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It’s a relatively popular belief that if a person is easily hypnotised, it is a sign that they’re gullible and weak willed…
But in fact, the opposite is true!
“…it is not a sign of instability or weakness to be capable of being put in a hypnotic trance, but that, quite on the contrary, a certain amount of intelligence and concentration on the part of the subject is absolutely essential.” (Eysenck, 1957: 32)
That view that those who are “easily hypnotised” are weak, gullible or lacking in intelligence comes from the idea that subjects are passive and that hypnosis is “done to them”.
The modern view is that the subject is actively “doing hypnosis”, that in some way all hypnosis is self-hypnosis – even if some elements of the hypnotic experience are seemingly automatic or involuntary.
Essentially, everyone responds to hypnotic suggestion in some way, and to some degree. The degree of response can be easily measured. And, more basically, everyone can respond to suggestions even without a hypnotic induction.
Indeed, hypnotic inductions do not seem to increase suggestibility that much. Responding to suggestions is not down to some magic thing that happens to us in hypnosis where our intelligence and “critical faculty” gets switched off or by passed.
Psychologists have been trying for almost a century to correlate hypnotic responsiveness and responsiveness to non-hypnotic suggestions with other personality traits and have met with surprisingly little success!
Nevertheless, there are a handful of traits which are believed to correlate with responsiveness, albeit to a small degree. Many people who lack all of these traits can still be highly responsive to hypnotic suggestions. It is useful, though, to know that these factors tend to add something.
Note also that these are all positive traits. By contrast, people with negative traits such as psychosis or mental retardation are traditionally considered more difficult to hypnotise.
Some people confuse suggestibility with gullibility. While there is no direct correlation between intelligence and hypnotic responsiveness, people of very low intelligence may be less responsive to hypnotic techniques, often because of fundamental concentration regulation issues.
Research also suggests that the more people understand hypnosis the better they tend to respond. This is often because they can set aside unwarranted fears, have reasonable expectations, understand what is wanted and are very creative in “getting” the hypnotic response (e.g. for the arm to float up automatically in arm levitation.
Imagination & Absorption
A particular kind of imagination is correlated with hypnotic responsiveness: imaginal absorption. People who become easily engrossed in movies, novels or daydreams tend to be better subjects. This may be related to the trait of being “fantasy prone.”
It stands to reason that people who become absorbed in their imagination will probably be able to focus more deeply on the images evoked by suggestions, while they temporarily forget about the world around them.
A specific type of confidence is relevant, sometimes referred to as “expectation.” People who worry about whether they are “doing things right” or not tend to suffer from self-inflicted performance anxiety.
People who are self-confident in their ability to respond to suggestions and hypnosis, unsurprisingly, tend to respond better. In a sense, this is “faith in oneself” or “belief in the process” by another name.
“I can do this, I can figure this out” – this is very helpful self talk to give ourselves before hypnosis.
The more you want to be hypnotised, the more easy you are likely to find it. A high level of motivation helps to focus the mind.
In the past, doctors using hypnosis in a medical setting observed that their patients were more responsive than average – probably because people in hospitals are often highly motivated to accept treatment that might help them. They focus on the suggestions being given, and want and expect the suggestions to be powerful, and so experience powerful emotional and physiological responses to the suggestions.
So it’s best to always refresh and increase our motivation before we do hypnosis on ourselves or receive it from someone else!
Patience & Self-encouragement
Research suggests that people who worry about “distractions” tend to make slower progress with hypnosis than people who are patient and accepting toward their experiences. Everyone’s mind wanders sometimes, that’s normal, especially in the beginning. Patience and perseverance help.
Indeed instructing clients to be patient and how to deal with “interfering thoughts” helps develop the mindset of patience and disregard for competing thoughts or distractions.
Good subjects also encourage themselves by noticing even the tiniest response and celebrating it. They do not get down on themselves or the hypnosis if they don’t respond immediately or get a huge response.
They have a learning mindset. Noticing any small improvement and encouraging themselves.
“Oh look my arm muscles are twitching a bit in response to the suggestion” (for arm levitation)
“My arm is not floating up, it’s not working.”
So there are the five traits that (slightly) increase hypnotisability!
But don’t worry if you don’t have any intelligence, imagination, confidence, motivation or patience, which is very unlikely! You may still be a good hypnotic subject, and should certainly be able to improve your responsiveness with a little training.
And that is the real secret to both developing our hypnotic responsiveness, to outcomes in psychotherapy and achievement in life… the belief that with a little practice, effort, knowledge we can improve our responses.
This is the “high self-efficacy” mindset. Where we do not put seeming lack of ability or “failure” down to something innately lacking in us, we ascribe it to insufficient knowledge, effort or practice – all of which are something we can acquire or do something about.
Eysenck, H., 1957. Sense And Nonsense In Psychology. Harmondsworth: Penguin.