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Hypnotic suggestibility is gullibility

Welcome to the third myth in our Cutting Through the Five Myths of Hypnosis series!

Here I’m aiming to show you that by debunking some of the misconceptions around hypnosis, we can have greater confidence in its validity and credibility as an effective, evidence-based therapeutic method. 

So, this week we’ll be talking about hypnotic suggestibility and gullibility. 

It’s a popular belief that if a person is easily hypnotised, it is a sign that they’re gullible and mentally weak.

But, in many ways, 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.”

– Hans Eysenck, Sense And Nonsense In Psychology (1957)

The 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”.

Historical side note!

The idea that if you respond strongly to hypnosis you are easily influenced, low intelligence or somehow have a weakness in your nervous system has a long and fascinating history.

We can find some of its roots in the exorcism practices of the 17th century (typically women suffering possession and exorcisms being conducted by male priests in positions of power). Exorcism then gave way to Mesmerism and then to early hypnosis.

It’s worth noting that originally Mesmerism was done only between the aristocracy – again, typically men healing women with their Mesmeric energy. Then French aristocrats began to use Mesmerism to treat and heal the labourers on their estates.

As Mesmerism gave way to hypnosis, we find a big rift between the school of thought that sees hypnotic responsiveness as dissociation and a weakness in the nervous system – which was great French neurologist Charcot’s idea – versus Bernheim’s view that hypnosis is ‘cognitive suggestibility’, or a willingness to respond to suggestions.

Charcot, with whom both Freud and Janet studied, was proven disastrously wrong when it was discovered that his prime hypnotic subjects for public demonstrations (working class women with “mental health” problems) – were actually just acting it out for the money!

S0 Bernheim’s very modern ideas about hypnosis won the favour of the day.

But the idea of hypnosis as a type of ‘dissocative-split’ in the nervous system influenced generations of therapists and thinkers.

The key point here is the power dynamics at play: men controlling women, rich healing the poor, the strong healing the weak.

This is in complete opposition to the central modern view of hypnosis.

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. It’s now an established fact that nearly every researcher will agree with that hypnotic inductions do not to increase suggestibility that much (Barber, 1969).

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.

So what does improve hypnotic suggestibility?

Psychologists have been trying for almost a century to correlate hypnotic responsiveness (and responsiveness to non-hypnotic suggestions) with other personality traits – and have been 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.

And none of them are anything to do with gullibility! Note also that these are all positive traits.

Intelligence

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 and 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.

Confidence

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.

Motivation

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 and 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.

For example, in arm levitation hypnosis session:

‘High self-efficacy’ mindset:
“Oh look my arm muscles are twitching a bit in response to the suggestion”

Vs

‘Low self-efficacy’ mindset:
“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 developing our hypnotic responsiveness, and outcomes in psychotherapy and achievement in life… the belief that we can improve our responses.

This is key to the ‘high self-efficacy’ mindset. When we do not put seeming lack of ability or ‘failure’ down to something innately lacking in us, we can instead ascribe it to insufficient knowledge, effort or practice – all of which are something we can do something about.

And I think you’ll agree that this is far removed from ‘gullibility’.