Don E. Gibbons, Ph.D., NJ Licensed Psychologist #03513
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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Hypnosis, Murder, and the Power of Suggestion

Hypnosis doesn't make us any more virtuous 
than we already are!.
The possibility of using hypnosis to commit a crime has long been the object of speculation, some of which is humorous and some which is deadly serious. Here's an example of how society teaches that there is a penalty if you violate a moral code -- specifically, the prohibition against using hypnosis to commit a murder. (The possibility that you could is taken for granted.) In the following cartoon, Wylie E. Coyote decides to do just that. Notice how he helplessly glances at the audience once he realize his impending demise as the result of his actions.


video

Is it really possible to commit a crime such as murder by means of hypnosis?  


In one well-known laboratory experiment, 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 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.

Most of us would agree that a hypnotic induction does not make us any more virtuous than we were before. Obeying a command to perform an immoral act after an induction has been given, therefore, is likely to have been brought about by the fact that the hypnotist was perceived as a sufficiently credible authority figure to absolve people of legal and moral responsibility for their actions, as was the case with the compliant subjects in Milgram's experiments, or the willing henchmen of tyrants throughout history. 


See also: 
Is Hypnosis Dangerous? Some Hypnotists Are!


Print References

Milgram, S. (1965) Liberating effects of group pressure. Journal of personality and social psychology2, pp. 127-134.


Milgram, S. (1983) Obedience to authority. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.


Sarbin, T. R., & De Rivera, J. (1998),  Believed-in imaginings: The Narrative Construction of Reality (Memory, Trauma, Dissociation, and Hypnosis) . Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


2 comments:

watch said...

What a great post, I actually found it very thought provoking, thanks
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todd said...

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