The increasing insights within applied clinical psychology provide more and more perspectives to understand better and treat patients. By taking stock of a person’s susceptibility to influence during an intake interview, the degree of suggestibility – i.e., the extent to which the person is open to suggestions – can provide insights into the symptoms and offer starting points for the course of treatment.
In this article, I discuss the meaning of suggestibility, the connection with brain waves, applications, and the characteristics of highly suggestible people.
What is suggestibility? [Definition]
Suggestibility is the property of being inclined to accept and act on the suggestions of others. One can fill gaps in specific memories with false information (false memory) given by another when remembering a scenario or moment. Suggestibility uses cues to distort memory: when the subject has been repeatedly told something about a past event, the memory of that event will correspond to the repeated message. This distortion is an important principle within the communication technique of Gaslighting.
History of suggestibility in psychology
Psychologists, (Hypno)therapists and doctors have been using suggestive communication techniques to help their patients heal for centuries. However, the “beast” has only gotten its name in the last one hundred and fifty years: suggestibility and later the placebo effect.
The French hypnotherapist Émile Coué used optimistic autosuggestion to get his patients cured of even ‘incurable’ conditions. He encouraged them to repeat the maxim “Tous les jours et à tous points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux” (Every day, I get better and better in every way) several times a day. With this strategy, according to him, the subconscious was reprogrammed with the positive affirmation, just until the placebo effect did its work and healing occurred.
In modern psychology and medicine, the placebo effect is used very widely, mostly in double-blind studies. Even in a therapeutic conversation setting, suggestibility can be used successfully, for example, to dispel or perpetuate self-limiting beliefs.
Suggestibility and mass psychology
Of course, we assume that receptivity to suggestion is used primarily in a positive way. Unfortunately, suggestibility is also widely used within marketing; the media and secret services use the technique to control the population.
A good example is Coca-Cola’s surreptitious advertisement in 1957. Marketing researchers flashed the slogan “Drink Coca-Cola” throughout a movie. The ad was too fast for conscious perception. The result was that moviegoers ordered Coke more often during the break.
Also, during the pandemic, suggestibility is frequently used by media and politicians to direct the people’s reaction. In an actual media bombardment of scientists and experts, ‘a truth’ is proclaimed until people doubt their thinking and are inclined to follow the specialists. This strategy often involves gaslighting.
Types of suggestions: direct or indirect
Suggestions can be broadly classified into two types: direct and indirect:
- In direct suggestion, the implication is clear: the thrust of the suggestion indicates the expectations of the person in question. e.g., “Before you buy that house, you should check with the neighbors to see if the neighborhood is okay.”
- In indirect suggestions, the implication remains hidden: the suggestion has such a level of abstraction that the person feels they can make their own choice, but the questioner hides one or more commands in the abstract suggestion. e.g., The hypnotherapist: “And if you feel it’s easier to slow your breath, you feel you can relax even further…”
Within these two types, we can distinguish three primary areas of suggestibility:
- Placebo effect: administration of an inert substance as a method of treatment can result in healing.
- Hypnotic suggestibility: a suggestive statement during a hypnotic session can give the person a sense of freedom of choice while tending to follow the suggestion.
- Suggestive questioning: a suggestive question can influence how a person responds through a certain amount of pressure.
The placebo effect and suggestive questioning are considered indirect suggestions, while hypnotic suggestibility is categorized as a direct suggestion.
Brainwaves and suggestibility
Our brainwaves play an important role in how we handle suggestibility. When we are in an alert state, our brains produce dominant beta waves. When we are in a deep sleep, our brain produces the slow delta waves, while during dreaming – more activity in the brain – it produces theta waves. When we stare out the window during a long train ride and let our minds wander, our brains are in an alpha state.
In a theta state, we are the most suggestible, i.e.; we are very receptive and impressionable to suggestions. For this reason a hypnotherapist puts you in a very relaxed state to work with the deeply held beliefs in your subconscious.
To enter a theta state, you have to close yourself off from sensory input and turn your attention inward, just as in meditation. So for this, you close your eyes and focus on your breathing which slowly slows down as you can experience yourself relaxing more and more.
When our brains produce theta waves, we have direct access to our subconscious mind, or we can “imprint” new beliefs or work on undesirable behaviors and habits.
Of course, this all sounds positive, but unfortunately, increased suggestibility can also be abused. The commercials and talk shows late at night – when we are already in a half-sleep-wake state and therefore in theta – influence us to make certain purchases or to ‘plant’ certain beliefs in our brains.
Hypnosis and Hypnotic Sensitivity
The common assumption is that hypnosis creates the process of suggestibility, but it does not. However, hypnosis does enhance sensitivity and receptivity to suggestions. Many people exhibit a higher degree of suggestibility outside of a hypnosis setting than others within it! Think of a situation at work where a colleague asks you, “Boy, how pale you look, you’re not going to get sick, are you?” Depending on how suggestible you are, the chances are considerable that you will start to feel sick.
We can use the effect of suggestibility either negatively or positively; that is, the suggestion causes a placebo or a nocebo effect. Suggestibility works as follows: the belief system determines what should happen and makes that happen. It is so powerful that in medical trials, people bring about the impossible solely with their beliefs.
Within hypnosis, suggestibility is frequently used. The therapist does this by using his language patterns at a high level of abstraction. The “godfather” of hypnosis is Milton Erickson, who brought his patients under hypnosis with great simplicity. His skills attracted the founders of NLP, Bandler, and Grinder. They modeled Erickson’s excellent skills and ensured that their “model” would allow anyone to master them.
In a hypnotic setting, the client can feel free in what is happening. The hypnotherapist only gives suggestions, such as “…and may you relax deeper,” or “…then you can feel your arms feel heavier and heavier.”
Metaphors: descending into the subconscious mind
When you go into a trance, and your brain waves thus slow down, you are considerably more receptive to suggestions because the rational mind no longer “gets in your way” with thoughts. Going into a trance involves nothing more than turning off the rational mind and making contact with the receptive subconscious mind.
We can use metaphors to access the subconscious. A common example is the “staircase to the subconscious,” where you descend into your subconscious mind step by step. In this process, the therapist counts down to the point where the client can “let go” of their rationality and allow the therapist access to their subconscious mind.
The ‘power of repetition’ also applies to hypnosis. The more often you hear a suggestion during a hypnosis session, the more likely you will accept it as true and incorporate it into your belief system.
The Brainwashed Experiment
The Brainwashed experiment was supervised by Dr. Cynthia Meyersburg of Harvard University and Dr. Mark Stokes of Oxford University. Certified hypnotherapist Tom Silver hypnotized dozens of subjects to test their hypnotic state’s depth and suggestibility, or how impressionable they were.
After a series of tests, he finally reduced the sample to four participants, all of whom were hypnotized to endure a freezing ice bath. Only one of the subjects, “Ivan,” could stay in the ice bath for more than 18 seconds, and he was chosen as the final participant to be brainwashed into committing an “assassination attempt” that he believed was real under hypnosis.
The 36-year-old correctional officer “Ivan” was told he was no longer needed on the show and was free to leave. But during an exit interview, Tom Silver hypnotized Ivan and instructed him to kill a foreign dignitary outside the hotel. Ivan was given instructions and explained what external features the victim met and then a fake gun that had the same explosion and recoil like a real firearm.
As Ivan stood in the hotel’s lobby getting ready to leave, he was given a “trigger” that the hypnotist had previously created as an instruction to carry out the murder.
As the Discovery Channel website for the show explains, “The experiment was a success, and Ivan carried out his instructions: he took the gun out of a red backpack, waited by the velvet rope line and ‘killed’ his target.”
The experiment thus clearly illustrates that people can be brainwashed to carry out an assassination attempt using hypnosis and other brainwashing techniques. Not surprisingly, hypnosis and suggestibility are frequently used by intelligence agencies. If you find it interesting, you can google MK Ultra.
Examples of suggestibility
Suggestibility refers to the extent to which individuals are inclined to accept and act on the suggestions of others. It can manifest in various contexts, from everyday interactions to specialized settings like advertising or hypnotherapy. Here are some examples:
Sales Techniques: Salespeople often use the power of suggestion to steer their customers toward a purchase. For example, by saying, “This car looks like it was made for you,” a salesperson can suggest this to the customer, increasing the likelihood of a sale.
Hypnosis: In a hypnotic state, individuals are more open to suggestions. A hypnotist might suggest that one’s arm is becoming lighter and is floating up, and the person might feel and act as if that is truly happening.
Memory Alteration: In certain situations, especially during interrogations or repeated questioning, individuals might be led to believe or even remember events that actually didn’t happen. Their false memory is based on the way questions are posed or suggestions are made.
Mood Contagion: If your co-worker walks into the office looking distressed or upset, it might suggest to others that something is wrong, affecting the overall mood of the environment.
Advertising: Commercials often suggest that using a specific product will improve your life in a specific way. For instance, a kitchen aid commercial might suggest that using their stuff will improve your cooking skills, leading viewers to buy the product with that expectation.
Peer Pressure: Teenagers might be suggested by friends to do drugs, suggesting it’s “cool.” Even if the teenager knows the dangers, the power of suggestion from peers can influence behavior.
Placebo Effect: Another example of suggestibility is the placebo effect. In medical research, some patients experience symptom relief from a placebo, a substance or treatment that has no therapeutic effect on its own. IT only works because they believe it’s real medicine.
Social Compliance: In situations where someone in authority gives a command, people might comply even if they’re uncomfortable with the action. A famous example is Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, where participants were suggested to administer (what they thought were) electric shocks to another person.