Hypnotists and their Delusions of Power
In the nineteenth century there were scores, if not hundreds of legal cases hinging upon a nefarious individual compelling another to do their bidding by means of hypnotism (Laurence and Perry, 1988). In most of these, there were very much more obvious explanations. Typically, it involved a sexual dalliance which, when uncovered, was claimed by a woman to be the result of the man having put a hypnotic spell on her. Interestingly, in most cases, she didn’t claim she was being so abused until the relationship was discovered by a third party, usually the husband or parents. The allegations involved such “phenomena” as being hypnotised by telepathy, mere eye-contact or enchanted notes and such like. The culprit was generally some lowly individual such as a gardener or stable-boy.
Hypnotic ability used for a long time to be associated with the dog-cunning and sinister earthiness of the ‘lower classes’ and social ‘scum’. Look at George Du Mauriers Trilby and we find this in the disgustingly anti-Semitic but also class-inferior depiction of the character Svengali. But this feeling was not entirely without basis in truth. For dog-cunning is very largely about psychological manipulation and society’s ‘scum’ are generally very adept at it. The hostility towards stage hypnotism exhibited by sections of the hypnotherapy lobby is very much framed in terms of an unconscious class prejudice. Irrespective of the actual social composition of stage hypnotism as a profession. Although I for one bill myself as a ‘Prole’ and see no reason to apologise for the fact that my performances generally cater to ‘lower class’ sensibilities, exhibited as they are by audiences of all classes.
Fig. 14. The author as” Svengali in the Victorian setting of the Llandoger Trow, Bristol, c. 1992
Pause here to consider the two distinct phenomena that we need to address. One is that it is clearly possible to manipulate people. There is nothing controversial about that. It is part of life. Moreover that this manipulation can be formalised into techniques. Call them salesmanship, counselling or hypnotism, among others. The other phenomenon, quite distinct from such normal psychology is the alleged ability to control someone by means of the induction of a supposed state of ‘hypnosis’.
Criminal cases in which a hypnotic ‘power’ is alleged or incidentally adduced continued throughout the twentieth Century and always offer a feast for the press. However, upon examination it invariably becomes apparent that hypnotism played no part in the actual crimes alleged or even proven to have occurred. A typical report of this type ( it is a genre unto itself ) from the present day involves a ( male ) hypnotherapist accused of molesting a ( female ) client. A terrible but very useful book “Open to Suggestion” by Robert Temple catalogues many such cases ( Temple, ). Typically, newspapers refer in lurid to a “hypnotist” abusing his “power”, to have his way with the victim. But reading on we find that his assaults involved no hypnotic procedure. The fact is that there is a long history of therapists physically molesting their clients. Inevitably, some of these are hypnotherapists. It is invariably a crude ( even fumbling ) assault and hypnotism plays little or no part in it. Then again, ask yourself, had it done so and were “hypnosis” such a powerful reality as is claimed, with efficacious amnesia, post-hypnotic suggestions etc, how on earth would such crimes be remembered by their victims?
In passing, I should mention a similar ‘thought experiment’ regarding the alleged power of hypnotism and stage hypnotists. They are only in it for money; if ‘hypnosis were the bona-fide ‘state’ characterised by awesome mind-warping potential as continues to be pretended, then any decent stage hypnotist, having established his power over innumerable bank managers, company managers, civil servants, estate agents, students destined for profitable and powerful careers in choice professions, among his volunteers over a few years, could retire a wealthy and powerful person in no great time at all! The reality, however, is quite plain and there to see. The most successful stage hypnotist in modern times, Peter Casson, continued working until his seventies, shortly before his death. Stage hypnotists in general do not retire at all. They do not earn enough to afford to!
In the Twentieth Century the attempt to demonstrate a bona-fide power of hypnosis was a continual saga. One of the most often cited figures in this connection being John ‘Jack’ Watkins. Watkins worked for the U.S. Army, under the auspices of which he conducted a number of sensational ‘experiments’ that are forever being cited by pundits as evidence of the power of hypnosis. Forcing classified rocketry secrets out of a secretary, making a soldier attempt to kill an officer under the delusion that it was a “dirty rotten Jap”. Actually succeeding in having a subject throw acid into the face of a technician – marvellous! – this being supposedly an ‘experiment” that went wrong. But I cannot help but think that Watkins was secretly pleased at the result. He was obsessed with the idea that he could compel others to do as he wished. This incident was perhaps his greatest, most often cited piece of supposed ‘evidence’.
It proved nothing. Watkins’ experiments take us right back a century to the kind of pseudo-science which Clark Hull had castigated so scathingly (Hull, 1933).
Any bright school science student could point out that these stunts lacked the very most basic prerequisite of a scientific experiment, a control condition. Most people who cite these pseudo-experiments as “evidence” for their faith in the “power” of “hypnosis” either do not know or choose to ignore the fact that when Watkins’ famous snake-handling stunt was repeated with non-hypnotised control subjects, they complied with the command to reach for the venomous reptile as often as those who did so supposedly “under” the “power” of “hypnosis”. Watkins’ work was trash!
The ultimate illustration of this kind of rubbish and of Watkins’ somewhat creepy obsession is found in his paper about supposedly forcing a subject to become hypnotised “against her will”. I emphasise that it was a female subject to give a sense of the kind of prurient and rather morbid flavour of the article. Many people cite it as “evidence” but few seem to have actually bothered to read it or they might be embarrassed to have mentioned it. The entire “study” consisted of the power-crazy professor going up to a nurse in a canteen, putting (a miserable amount of) money on the table and challenging her to stay awake in return for that reward, before launching into an unendurably tedious bunch of “you are getting very sleepy” malarkey. Reading between the lines of the paper it is obvious to anyone but a man who wishes to think that … as stated on the jackets of pulp guides …”the power of hypnotism can enable you to have any woman” that the tedium went on for about twelve minutes before the nurse realised the only thing that would shake off this nutter without causing a disciplinary hearing was to pretend to what he wanted
As for Watkins’ other stunts, they do not either sustain sensible scrutiny. For a start, how would he have known that what the secretary ‘revealed’ actually was classified information? Even if a third party who knew was asked, would he say ‘no’ and have the crankey professor go on probing with the danger that something really would pop out? Wouldn’t it be safer just, like the nurse, to give the nutter what he wanted and say “yes, its real data, amazing professor, you’ve done it”.
The episode with the attack on the officer bears an uncanny resemblance to the kind of scenes which I have hundreds of times observed in shows. Where the ‘assault’ (on, for example, the man who supposedly stole the volunteers’ million pounds lottery winnings) may appear very real to the audience but on close observation (and in video replay) can be seen to be merely a pantomime of a genuine act of aggression. I hasten to add, such outbursts are not suggested by me, but sometimes arise out of the scenario, which I monitor closely, specifically for the very reason that these pseudo-actions can give the illusion of being real
Fig 15. Men kissing women’s feet on post-hypnotic cue whenever the women shout “grovel”.
Fig 22. (below) Note the incredulous man in a singlet ….
Fig 23. (above) Then outside ( in his skivvies )…
Fig 24. Then in the street…weeks after first hypnotised.
This is a kernel point. That it is possible in a non-theatrical context for a hypnotist to induce what is in effect a “performance” that in essence differs nought from the kind produced in a stage show. This can then be interpreted as a bona-fide effect whilst in reality it is a transient illusion. A classic example has been provided for us by Mr Paul McKenna. A while ago the performer made a play of demonstrating the supposed “power” of “hypnosis” to effect instant cures of phobia. On two different TV shows he took subjects with a phobia of dogs back stage and when they returned, lo, they showed no fear of the mutt brought on for the purpose.
The clue is again in the words I used. They showed no fear. That does not mean they were cured. It does not even mean they felt no anxiety. It means exactly what the words say: “They showed no fear”. It is easy to induce a subject to act as though they are afraid of something. It is easy to induce a subject to act as though they cannot see the hypnotist. It does not mean that in fact they are afraid of that object, or actually do not see the hypnotist ( as research outlined earlier confirms ). By the same token, it is going to be easy to induce a person to act as though they are “cured”. For the time that the “cure” is on display! It does not mean that this “cure” will continue off-stage. In effect, it does not mean that it is in any sense a cure whatsoever! It is merely an act. An illusion.
Worse than this arose when Mr McKenna tried to “cure” a woman’s fear of heights. They took the poor dear, supposedly now “cured” up in a cherry-picker to do a bungee jump. Even though this was edited footage, it was still mightily apparent that she was, in terms that the “punters” would favour, “cacking herself”. She was clearly terrified. McKenna and assistant simply kept on at her to do the jump until it was clear they were not letting her back down, literally. Again, like that nurse borne down upon by Watkins. She did it and we were then presented with this as “proof” of a cure. When in fact it was not even the illusion of a cure, but perhaps in the mind of Mr McKenna and crew.
Interestingly, Milton Erickson actually let slip that even in “real” therapeutic situations, the job of the hypnotist was to get the patient to act as though cured and to continue doing so long enough that they forget that they are only acting! A stunningly crisp and clear summation of these patterns of activity (see footnote, below).
These are examples from “therapeutic” scenarios, but the same principle applies to attempts to demonstrate the “power” of “hypnosis” to effect compliance. When Watkins’ subject “attacked” his officer, I suspect that something of the same kind was occurring. It was, like the examples cited, an illusion which Watkins eagerly bought because he wanted it to be real.
In any case, the subsequent half century to Watkins’ famous stunts saw a plethora of carefully designed experiments on the capacity of “hypnosis” that makes an interesting contrast to concurrent work on the influence of normal social psychology upon behaviour. For, whereas non-hypnotised subjects were shown time and again to be liable to exhibit obedience in response to carefully created social situations, the reverse was found for “hypnosis”: that it proved quite incapable of producing compliance with even trivial “anti-social” tasks. For example, “hypnosis” was found quite incapable of inducing American college students to cut up the Bible or the flag of the United states! Indeed, in one cunningly devised study, female subjects were found less likely to respond favourably to a lesbian proposition when told they would do so “under hypnosis” than non-hypnotised control subjects! Crucially, these subjects were all approached by the experimental stooge and given a “pass” when away from the laboratory, in the “real” world, after they had concluded what had been presented to them as the actual experiment. Again, Milton Erickson had already long before this said in an interview that he and his colleagues had found that their wives had been found to be less willing to accede to sexual demands when sought via hypnosis!
Fig 25. One of the authors volunteers at a show becomes a “Chippendale”.
If you look at photographs of my early shows, before I ‘sanitised’ the act, a few of which are reproduced here, you will see how, as a stage hypnotist, I could exercise a remarkable degree of influence over the behaviour of some volunteers. I had them feigning sexual acts, with each other, toy animals and the furniture, performing bondage acts, licking boots, running around naked, in front of audiences, after the show or in private situations. I even had women trying to go home with me or attempting (whilst I resisted) to perform acts upon my person. Although I stopped suggesting that when I found it too much to handle!
Fig 29. The author at work in his early “pre-sanitised” days! Note, the girl is still fully dressed.
Fig 32. Three men and a woman with their friends outside a bar where they had met Alex Tsander one night in 1993.
Fig 33. The authors volunteers have a gay menage a trois!
Fig 34 The authors shows became more conservative
As even the Sunday Mirror had to concede, I demonstrated a talent for getting people to do what I wanted (Knowles and Rowe, 1994). But this would NOT be possible simply by performing a hypnotic induction, effecting the appearance of hypnosis and proceeding only upon the basis of assuming such to be real. That would NOT be sufficient to elicit such compliance. On the other hand, such compliance can be elicited WITHOUT the presence of a supposed state of hypnosis or trance. It is the influence of the social-psychology of everyday life rendered laser-like into a coherent procedure!
A veritable goldmine of such revealing insights as cited here is to be found in the invaluable three volumes of Conversations with Milton H. Erickson (Haley, ed., et al, 1985) as well as en-passant in the four volumes of Innovative Therapy: The Collected Papers of Milton Erickson (Rossi, ed, 1980), Advanced Techniques in Hypnosis and Therapy (Haley and Erickson, eds.) and Experiencing Hypnosis: Therapeutic Approaches to Altered States (Erickson and Rossi, 1981). However, the best concise guide to Erickson ever published, not only endorsed by him but which he used to distribute himself, is Jay Haley’s Uncommon Therapy (Haley, 1977). It, too, offers a revealing insight into the non-hypnotic realities of Erickson’s ‘hypno-therapy’.