From the Hypnosis FAQ by Todd I. Stark
Web version, revision 2. Last update: February 16, 1997.
"Evil" hypnosis is what I call the popular view of hypnosis
as something that is used by devious agencies or individuals to
control people's minds surreptitiously. Mind control or behavior
control are possible with hypnosis only temporarily, and only
to a similar degree as with other forms of psychotherapy. Roughly
the same forces of influence apply in and out of hypnosis. Individual
differences and personal psychological needs are much more important
in determining our capacity to be lastingly influenced than our
state of consciousness in hypnosis. The roles we play under hypnosis
are temporary. Permanent change to our personality occurs only
when our core self-image is altered., which requires more than
just superficial exposure to hypnosis.
Hypnosis can be used to some extent as a tool for gaining influence
by someone who betrays our trust in them. It might be slightly
easier to take advantage of someone with hypnosis, since they
are relaxed, they are not evaluating ideas critically, and they
are very sensitive to social cues. Increased vulnerability to
persuasion is not an intrinsic characteristic of hypnosis, however.
It takes time and skill to turn the hypnotic situation into
one of profound persuasion by altering the self-image.
The qualities of hypnosis that make it useful as part of an influence
technology are the capacity to create vivid, realistic fantasies,
and the capacity of a very skillful hypnotist to make these fantasies
seem as if they actually happened (pseudomemories). We are also
temporarily less critical during hypnosis, and more willing to
consider ideas that would otherwise seem unorthodox. These are
traits that many people (particularly certain highly hypnotizable
people) have without hypnosis, however. Hypnosis may only
increases these factors by a relatively small amount and cannot
be considered the only or even the most important reason for people
accepting bizarre new ideas.
Simply going through hypnosis does not leave you vulnerable to
having your core values or beliefs altered. Beliefs, values, and
attitudes shift slightly over time, and hypnosis can provide fertile
ground for new experiences that help to shift them. This is particularly
true when we are already vulnerable to the influence of strong
social forces such as trusted authority or the need to be immersed
in a group identity. Advertisers use various methods of influencing
our buying behavior, and religious groups have their own kind
of tactics of persuasion. Not only do these not require hypnosis,
but many are actually more powerful than hypnosis at influencing
us. The power of social influence techniques might increase somewhat
under hypnosis, because we are less critical, but the influence
does not originate with the hypnosis.
The capacity to influence depends largely upon what aspect of
personality is being influenced. Some aspects of personality
are far more malleable than others. Aspects of our sense of identity,
such as our sense of gender, can be nearly impossible to change
by any means. In order to make profound and lasting changes
to someone's personality, their sense of identity would need to
be destabilized, and a new additional sense of identity created
to replace it. Even with this extreme process, without constant
reinforcement of the new identity, we tend to revert to the original
identity. Analysis of the results of extreme conditions of "brainwashing"
and thought reform show us that spectacular temporary success
is sometimes achieved if total environmental control of the person
is available for an extended time. There is much less success
is achieving longer term changes in personality, even after years
of continuous reinforcement is undertaken. This is not to say
that years of thought reform do not change people, only that many
people do not conform permanently to the desired ideal even after
years of forced indoctrination.
Experiments have shown that it is actually possible to mimic the
symptoms of dissociative identity disorder by building multiple
identity senses over time with the help of hypnosis. Some have
claimed that this process could be used to create the "Manchurian
Candidate," a person with an assassin personality that is
unknown to their other personalities. This is quite a bit beyond
what was demonstrated, however, and is not consistent with what
has been observed so far about the process. The identity senses
built over time are not as distinct or autonomous as this extreme
scenario would require.
"Mind control," to the extent that it actually occurs,
is rarely a matter of simple technology applied to an individual
by another individual. It is much more likely to be the result
of our dependence upon an organization in a rigidly controlled
physical, intellectual, and social environment. An example intended
to be used for healing is a psychiatric hospital. A negative example
would be a totalitarian religious cult or prisoner of war camp.
Other, less extreme examples of the use of social pressures to
help change us are addiction recovery groups. In perhaps the
most extreme example, the prisoner of war camp, one analysis found
that only one in a hundred prisoners exposed to Korean communist
indoctrination attempts actually showed much acceptance of communist
doctrine after repatriation. (Segal, 1956). This helps put the
potential for easy and complete mind control into a little more
Can I be hypnotized without my knowledge ?
Yes, we can be in "trance" without realizing it. Our
consciousness shifts constantly, most of the time without any
recognition on our part that anything is changing. Certainly we
can drift in and out of absorption without realizing it, and a
skillful hypnotist may well be able to perform an induction that
doesn't seem at all like an induction. Some of the usual elements
of hypnosis would be missing, such as the elaborate set of expectations
that are normally provided by the patter of an induction. The
"trance logic," and other elements of hypnosis may be
The more interesting question is whether this has any real significance
by itself, and the answer to that is no. It is not the induction
of trance that is important in hypnosis, but what is done with
Can I be hypnotized without my consent ?
No. You don't need to formally consent to hypnosis for it to happen,
but you do need to cooperate at some level. Cooperation is one
of the essential elements of hypnosis. It is even more important
than relaxation or vivid imagery. If you do not cooperate, there
can be no hypnosis. You don't need to explicitly recognize that
you are cooperating, you just have to have enough trust to relax
and focus on the voice of the hypnotist, allowing their words
to capture your imagination.
The only things approaching "involuntary" hypnosis would
be conditions in which you are drugged, or those where you are
confused or distracted, and the need to understand what is going
on becomes stronger than your desire to resist hypnosis. Under
these conditions, you might temporarily cooperate with a hypnotist,
and this temporary cooperation could conceivably be built into
a stronger trust under the right conditions. Stage hypnotists
make extensive use of confusion and distraction tactics to gain
temporary compliance. Their tactics only work with a subset of
people, however, and only up to a point. There is a critical moment
with such "shock" inductions when the client either
complies or breaks trust with the hypnotist. In order for them
to comply, they must still be willing to cooperate to some degree
at that critical point.
Under the influence of drugs strong enough to reduce our critical
abilities, hypnosis is also very difficult because it requires
some concentration. Drugs are sometimes used by hypnotists with
"resistant" clients who are unable to relax, but this
also of limited effectiveness since it reduces our ability to
concentrate and follow instructions. Such drugs also reduce our
arousal level and change our biochemical state, making it more
difficult to transfer hypnotic suggestions to the waking condition
outside of hypnosis. Much of the interesting work done under such
"narcohypnosis" is lost when the client comes out of
the effect of the drug. Posthypnotic suggestions sometimes remain
after narcohypnosis, but they are generally not as effective as
those given with full attention during normal hypnosis. The most
powerful posthypnotic effect of narcohypnosis is amnesia for hypnosis,
and that is probably because of state-dependent memory related
to the drug.
Can I be forced to do horrible things under hypnosis ?
Hypnosis is a cooperative process. However, if you are comfortable
cooperating with a fantasy about something you would normally
find horrible, you might act it out under hypnosis, or under posthypnotic
suggestion. In the same sense that we might do something unusual
and then later blame alcohol, even if we didn't drink enough to
actually lose control, we might also blame hypnosis for our loss
of inhibitions. Even under "deep" hypnosis, under the
influence of a dramatic fantasy role, we are still in some sense
completely aware of what is going on around us. After hypnosis,
we may have partial amnesia for the events that happened under
hypnosis, although hypnotic amnesia will eventually be breached
if you try to remember over time.
If you are very uncomfortable, you will resist the suggestion,
or modify it to make it more acceptable. The same is true of suggestion
outside of hypnosis. Hypnosis does not operate at the low reflex
level of behavior, it functions at a high level of centralized
mental function. The involuntary nature of responding to hypnotic
suggestion does not extend to complex behaviors that violate your
deep values. These type of suggestions will break trust with the
hypnotist, and you will find your own way to deal with them. People
often find very creative ways of reinterpreting unacceptable suggestions
and sometimes for punishing the hypnotist for their attempts to
take advantage of them.
Can I be "brainwashed" to change my beliefs and
attitudes under hypnosis ?
To the extent that this happens outside of hypnosis, it can also
happen with the help of hypnosis. Hypnosis isn't generally the
critical factor in this kind of change, it is at best a catalyst
in the process. A possible interpretation of such a process will
be described below. The general drift is that hypnosis itself
is not neccessarily used in this process, but that total and complete
control of the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual environment
permit the use of something resembling hypnosis over an extended
period of time.
The potential role of hypnosis in dramatic personality change
in an isolated group
In order to help understand the complex relationship between hypnosis
and potential "mind control," I have included this section
as a composite of various views of how dramatic personality change
occurs from psychological forces. It should be noted that the
principles of personality change are basically the same, whether
we are talking about forced indoctrination ("brainwashing")
or psychotherapy. The attitude and ethics of the people attempting
the change are the primary difference. The primary elements are
breaking down current sense of identity by various means, followed
by solidifying a new sense of identity through active participation.
Our capacity to resist personality change comes from the strength
of our sense of identity, and our attitude in refusing to cooperate
in a change process in order to gain rewards or avoid punishments.
Our deep beliefs and core values are part of our sense of who
we are. In order to change these, we would have to change our
sense of identity. Our sense of identity is normally maintained
by constant reinforcement provided by our friends, family, and
environment. Personality is normally very stable over our lifetime.
It is extremely rare to find significant aspects of personality
change permanently, short of organic brain damage or unusually
traumatic experience, which change personality in unpredictable
"Brainwashing" someone (altering their core values and
deep beliefs) requires that their sense of identity be changed,
which is not a simple task. In fact, what most often happens is
that a new, superficial sense of identity, or role, is created
and is temporarily preferred to the original sense of identity,
which usually remains intact. This most often means removing the
person from the physical and social environment that helps maintain
their attachment to their current sense of identity. Hypnosis
can provide psychological and sensory isolation, though only temporary,
and can encourage enactment of alternate roles or personalities.
Lasting real personality change requires control of our environment,
the breakdown of existing identity sense, replacement by a new
identity sense, and continued reinforcement of the new identity
sense. Not only is such complete control of the environment very
difficult, but breaking down existing identity sense is next to
impossible if someone has a strong sense of who they are.
Part of how hypnosis may sometimes play a role in personality
change is that it can very effectively promote extraordinary
experiences that may be interpreted as significant spiritual experiences.
These serve as pivotal experiences that allow our worldview to
shift in new directions. This may manifest in any of a number
of ways, from a personal spiritual renewal to a commitment to
a totalitarian religious cult. This is to a great extent the basis
for the belief by some religious groups that hypnosis is inherently
evil. This requires expectations to be carefully set so that the
individual will interpret their experience in the desired way.
Hypnosis can also be a catalyst in significant changes by providing
a relief of anxiety. As our anxiety is relieved by the relaxation
aspect of hypnosis, participation in consciousness altering practices
is reinforced, as is identification with the group. This is an
important part of the process of becoming immersed in a new group
Finally, selective amnesia and other effects can be carefully
used in hypnosis to help build separate identity senses within
the same person. This is in effect practicing playing multiple
roles that are distinct from each other.
Three stages of building a new identity
Personality change was modeled by Kurt Lewin as a three stage
process : unfreezing the current worldview, changing the worldview,
and refreezing the new worldview (Schein, 1961).
The first stage involves reducing our alertness and forcing
on us various kinds of sensory or information overload, confusion,
or distraction. This builds a tremendous psychological and physiological
tension that needs to be released. This is roughly analogous to
the first step in a stage hypnosis induction, creating confusion
or distraction by means of a sudden shock. When longer term effects
are desired, the means of destabilizing people include inducing
anxiety and terror, physical and social isolation, sleep deprivation,
nutritional deprivation, infantilizing treatment, and sexual frustration.
Shame and guilt are always central elements in destabilizing
the current identity sense. The extreme psychological pressures
needed to break down our identity sense cannot be continued for
more than a few days.
The second stage involves reducing the tension and anxiety
generated in the first stage, and providing something to focus
on. This is the step where we enter "trance," as our
welcome relief. The person temporarily becomes weak, with no
strong convictions or standards about what is logical, and begin
thinking in a magical, wishful way (Holt, 1964). They become
unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, dependent upon authority,
basically to regress to a childlike state. In some ways, hypnosis
is similar to regression to a childlike state. In fact, some
psychoanalytic theorists have claimed that hypnosis is a kind
of regression. This provides a distinct relief from the psychological
stresses imposed in the first stage.
Other ways of manifesting or utilizing an altered state at this
point to reduce anxiety include meditation, marching, repetitive
slogans or movements, monotonous musical rhythms, body manipulations,
or hyperventilation. At this point, we are cooperative and focused
on the leader of the process, and may well be hypnotically responsive.
At this point, elaborate fantasy may also be used to help create
novel experiences, and to reinforce the belief system of the group.
By controlling behavior, information, thought, and emotions to
some extent, experience both within and outside of hypnosis will
begin to be interpreted in a new way, causing a shift to the new
belief system (Hassan, 1990). These latter elements are missing
from simple hypnosis, which is why hypnosis alone cannot be considered
a mind control technique. Personality change is made possible
by the extension of the "trance" (by imposing more severe
stresses), and the use of the "trance" to help create
additional changes that will be reinforced by the environment.
The third stage involves reinforcing the new beliefs and
new sense of identification with the group. This involves immersion
in the shared symbol system of the group, isolation from reminders
of the previous identity, increasing dependence on the group,
new role models, continued control of behavior, thought, information
and emotions, and immersion in new activities. This stage is
also missing from normal hypnosis. Physical isolation is usually
needed for this kind of control. In addition, the new identity
sense usually reverts if the person is removed from the isolated
group and returned to their former environment. The active participation
of the individual in new activities for the group is a key element.
Personality factors which allow some people to be influenced more
permanently than others by these kinds of pressures include :
- Lack of assertiveness
- Low intelligence
- Reliance on external supports for perception and belief
- Lack of self-confidence
- Valuing conformity above independence
- Black and white thinking
- Identity confusion
- History of embracing outside influences in unconditional surrender
- Other-directedness vs. Inner-directedness
These are entirely different from the traits even loosely associated
with hypnotic suggestibility, such as "fantasy proneness."
This reflects the distinction between "primary" and
There are a number of factors that influence how effectively we
can take on a new identity or role in general (Sarbin, 1964) :
- role expectations
- role perception
- role demands
- role-taking aptitude or skill
- self-role congruence
- reinforcement properties of the audience
Self-role congruence is probably the most important factor determining
whether forced compliance will lead to permanent change. It
is the lack of self-involvement that prevents prisoners of war
from being fully indoctrinated by "brainwashing" attempts.
Also, the personality factors alone are not enough to allow for
personality change. The people who are best at resisting change
often have very similar personality traits to those who are most
influenced. A major difference is their initial willingness to
cooperate in the process : "desire for preferential treatment,"
or "need to avoid threat and abuse" (Holt, 1964).
This roughly parallels the case in hypnosis. Many people appear
incapable of making use of hypnosis because they are unable to
trust the hypnotist enough to cooperate in the induction.
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