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Hypnosis can release people from their automatic behaviors

  • New evidence shows hypnosis can help overcome automatic behaviours and offer people greater flexibility in their responses.
  • 'Alien Control' hypnotic suggestions allows people to generate genuinely random sequences of responses - something that has not been possible outside of hypnosis.
  • Research on hypnosis is providing new insights into how humans control their actions.

Hypnosis is often used by clinicians to help clients change behaviours, such as quitting smoking or managing pain. But the mechanisms underlying these behavioral changes are not well understood. A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Dr Vince Polito and his colleagues in June provides new evidence on how hypnotic suggestions can influence behaviours that were thought to be automatic and outside of conscious control.

Their experiment used the well-established fact that people have trouble answering questions randomly. Answering randomly might sound easy, but when people are asked to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at random to very easy trivia questions (like ‘is the sky blue?’) they typically can’t. Instead their responses are almost always influenced by what they know and so are more often correct than expected by chance. Despite this, people usually believe that they have responded totally randomly.

Even when people are offered financial rewards or made to respond very quickly, they still can’t respond randomly. Giving correct answers seems to be an unconscious response that people have very little control over.

To see if hypnosis could disrupt these unconscious responses, the authors hypnotized 60 people and gave them hypnotic suggestions before having them complete trivia questions. In one condition, people were given a hypnotic suggestion to answer each question randomly. In another, they were given a hypnotic suggestion to experience their thoughts as if they were dictated by someone else (known as ‘thought insertion’). In a third condition, the hypnotic suggestion was to experience their movements as if they were controlled by someone else (known as ‘alien control’).

As expected, most of the participants asked to answer randomly actually didn’t. They answered most questions correctly but believed that they had followed the instructions. The same was true for the ‘thought insertion’ condition, although these participants were slightly better at estimating how many they answered correctly.

The real surprise came from the ‘alien control’ results; these participants actually responded in a more random way. This indicates that for these people hypnosis inhibited the usual tendency to answer easy questions correctly.

This means that hypnotic suggestion can overcome responses that are usually thought to be automatic.

The results suggest new possibilities for helping people overcome deeply ingrained behaviors that are usually very difficult to inhibit. It also provides a window into the cognitive processes underlying controlled and automatic behaviours. As lead author Dr Polito says, “This is an exciting result as it shows that hypnosis could provide people with more flexible response options than they may have had otherwise.”

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