilities are natural.
As a consequence, our ability to dissociate and diminish our critical thinking is neither good nor bad in itself; the significance depends on the use we make of these abilities. Used well, they are adaptive resources of great value. Used inappropriately, they make us very vulnerable. The heightened suggestibility that occurs in high dissociation and low critical-thinking situations is, therefore, a characteristic that can make us either freer or more dependent.
To summarize with regard to hypnosis: Any power present is not contained within the tool that is hypnosis, or in the hypnotizer; rather, the power lies within each person’s mind. Hypnosis is just a tool that can aid us in putting these mental resources to work—resources that are inside, not outside each person, and not within the tools or the hypnotizer.
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I want to thank the members of the Association for the Advancement of Experimental and Applied Hypnosis (AAHEA) for their generous feedback and advice while writing this paper, especially Dr. Antonio Capafons and Andrés Carmona. My special thanks to Dr. Michael Langone, for his readiness to help with the publishing of this paper whenever needed or with whatever issue I requested of him. I also want to thank Berni Armstrong for his help with the language usage, and Sharon Hamm for her patient and diligent editing work with a paper whose author is not a native English speaker.
About the Author
Jose Fernández Aguado is a psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice in Barcelona, at Pehuén Institute of Psychology (www.institutpehuen.com), where he has been for the past 12 years. He follows a constructivist and systemic approach, subjects on which, in addition to hypnosis, he has postgraduate studies. He is involved with the latter both as a therapeutic tool and as a field of research, having published on the matter in La Revista de Psicoterapia international journal. He is interested in psychological manipulation at schools (bullying), in the workplace (mobbing), and at home (psychological maltreatment). He is a founding member of the Catalonian College of Psychologists task force on hypnosis and is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Experimental and Applied Hypnosis, (AAHEA), for which he is the current secretary. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 6, 2015