When I tell people I’m a hypnotherapist I usually get one of 3 responses. Sometimes people are quite positive because they have had hypnosis themselves or know someone who has; occasionally they look at me with a bemused look, as though they didn’t really think it was a real job; or thirdly, and most commonly, I get some variation of “look into my eyes, not around the eyes…”
Of course, this response is understandable when most people’s experience and knowledge of hypnosis is either the Little Britain sketch, hypnotist dogs on Britain’s Got Talent, the recent ITV show Back In The Room, stage hypnotist shows on holiday or, for those with longer memories, Paul Mckenna making fools of contestants on his show in the early 90’s.
I think even for many potential clients who ring up to find out more about my hypnotherapy services there is often that nagging doubt at the back of their minds that I’m going to make them cluck like a chicken when their eyes are closed.
In this blog article I’m going to explore more about the similarities and differences between stage hypnosis and hypnotherapy and why what you see on TV isn’t always all it seems.
Stage Hypnotists 3 weapons: Hypnosis, Suggestions and Compliance
A good place to start is to understand what hypnosis really is. There have been dozens of theories written about hypnosis and one that fits in well with understanding how stage hypnosis works is called the Social Role-Taking Theory. This theory argues that a hypnotised person is simply playing a role, or acting “as if” they are hypnotised, based upon their understanding of how a hypnotised person behaves. They are not “faking it” but simply using their imagination to act, feel and think “as if” they are hypnotised.
In addition to hypnosis, understanding the power of suggestions is also helpful. We live in a society where we are bombarded by all types of suggestions. Whether that’s to buy a particular product or brand, to vote for a political party or to watch a particular television programme. Sometimes we call it advertising or marketing but, however we describe them, suggestions are aimed at influencing our behaviours, thoughts and feelings. In hypnosis we use positive suggestions to help people change unhelpful behaviours, but research shows that many people respond readily to suggestions outside of hypnosis.
Finally, the impact of compliance on an audience member is probably a stage hypnotists strongest weapon. In 1961 Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to test whether participants would obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants, were asked by the Experimenter (an authority figure) to give a Learner in another room (actually an actor and confederate) an electric shock for each incorrect answer they gave. In reality there were no shocks, just a well planned set up. As the experiment went on the participants were told to increase the voltage of the electric shock up to 450v. Despite the screams and banging from the Learner after each increasingly stronger shock, the Experimenter insisted to the participant that the experiment had to continue. Despite many participants becoming stressed and upset by what they were doing to the Learner 65% of them administered the highest 450v shock. If people are willing to cause considerable pain to another, it becomes easier to understand why someone would be willing to make a fool of themselves in front of an audience when told to by a stage hypnotist.
The Secrets of a Stage Hypnotist
A stage hypnosis show usually starts with a call for volunteers. The stage hypnotist asks for volunteers to come on stage only if they “truly want to be hypnotised.” The popularity of some hypnotists means that there is usually no shortage of volunteers, and for those that do step forward the hypnotist can be highly certain that:
- They know what they are volunteering for and what will be expected of them. This means that they will be very willing to participate as directed by the hypnotist.
- They are going to be exhibitionists. Volunteers want to be on stage and want to perform, regardless of how foolish they might look. Indeed, they are happy to play the “role” of someone who is hypnotised, happy to follow any “suggestions” and will be happy to be “compliant” to any request made.
- Amongst the volunteers there will be some who have a “hidden agenda”. Perhaps to prove that it ‘s a “fraud” or that they cannot be hypnotised.
Once the volunteers are assembled the hypnotist will start to establish which of them are going to be entertaining performers and which are there to prove a point. Either off stage away from the audience or under dimmed lights on stage, the hypnotist will administer simple hypnotic suggestibility tests to the group. This will start by giving all the volunteers a quick hypnotic induction or focusing technique (for example “your eyes will get heavy as you listen to my voice”). Then using suggestions, usually given in an authoratative tone, such as “You can’t open your eyes” or “your hands are stuck tight together” they are able to find the most responsive volunteers. Volunteers who don’t respond well to the suggestions are asked to return to their seats. For those that remain the hypnotist will strengthen their confidence by making suggestions that they are good and responsive participants and how unfortunate it was that the others were not smart enough to succeed as hypnotic subjects.
By now, with the volunteers selected, the pressure to perform becomes very intense. The volunteers have been chosen for their ability to follow instructions, to be obedient and to put on a “good show”. They now need to perform well to meet the expectations of the hypnotist, the crowd and, of course, themselves. As we’ve already discovered we will readily comply with instructions, even if we may not truly wish to. At this point the audience expects the volunteers to behave in a particular way, and the volunteer themselves expects to be “made” to act in certain entertaining ways. Deviating from this arrangement is unlikely due to the volunteer’s expectation to conform to their “role”. With the peer pressure of a watching audience, it takes a strong sense of independence to not conform to the norm. Of course, any negative side effects from being a volunteer, such as embarrassment, can easily be attributed to the hypnosis and not the volunteer themselves. Indeed, research shows that people are far more willing to exercise questionable judgement when they are not held accountable for their actions eg it was the hypnotist/hypnosis that made me do it.
Therefore, on stage, you might have a combination of volunteers who are genuinely hypnotised, those who aren’t hypnotised but are “up for a laugh” and are happy to act “as if” hypnotised and finally those who aren’t hypnotised, perhaps no longer want to be there, but feel the pressure is too strong to say “I want to leave”. Of course, regardless of the state of the volunteer they are all able to refuse to follow any of the suggestions or instructions given by hypnotist. None of them have given up their personal control to the hypnotist, none of them are actually made to do anything that can’t be replicated out of hypnosis, they just act with a greater degree of compliance because that’s their “role” for the evening.
Finally, of course, some stage hypnotists will always be able to fall back on simple deceptions to make the show more entertaining, if the volunteers aren’t up for it. This might include the use of stooges or plants who are paid to perform or requesting that volunteers simply “play along” or fake it.
Stage Hypnotists; For or Against?
I have a confession to make. A part of me has a sneaky respect for stage hypnotists, illusionists and mentalists. Derren Brown is a great example of a performer that uses some of the techniques we’ve discussed to produce exciting, interesting and intelligent television shows. I love to be entertained and I’m willing to suspend disbelief and get taken in by the sleight of hand and misdirection. I then enjoy trying to work out how they did it and what tricks and techniques they used to make the act work.
On the other hand there have also been calls for stage hypnotists to be banned because some perceive them as being dangerous. I’m certain that this is not the case and famous legal cases favour the hypnotist (eg Gates v Mckenna). Indeed the Hypnotism Act (1952) makes sure that hypnotists comply with certain requirements to mitigate potential risks.
However, in my opinion too often stage hypnotists seem to want to produce shows that are crass and tasteless, having little respect for the dignity of their volunteers. I suppose to maintain a living as a stage hypnotist you need to be more outrageous to sell more tickets and I’m sure they would argue that they are just giving the audience what they want.
So what do you think? Have you ever watched a stage hypnotist show? Perhaps you were a volunteer? Do you think they should be banned or are they a valid form of entertainment. Please let me know in the comments box below.