|Hypnosis doesn't make us any more virtuous |
than we alreay are!.
Is it really possible to commit a crime by means of hypnosis? A friend from Vienna recently sent me an e-mail which described a would-be crime, in which a man was hypnotized and told to steal a black suitcase which was resting on top of the roof area of a tall building. He was clearly instructed that nothing and nobody must stand in his way, and that he must take the suitcase no matter what.
The television program on which this demonstration was aired had arranged for an employee to stand with one leg on top of the suitcase, and to resist in such a manner that if the man raised up the case in order to take it, the result would be to pitch her over the edge -- supposedly to her death. (Actually, of course, the area in the street below had been carefully padded before the program began, so that she would not be injured.) Just as he had been commanded, the hypnotized guest picked up the suitcase and pitched the employee over the side of the building. Later, when he was questioned about it, he said that he was aware of what he was doing, "but it did not matter" at the time.
Similar experiments have been tried in the laboratory, with similar results. In one well-known study, subjects were hypnotized and told to throw acid in the face of the experimenter (who was protected by invisible glass), to pick up poisonous snakes (which were actually harmless), and to shoot the experimenter with a gun (which had been loaded with blanks). A significant minority of the hypnotized volunteers complied. A few years later, however, the experiment was repeated, using both hypnotized subjects and a control group of subjects who were not hypnotized -- and about the same number responded, whether hypnotized or not!
Hypnotists often tend to pay too much attention to the specific suggestions they have given instead of the total situation of what is going on. For example, imagine that you are a student in introductory psychology, taught by Prof. Snarf, who asks for volunteers in a psychological experiment. You accept the invitation, and are given a hypnotic induction, followed by the instructions to pick up a beaker of acid and hurl it in the experimenter's face, to pick up poisonous snakes, or to shoot the experimenter with a supposedly loaded gun. Would you really believe that a reputable scientist would let you commit a murder as part of a psychological experiment? Or would you be inclined to believe that because you are ordered to do these ridiculous things there must be a reason for it other than the one that was given, so you might as well go ahead and do as you are told? Some people, at least, choose the second option (Sarbin & De Rivera, 1998), Dr. Martin Orne previously coined the term demand characteristics to refer to this tendency of a subject in an experiment to act in the way that the subject thinks one is supposed to behave, rather than simply reacting to the instructions in themselves.
But there is another factor at work. Research by Milgram (1965) on the effects of obedience, revealed that about a third of his experimental of subjects were willing to turn a dial which purportedly increased the voltage of an electric shock to the point that it appears that they are administering a potentially lethal dose. The implication (which seems to be borne out by history, from Stalin to Hitler to Saddam Hussein and many others) is that an evil "authority" can sometimes seize control of a society and find enough followers who are willing to obey orders that they can keep the rest of the population under control.
That's how Hitler did it! He didn't use an induction because the situation was already credible enough to his followers that they were prepared to accept the particular suggestions that he, and his Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess, had chosen to provide -- with disastrous consequences for all concerned (see Milgram, 1983).
Milgram, S. (1965) Liberating effects of group pressure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2, pp. 127-134.
Milgram, S. (1983) Obedience to authority. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
A Case History of Hypnosis Used for Seduction