What’s in a name?

Hypnosis stops being hypnotic when it’s described to participants as ‘relaxation’. This finding by Balaganesh Ghandi and David Oakley at UCL’s Hypnosis Unit complements earlier research showing the opposite effect: that relaxation labelled as ‘hypnosis’ can be hypnotic.

Ghandi and Oakley performed an identical, standard hypnotic induction on 70 participants. But whereas half of them were told their suggestibility was to be tested “whilst in hypnosis”, after they had completed a “hypnotic induction” to help them become “hypnotised”, the other half were told their suggestibility would be tested “whilst being relaxed”, after they had followed “relaxation instructions” to help them become “relaxed”. The hypnotic procedure itself contained no mention of the words ‘hypnosis/hypnotised/hypnotic’ but instead talked about ‘absorption’ or being ‘absorbed’.

Before and after the hypnotic induction, the participants performed standard tests of suggestibility ranging from being told they couldn’t move their arms, to being told there was a mosquito buzzing in the room. The researchers rated how prone each participant was to these suggestions and the participants also rated how much they felt they had experienced the suggestions.

Participants who were told the hypnotic induction was a relaxation procedure were no more suggestible after the hypnotic induction than before it. In contrast, participants told the induction was a hypnotic procedure were significantly more suggestible after the induction than before it, based on both the researchers’ and the participants’ ratings.

The researchers said “…the extent to which suggestion affects conscious experience appears to depend more on the individual’s perception that the context can be identified as ‘hypnosis’ and on the beliefs and expectations that this raises, than it does on intrinsic properties of the induction procedure itself”.

Ghandi, B. & Oakley, D.A. (2005). Does ‘hypnosis’ by any other name smell as sweet? The efficacy of ‘hypnotic’ inductions depends on the label ‘hypnosis’. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 304-315.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.