Views of Suggestibility
The degree to which a person responds to suggestions is variously termed suggestibility, hypnotizability, hypnotic responsiveness, and hypnotic susceptibility. Research in this area has gone in two particular directions: attempts to develop scales that reliably "measure" hypnotizability, and attempts to correlate degree of hypnotizability with specific personality traits and characteristics (such as intelligence, mental status, and imagination). Interestingly enough, there has been some success in developing reliable measurement scales but almost no success in correlating personality characteristics with hypnotizability.
Measurements on the scales that have been developed to measure “hypnotizability” – The Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale, and the Barber Suggestibility Scale – seem to indicate that most people are susceptible to minor hypnotic phenomena, while about 1 out of every 4 persons is capable of a profound hypnotic response. Gender makes no difference in responsiveness, but age does. Apparently we are most hypnotizable when children, so surely characteristics particular to childhood (such as an active fantasy life and a willingness to follow directions) must play a role in hypnotizability. According to Hilgard, this is true. Although the evidence is sketchy and contradictory, it seems that the factor of imagination can be correlated with hypnotizability: people who were highly imaginative as children are more easily hypnotized as adults. Hilgard explains:
The hypnotizable person is one who has rich subjective experiences in which he can become deeply involved...He is interested in the life of the mind...He is willing to accept impulses from within and is not afraid to relinquish reality testing for a time. He does not appear to be a weak or dependent person; evidence indicates that more troubled, withdrawn, or neurotic individuals do not generally make as good subjects as normal outgoing individuals.
...Interviews with hundreds of subjects, before and after induction of hypnosis, have pointed to the importance of early childhood experiences. Experiences of a particular kind appear to either generate or maintain the abilities that enter into hypnotizability. A capacity to become deeply involved in imaginative experiences derives from parents who are themselves deeply involved in such areas as reading, music, religion, or the aesthetic appreciation of nature.
But that's not all. Hilgard goes on to mention (and "mention" is all) that adults who were abused as children are also more hypnotizable:
A history of punishment may produce hypnotizability in either (or both) of two ways: first, through instilling a habit of automatic and unquestioned obedience; second, through a tendency to escape the harassment by moving off into a realm of imagination, thus practicing the dissociations that are later to be used in hypnosis. [Italics added]
Hilgard's point of view here provides a very interesting polarity regarding hypnotizability. On one hand there is the very healthy individual who "has rich subjective experiences in which he can become deeply involved." On the other hand is the severely abused individual who allows hypnosis out of the habit of "unquestioned obedience" and dissociative responses still lingering from childhood.
Barber's views on hypnotizability are quite different from Hilgard's. He points out that of the 60 or more studies that have investigated personality characteristics in relation to hypnotizability, the results are either negative (no relationship between personality and hypnotizability) or conflicting (one study finds a relationship, another does not). For example, one study found a positive correlation between "neuroticism" and hypnotizability (i.e., the more neurotic, the more hypnotizable), while another study found a negative correlation (i.e., the more neurotic, the less hypnotizable). Several other studies found no relationship whatsoever (i.e., neurosis does not affect hypnotizability in either direction). Moreover, Barber does not agree with Hilgard that imagination or any other personality characteristic contributes to hypnotizability. For Barber, the research indicates only that (1) two people with very different personalities may be equally hypnotizable, and (2) two people with very similar personalities may vary drastically in their susceptibility to hypnosis. To explain this dilemma Barber suggests that either we don't yet have the tools to tap the aspects of personality related to hypnosis, or personality plays only a very minor role in it. Perhaps, he suggests, it is the situation rather than the personality that ultimately determines degree of hypnotic responsiveness.
It seems that Hilgard and Barber are presenting opposite viewpoints. Hilgard's view of hypnotizability is an intradynamic, static one: the person's internal imaginative capacities largely determine a degree of hypnotic responsiveness that remains fairly constant over time. Barber's view, on the other hand, is an interdynamic, fluctuational one: the hypnotic situation, together with what the person wants, feels, and expects in that situation, determines a responsiveness that varies from one situation and time to the next.
Erickson's view of hypnotizability combined some of both. Although he stated that "anyone who can be socialized can be hypnotized," he also believed that external factors such as the skill of the hypnotist and the amount of time taken for hypnotic "training" were important considerations. More important, however, was the subject's own willingness to experience hypnosis. This willingness constituted the single most important factor in the acceptance of suggestion. In fact, willingness was more important than trance in the matter of suggestibility. "Trance," wrote Erickson, "does not ensure the acceptance of suggestion" – but willingness does.
Yapko discusses a related factor: the relationship between self-esteem and hypnotizability. In his view a person with low self-esteem is more likely than someone with high self-esteem to give another person power to influence him, such as through the use of suggestion. Lacking a strong sense of self, this individual's high suggestibility makes it easy for him to be strongly influenced by someone else's values or dictates. Yapko also mentions the "need for acceptance," which may be particularly strong among those with low self-esteem and which may predispose them to be good (suggestible) hypnosis subjects. The subject has sought the hypnotist's help and implicitly believes that hypnosis can be helpful. Since he views the hypnotist as an authoritative individual who can offer perspective, advice, and possibly solutions for what ails him or her, he is predisposed to accept the hypnotist's suggestions.
Also to be taken into account is the hypnotist's reputation, which can contribute to suggestibility. People would come from all over the world to be hypnotized by Milton Erickson, for instance. According to Yapko, "Many of them came thousands of miles to be put in a trance by him, and into a trance they went!" Furthermore, there is an emotional component to an individual's expectations regarding hypnosis. "The more emotional investment the person has in that expectation," writes Yapko, "the less likely he is to experience anything that contradicts it...When people invest money, hope, and time in something, they desperately want it to work, even if 'only a little.'"
Lynn and Nash (Jan. 1994) maintain that "increased fantasy and decreased objectivity" underlie suggestibility. ("Truth in memory: ramifications for psychotherapy and hypnotherapy." American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 36(3), 194-208.) In a study by Segal and Lynn (1992-93), it was asserted that a link exists between imagination, fantasy, and dissociation. ("Predicting dissociative experiences: imagination, hypnotizability, psychopathology, and alcohol use." Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 12, 287-300.) According to Lynn and Rhue (1988), the majority of fantasy-prone persons are highly hypnotizable." ("Fantasy proneness: hypnosis, developmental antecedents, and psychopathology." American Psychologist, 43, 35-44.
Hilgard, et al., Introduction to Psychology, pp. 175-176.
Ibid., p. 176.
Barber, Hypnosis, p. 93.
Erickson, et al., Hypnotic Realities, p. 228.
In some instances, responding to suggestions (while hypnotized or awake), people have even confessed to crimes they did not commit. "When persons are uncertain about what they did or did not do and come to distrust their memories," write Lynn and Nash, "they are particularly vulnerable to suggestive and coercive influences." ("Truth in memory: ramifications for psychotherapy and hypnotherapy." American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 36(3), Jan. 1994, 194-208. Edwin adds: "It is well known that people are suggestible in the waking state and more so in hypnosis, and alert or in trance they can produce a "memory" that is called for or suggested by an authority figure. This is suggestion, not therapy." ("Many memories retrieved with hypnosis are accurate." American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 36(3), Jan. 1994, 174-176.)
Trancework, pp. 127-128, pp. 91-98.