Evaluating Hypnosis


1. To what extent are hypnotised subjects compelled to follow suggestions?
2. In what ways is hypnosis useful and why?

When evaluating the degree to which subjects of hypnotism are compelled to follow suggestions made to them while under’ hypnosis, it is useful to first consider the ideas surrounding hypnotism, and the various scholarly opinions that can help one understand the controversy of the topic. A brief summary of the main arguments form the basis of my introduction. I then explore the various ways in which hypnotism has been used in legal and medical situations, and how it can be of use in these circumstances. I conclude by evaluation of the evidence considered.

Research suggests that it is difficult to determine exactly how far the relaxed state of semi consciousness experienced by subjects can be attributed to the social expectations surrounding hypnosis. At first glance, it is apparent that there is a clear divide between the subscribers to this social psychological process’ theory, and that of the special process theory’ (the view that the hyper suggestibility experienced by subjects is induced solely by the process of hypnosis.) it has been claimed that hypnotic subjects’ verbalizations of their experiences during hypnotic suggestions may sometimes be deliberate deceptive exaggerations of their actual experiences in order to comply with social-psychological demands and to portray themselves as good hypnotic subjects .’ (Wagstaff, 1986, cited in Kinnunen et al., 1994) One experiment that seems to support this claim is the Autokinetic’ test, where the likeliness of a subject to agree that a light was moving in a darkened room was increased when in a large group as opposed to being alone. (Lecture notes, Dienes, Z, 2007). However, Kirsch, I and Lynn, S.J, (1995) argue that the ideas surrounding these issues are more accurately expressed as a continuum’ of notions, rather than two warring factions’. …what was once real has become a myth. The notion of warring camps is now outdated.’ (Kirsch, I and Lynn, S.J, 1995). This is a valuable insight into this contentious subject, and illustrates that there can be no clear cut explanation with regards to the extent to which subjects are compelled to follow instructions when hypnotized.

Not all subjects will be influenced by hypnosis to the same degree. A standard way of determining a participant’s hypnotic suggestibility, or hypnotisability’ (the increase in suggestibility produced by hypnosis) (Hilgard, 1965; Kirsch, 1997a, 1997b; Weitzenhoffer, 1980, cited in Braffman, W and Irving Kirsch, 1999) is by measuring how susceptible to hypnosis individuals are by means of either the WGSHS: Waterloo-Stanford Group Scale of Hypnotic Susceptibility; or CURSS: Carleton University Responsivity to Suggestion Scale. (Dienes, Z, 2007). Some personality attributes that have been suggested to be more likely to belong to individuals of high hypnotic suggestibility are those that are prone to fantasies; or who are fantasy prone’ (Wilson and Barber, cited by Dienes, Z, 2007)

Dienes, Z (2007) states that There is no evidence that being in an altered state plays any causal role in responding to suggestions’, and argues that experiments conducted indicate that induction into the trance like state’ of hypnosis does not compel subjects to act upon instructions, Hypnotic inductions cause small increases in suggestibility (that can be accounted for by the increase in expectation they cause)’, also that there is not a standard method of inducing somebody into a state of hypnosis; There is no common characteristic of all hypnotic inductions other than the subject believes they induce hypnosis’, therefore the explanation for this increase could be that because the subject believes themselves to be in a highly suggestible state, they are then compelled to follow instructions from the inducer. Hypnotic inductions cause small increases in suggestibility (that can be accounted for by the increase in expectation they cause)’ This argument supports the social psychological theory. Subjects who placed their hands into reptile tanks when told by the hypnotist during an experiment initially suggests that they were strongly compelled to carry out suggestions. However, it is also likely that these subjects were also aware that they were in a controlled environment, with professional scientists, therefore minimizing any risk of injury. It could be argued that this helps to support evidence that participants remain in control of their actions while under hypnosis. (Orne, M and Evans, F, 1965)

Hypnosis is a widely practiced as a form of alternative therapy, and has been proven to be beneficial to those trying to overcome addictions such as smoking, and a number of medical issues, including pain relief, depression, and for weight loss. Enough studies have now accumulated to suggest that the inclusion of hypnotic procedures may be
beneficial in the management and treatment of a wide range of conditions and problems encountered in the practice of medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy.’ (Heap et al., 2001). In pain relief, hypnotic analgesia is used, where the suggestion that the afflicted body part is numb and therefore relieved of pain is made to the patient. (Milling et al., 2002). Tests conducted by Milling et al., indicate that although the participants were induced’ with pain, rather than suffering from clinical’ ailments, the result still provides unique supporting evidence of the potential for hypnosis for alleviating clinical pain.’ Dienes, Z (2007) states that when patients who were given hypnosis whilst also receiving other medical treatment, Hypnosis did enhance effectiveness: Average client receiving therapy with hypnosis was better off than 75% of clients receiving the same therapy without hypnosis.’

A process called the age regression technique’ is also often used by therapists in order to achieve hypermnesia (Heap et al., 2001). The use of age regression is often employed to enable subjects to rewind’ their memory (often the metaphor of a video tape is used.) (Dienes, Z. 2007) However, it must be stressed that age regression does not literally reinstate in the subject the stage of neurological, neuropsychological or cognitive development corresponding to the age targeted (Nash, 1987). This is useful to patients who have suffered a traumatic experience to enable them to relive such events, and therefore be able to overcome them.

It is worth mentioning, however, that hypnosis has also been proven to be fundamentally flawed when aiding the recovery of a person’s memory. For example, according to the American Medical Association, (cited in Heap et al., 2001) some states in the USA have banned from testifying in court witnesses who have previously been interviewed using hypnosis’. This is due to the fact that when an individual is in a hypnotized state, and therefore highly suggestible, the interviewer can easily coerce the subject into having false memories. in the forensic setting, inappropriate questioning or suggestions by
the hypnotist during hypnosis may inadvertently lead to a pseudomemory’s being created and accepted as veridical. The effect can be disastrous within the legal system, because it can lead to an innocent person’s unjust imprisonment or execution’. (Orne, Soskis, Dinges, Carota Orne, & Tonry, 1985, cited in Labelle, L. et al., 1990).

It is apparent after consideration of (largely contradictory) evidence, that although there are many differing opinions regarding whether those hypnotized are compelled to follow instructions due to the physical process of hypnotism, or the psychological effects of being subjected to an induction, it is clear that most participants are compelled to follow instructions, depending on their level of hypnotizability’. However, the evidence that suggests that the reason for this to be effective is largely due to the person’s expectations regarding hypnosis.

When considering the benefits of hypnotherapy, the evidence is a lot clearer; it has been proven that hypnosis can have positive effects when treating patients for pain relief, overcoming obesity and addictions such as smoking. Forensic hypnotism does not have such clear cut benefits; although techniques such as age regression’ has been proven to be beneficial in some cases, the risks that are associated with this, such as the creation of false memories, show that this is not a particularly reliable, and in some instances has proven to be extremely harmful to those involved in legal situations. It is apparent that hypnosis can be beneficial, as long as all parties involved are aware of the risks, and that it is recognized that subjects are in a highly suggestible state whilst hypnotized.

Dienes, Z (2007) Lecture notes 2

Dienes, Z (2007) Lecture notes 4

Heap et al, BPS report on hypnosis (2001)

Kinnunen, T, Harold S. Zamansky, and Martin L. Block, (1994), Is the hypnotized subject lying?

Kirsch et al, (2005). Hypnosis as an Adjunct to Cognitive-Behavioral Psychotherapy:
A Meta-Analysis

Labelle, L and Jean-Roch Laurence, Robert Nadon, and Campbell Perry
Hypnotizability, Preference for an Imagic Cognitive Style, and Memory Creation in Hypnosis

Milling et al, (2002) Hypnotic Analgesia and Stress Inoculation Training

Nash, M (1987), What, if Anything, is Regressed About Hypnotic Age Regression?
A Review of the Empirical Literature

Orne, M. T., & Evans, F. J. (1965) Social control in the psychological experiment: Antisocial behavior and hypnosis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, http://www.psych.upenn.edu/history/orne/orneetal1965jpsp189200.html

Milling et al, (2002) Hypnotic Analgesia and Stress Inoculation Training