The Theory That Won’t Go Away: An Updated Review of the Role Hypnosis Plays
ICSA Today Vol. 7. No. 1, 23 - 27
Over the years, hypnosis has been a central feature in descriptions of the process of behavior and attitude change that occurs in high-demand groups (HDGs, or cults). Cult specialist and mental-health counselor Steven Hassan (1989, 2000, 2014) has talked and written extensively about this process. In August 2000, Dr. Arthur Dole chaired a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) entitled Can Hypnosis Explain Cult Conversion? Evidence From Science and Practice, which included a number of experts in the field (Dole, et. al., 2000). In contrast to the premise suggested by these references, Spanish psychologist Jose Fernández Aguado (2015), in a provocative article entitled “Psychological Manipulation, Hypnosis, and Suggestion,” questioned the ability of hypnosis to induce people to engage in behaviors in ways they would not otherwise execute “out of” hypnosis.
What Is Hypnosis?
Very recently, APA’s Society for Psychological Hypnosis modified its official definition of hypnosis to include the following:
Hypnosis: A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.
Hypnotic induction: A procedure designed to induce hypnosis.
Hypnotizability: An individual's ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts or behavior during hypnosis.
Hypnotherapy: The use of hypnosis in the treatment of a medical or psychological disorder or concern. (APA Division 30, 2015)
There remains significant disagreement. As far back as 1959, renowned hypnosis expert Dr. Martin Orne stated that hypnosis is an unnecessary construct. He famously noted that increased suggestibility, the defining characteristic of hypnosis, “may be viewed as an increase in motivation to conform to the wishes of the hypnotist” rather than a phenomenon itself (1959, p. 277). He, and others since, have noted that in the laboratory almost every hypnotic phenomenon created when a subject is supposedly in a hypnotic trance can be recreated when subjects are given suggestions without a formal hypnotic induction.
Definitions of hypnosis seem inextricably related to whether or not being hypnotized results in a discrete, altered state of consciousness that can be measured, objectively quantified, and distinguished from other states of consciousness. This question may eventually be answered by research that involves neuroimaging. According to neuroscientists Giuliana Mazzoni and colleagues (Mazzoni et al., 2013), the preliminary answer is “Yes.” Phenomenological psychologist Ronald Pekala (2015) agrees; multicultural research using his revised and well-validated Phenomenology of Consciousness Inventory (PCI) consistently shows correlations between depth of hypnosis and measures of altered states of awareness. Cleveland (2015) and his associates concur, and have found convincing evidence that hypnosis and dissociation are intricately related.
Part of the confusion around the issue in academia (and in the real world) may also lie in the mistaken belief that hypnosis is a singular phenomenon that is pretty much the same for everyone. In his theoretical tour de force, “Hypnosis: A Mature View,” the late T. X. “Ted” Barber synthesized the hypnosis research to date and posited that the contradictory results often obtained by researchers are a result of a basic and misleading simplification of the construct of hypnosis. Barber (1999) proposed that there are not one but three distinctly different kinds of hypnotic subjects, and that each experiences and responds to hypnosis in different ways:
(a) The fantasy-prone: these hypnotic subjects developed a talent for fantasy during childhood imaginative activities (such as pretend-play, make-believe, imaginary playmates and exposure to fantasy-stimulating tales or stories), or they used fantasy to escape from highly adverse early life experiences and environments (such as war, poverty or neglect).
(b) The amnesia-prone: these hypnotic subjects typically experienced significant and ongoing abuse in childhood. They developed an ability to “block out” (e.g., repress or dissociate) memories and experiences. Some may have learned to “sleep” and “forget” while subjected to childhood sexual abuse, usually by a trusted adult caretaker.
(c) The positively-set: these subjects are highly socialized, empathic, cooperative, friendly persons who respond to social expectations with highly positive attitudes, and are ready to embrace the wishes or suggestions of another person. They can relax mentally and move into a receptive mode in which they “go with the flow” of whatever is being suggested. These subjects often make the best (and most entertaining) participants in stage hypnosis acts. They may not be “in trance” but they want to please the hypnotist and audience by happily following suggestions.
Barber’s trichotomy closely matches my own experiences in practicing clinical hypnosis with many patients over the past 30 years. Many who feel drawn to Eastern-based HDGs come from the first group of hypnotic subjects; in the 1960s and ‘70s they often experimented with fantasy-producing drugs (hallucinogens) and often reported being highly involved with reading myths, fantasies, and science fiction, or being fascinated with the arts throughout childhood and adolescence. Those who seemed to fit the third group were often the least damaged, while those in the second group were often extremely damaged, with long-lasting post-traumatic consequences.
The question of hypnotizability is another confounding factor in hypnosis research. Like many human characteristics and talents, the ability and depth to which an individual can go into hypnosis is distributed normally on what is often referred to as a bell curve. Like math or music talent, some people have a lot of hypnotic talent, some have only a little, a very few have none at all, and most of us have it to a moderate degree. Thus, some of us easily and quickly achieve a deep level of hypnosis, while a few of us are not hypnotizable. Most individuals can achieve at least a moderate level of hypnotic trance, although typically not enough to produce posthypnotic amnesia. Hypnotizability is a personality characteristic that is quite stable over many years (Piccione et al., 1989). In research studies, hypnotizability is often not taken into account, which may explain some of these studies’ contradictory findings.
Perhaps the exact nature of hypnosis cannot ultimately be decided in the tightly controlled and limited confines of a university laboratory. In the mushy real world, where multiple factors and psychological processes blend together and form intricate and sometimes random webs of causality, altered states of consciousness (ASCs) seem to be very real to those who experience them; and hypnosis is a real phenomenon that often induces an altered state of consciousness.
Can Hypnosis Be Used to Brainwash People?
For close to a century, researchers have been debating a highly controversial question: Can hypnosis induce people to behave in ways they would not behave out of hypnosis? This question is central to the belief that hypnosis can effectively brainwash individuals into violating their morals and engaging in criminal or sociopathic behavior against their will.
Initial reports of something akin to brainwashing—hypnotically produced sociopathic (i.e., criminal) behavior—were case studies. Like almost all such studies, there were no control groups or objective observers involved. When subjects engaged in sociopathic acts following hypnosis, there was no way to know what was actually behind the behavior. Nevertheless, successful criminal prosecutions of hypnotists who induced nonconsensual behavior, often involving sexual exploitation, are not uncommon (Gottlieb, 2002; Katz, 1987). Independent reports of hypnotic and quasihypnotic brainwashing tactics in HDGs led me to write a paper specifically aimed at providing potential and new recruits with tools to resist them (Eichel, 1985).
In the 1950s, the CIA funded a major effort to discover a mind-control technology that, among other things, could both create the perfect assassin (one with no memory of committing the act) and break Soviet spies. Declassified documents on the MKULTRA program show that hypnosis was one of the techniques evaluated, but it was determined to be too unreliable to be considered an effective brainwashing method (Marks, 1991).1 In his comprehensive review of the literature on the ability of hypnosis to manipulate behavior, Aguado (2015) concluded that the power to manipulate people
is not contained within … hypnosis, or in the hypnotizer; rather, [control] lies within each person’s mind. Hypnosis is just a tool that can aid us in putting these mental resources to work—resources that are inside, not outside each person, and not within [hypnosis] or the hypnotizer. (p. 58)
But academic studies cannot help but be of limited use, especially in efforts to try to apply their findings to HDG/cultic settings and experiences. First, these studies did not examine the repeated use of hypnosis and quasihypnotic practices (such as meditation or extended and intense prayer) over an extended period of time. Second, laboratory studies do not and cannot ethically recreate high-demand (e.g., totalistic) environments,2 and therefore the use of hypnosis within these contexts cannot be experimentally studied. Third, in HDG/cultic settings the hypnotist (cult leader or appointed lieutenants) is typically imbued with god-like importance, power, and mystery—or may even claim to be God. Although good clinical hypnotists typically have and utilize personal charisma, they are professionally and ethically bound not to make outrageous (let alone divine!) claims about the uniqueness of their knowledge, personal characteristics, talents, and abilities. Fourth, in HDGs, hypnosis-like experiences often occur in group settings and under conditions of significant group pressure to conform. Academic experiments have rarely if ever utilized group settings or contexts.
Former members, interventionists, and clinicians have long used hypnosis to explain some (and at times even all) of the thought-reform processes observed in HDGs. I believe we should not summarily dismiss this decades-long track record. Yet scientific evidence does not support the idea that hypnosis and quasihypnotic experiences are necessary and sufficient to explain the degree of control we encounter in HDGs. I believe a more nuanced explanation is needed.
Using the figure that follows, I think we can more precisely explain the role hypnosis and quasihypnotic experiences play in conversion, maintenance, and control of HDG members. In cultic environments, hypnotic experiences typically occur in the context of group pressure to conform. In many cases, the cult recruit is already familiar with ASCs and quasihypnotic experiences (and perhaps even hypnosis). In fact, the recruit may even be seeking just such an experience. I believe this is especially true for the fantasy-prone or highly hypnotizable subject who may be consciously or unconsciously seeking a guru, spiritual leader, or psychological teacher. The Phase 1 Preexisting Conditions (i.e., they are present before the very first HDG hypnotic or quasihypnotic induction) set the stage for the next phase, the actual induction. Here, situational factors can play a large role in increasing the subject’s response to a hypnotic induction. As already noted, some recruits enter the cultic environment wanting and seeking a spiritual experience (although not typically a cultic one!). The Phase 2 Situational Conditions include the leader’s and group’s pressure for the subject to experience an ASC (demand characteristics), the subject’s physical condition (e.g., sleep deprivation, information overload, hunger), suggestions made prior to the hypnotic induction, suggestions made to be carried out after the induction (posthypnotic suggestions), and of course the native talent and charisma of the hypnotist (the operator), who is usually the HDG leader or a lieutenant. Phase 3, the Results of the two prior phases, is important to understand. As Gruenwald (1971) and others have articulated, hypnosis has for centuries been known to increase attachment to the hypnotist (transference). In fact, in clinical therapy, the client-therapist relationship—transference—is the single most important healing factor; hypnosis can speed up and strengthen this relationship, hopefully for agreed-upon helpful ends.
Figure 1. The Possible role of hypnosis in thought reform.
These processes are reciprocal. Each phase has the potential to strengthen and reinforce the phase before and after it. The increased transference, suggestibility, and behavioral compliance in Phase 3 can also increase an individual’s hypnotizability (research has shown that repeated practice can to some degree increase one’s suggestibility and hypnotic talent). Moreover, there is a vast body of research demonstrating the effect of emotional attachment and transference on increasing motivation. The longer one remains in a group, the more likely one will be motivated to conform. Thus, Phase 3 reinforces and strengthens Phase 1. And of course increased transference, suggestibility and behavioral compliance in a cultic group are likely to enhance some of the factors in Phase 2 as pre- and post-hypnotic suggestions become increasingly internalized through repetition. Meanwhile, in many HDGs the demands to devote inordinate amounts of energy and time to recruit, fundraise, pray/meditate, and engage in other devotional activities often result in decreased time spent resting and sleeping (and engaging in critical thinking). Some groups also promote various dietary restrictions. The situational factors (Phase 2) in turn increase and strengthen the results (Phase 3), and so on.
From the 1970s through the early 1990s, a relatively large number of articles connected hypnosis to cult-recruitment practices. However, I think it can be misleading and potentially dangerous to ascribe an overly important and entirely unique role to hypnosis in the cult conversion, maintenance, and control process. Conversely, it would be perhaps equally dangerous to ignore its role. In my opinion, both research and experience suggest that the truth lies within the difficult complexities and gray areas that are scorned (and labeled heretical or even evil) in the rigid, absolutist, black-and-white dogmas typically espoused by cultic and HDG leaders. Critical thinking rooted in ongoing experimental and phenomenological studies is the best alternative to obscured closed-mindedness when it comes to the role hypnosis may play in thought reform.
To summarize: Although mystery continues to shroud the exact nature of hypnosis, there is an increasing body of evidence to show that, at least for some people, hypnosis (and quasihypnotic experiences) involves more than increased suggestibility; it involves a quantifiably different state of consciousness that both creates and is created by increased compliance with a hypnotist’s or operator’s suggestions. Laboratory research on hypnosis has not examined the impact of prolonged exposure to intense group dynamics on hypnotizability and the subjective experience of hypnosis and quasihypnosis; thus, the degree to which the results of hypnosis research can be generalized to a cultic group context is questionable at best. Evidence from more than forty years of case studies of current and former HDG members suggests that group pressure, combined with transference and attachment to a group leader or group leaders who claim unique and special status, may significantly increase individuals’ hypnotic suggestibility and thus behavioral compliance with group demands.
 MKULTRA documents did not find hypnosis to be a complete failure, but rather it did not reach an effectiveness level that satisfied CIA criteria.
 Although not a study of hypnosis, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s famous “Stanford prison study” was probably the experiment that came closest to creating a high-demand environment (Zimbardo, Maslach, & Haney, 2000); largely as a result of the harm this experiment caused for some of the subjects, university Internal Review Boards no longer allow such experiments to be conducted.
Aguado, J. F. (2015). Psychological manipulation, hypnosis, and suggestion. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 6, 48–59.
APA Division 30. (2014). Definition and description of hypnosis. Retrieved from http://www.apadivisions.org/division-30/about/index.aspx
Barber, T. X. (1999). Hypnosis: A mature view. Contemporary Hypnosis, 16, 123–127.
Cleveland, J. M., Korman, B. M., & Gold, S. N. (2015). Are hypnosis and dissociation related? New evidence for a connection. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 63, 198–214.
Dole, A., Eichel (né Dubrow-Eichel), S., Dubrow, L., Hassan, S. & Frischholz, E. (2000). Can hypnosis explain "cult" conversion? Evidence from science and practice. Panel presentation to the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, CA. Abstracts retrieved from http://www.icsahome.com/articles/can-hypnosis-explain-eichel
Eichel (né Dubrow-Eichel), S. (1985). Building resistance: Tactics for counteracting manipulation and unethical hypnosis in totalistic groups. Suggestion: The Journal of Professional & Ethical Hypnosis, 1, 34–44. Retrieved from http://www.icsahome.com/articles/building-resistance-eichel
Gottlieb, A. (2002). A touch too much. Retrieved from http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/10.10.02/wickram-0241.html
Gruenwald, D. (1971). Transference and countertransference in hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 19, 71–82.
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Katz, L. (1987). Bad acts and guilty minds (pp. 128–133.) Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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Pekala, R. J. (2015). Hypnosis as a “state of consciousness”: How quantifying the mind can help us better understand hypnosis. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 57, 402–424.
Piccione, C., Hilgard, E. R., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1989). On the degree of stability of measured hypnotizability over a 25-year period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 289–295.
Zimbardo, P. G., Maslach, C., & Haney, C. (2000). Reflections on the Stanford prison experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences. In Blass, T. (Ed.). Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram paradigm (pp. 193–238). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
About the Author
Steve K. D. Eichel, Ph.D., ABPP, ICSA President, is Past-President of the American Academy of Counseling Psychology and the Greater Philadelphia Society of Clinical Hypnosis. He is a licensed and Board-certified counseling psychologist whose involvement in cultic studies began with a participant-observation study of Unification Church training in its Eastern seminary (in Barrytown, NY) in the spring of 1975. His doctoral dissertation to date remains the only intensive, quantified observation of a deprogramming. He was honored with AFF’s 1990 John G. Clark Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Cultic Studies for this study, which was published as a special issue of the Cultic Studies Journal and has been translated into several foreign languages. In 1983, along with Dr. Linda Dubrow-Marshall and clinical social worker Roberta Eisenberg, Dr. Eichel founded the Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network (RETIRN), one of the field’s oldest continuing private providers of psychological services to families and individuals harmed by cultic practices. RETIRN currently has offices in Newark, DE, Lansdowne, PA, Pontypridd, Wales, and Buxton, England (UK). In addition to his psychology practice and his involvement with ICSA, Dr. Eichel is active in a range of professional associations. He has coauthored several articles and book reviews on cult-related topics for the CSJ/CSR.