Building Resistance: Tactics for Counteracting Manipulation and Unethical
Hypnosis in Totalistic Groups
The need to
develop the ability to resist influence is examined in light of the existence of
totalistic groups and individuals that employ a variety of unethical
manipulative techniques, including hypnosis. Relevant research in social
psychology and experimental clinical hypnosis suggests that three factors may be
important in developing resistance. First, becoming acquainted with the social
psychology of manipulation and attitude change will be an asset to understanding
mind control. Second, having a specific knowledge of experimental and
theoretical as well as practical hypnosis is also important to resistance.
Third, one's fund of general information can be vital in resisting manipulation.
An awareness of the limits of one's knowledge base, and a willingness to add
knowledge when one is unsure of the validity of what is being said is important.
Finally, specific techniques for resisting influence as it occurs are discussed.
Most hypnotists and therapists
are concerned with finding ways to overcome resistance, not with ways of
building it up. Yet the ability to resist influence may be an important skill to
develop, especially in view of the many groups and individuals seeking to
covertly modify behaviors, thoughts and feelings.
Destructive religious cults,
certain "mass therapy" groups, many individuals claiming to be "psychics" and/or
"spiritualists," and a wide assortment of political extremists on both the
Radical Left and the Radical Right all seem to be vying for our attention, if
not our hearts and minds. The equating of hypnosis with "mind control" or
"thought reform" has been a misconception professional hypnosis organizations
have been combating for years; ethical practitioners do not employ hypnosis as a
means of influencing people against their own self-interest. Yet the technique
of using a surgeon's scalpel can be employed for harm as well as for healing.
There is ample evidence that covert hypnotic techniques can and are being used
(unethically) to manipulate feelings, thoughts and perceptions—typically without
the "subjects" even being aware that they are being manipulated or influenced
against their "free will" (Dubrow Eichel, 1984; Dubrow Eichel & Dubrow Eichel,
It is a misconception that
brainwashing always involves thugs who torture or threaten their victims, or
connect them to bizarre-looking electronic equipment in order to force a marked
personality change. The Central Intelligence Agency's MK-ULTRA program, which
sought to discover overt methods of mind control (including the use of
electroshock, sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs), is a case in point.
The MK-ULTRA program was ultimately deemed a failure, yet it nonetheless did
much to foster the "torture, technology and drugs" myth of brainwashing.
Ironically, the fact that the U.S. government could not produce a reliable
technology of thought reform using these blatant methods may have created a
false sense of security among the general public. After all, if the CIA experts
failed to brainwash their subjects, then surely nobody else could, and the
average citizen had no reason to fear being "brainwashed."
Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a
Stanford University psychology professor who is perhaps the foremost American
expert on the topic of social manipulation and mind control, is not so
optimistic; the CIA failed to brainwash people, he claims, not because their
methods were too "soft," but because they were overt, blatant, and obvious. If
force is used, people may surrender temporarily but they will often fail to
"internalize" their newly acquired opinions and feelings; when no longer held
captive, these subjects no longer do what they have been told. It is more
effective to be subtle and covert: "you need at least an illusion of choice,"
according to Zimbardo, and the expert manipulator leaves people "unaware of [the
manipulator's] influence" (Cunningham, 1984). In order to influence or brainwash
people, the following methods work best:
isolate them in new surroundings apart from old friends or
provide them with instant acceptance from a seemingly loving
keep them away from competing or critical ideas,
provide an authority figure that everyone seems to acknowledge as
having some special skill or awareness,
provide a philosophy that seems logical and appears to answer all
or the most important questions in life,
structure all or most activities so that there is little time for
privacy or independent action or thought,
provide a sense of "us" versus "them,"
promise instant or imminent solutions to deep or long-term
employ covert or disguised hypnotic techniques.
Motivation is an important
issue. A subject's motivation can range from loneliness and mild depression to
being at a point of transition in life; from searching for spirituality,
altruistic relationships or deeper meaning to impatience with or resistance to
"conventional" religious or psychotherapeutic routes of discovery (Clark,
Langone, Schecter, & Daly, 1981; Cunningham, 1984; Schwartz & Kaslow, 1982).
Contrary to the beliefs of many, vulnerability to mind control techniques is not
a sign of psychological or intellectual weakness; there is a vast body of
research that clearly demonstrates that "average" or "normal" individuals can be
highly susceptible to covert attempts to influence them, and that most people
are, in general, not particularly good at recognizing when their behavior has
been externally manipulated (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1968; Freedman, Carlsmith, &
Sears, 1974, pp. 341-375). Given enough time and the proper environment, the
motivated subject is highly vulnerable to brainwashing.
What can be done to safeguard
against covert manipulations, and how does one resist covert, unethical forms of
hypnosis? The literature suggests that three factors may be important in
fund of general information, and
specific knowledge about the psychology of manipulation.
First, becoming acquainted
with the social psychology of manipulation and attitude change will be an asset
to understanding mind control. A brief summary of selected research findings in
this area suggests the following:
Manipulators often start with making minor requests.
Getting people to perform small and relatively unrisky acts now will make it
more likely that they will perform larger, more difficult and riskier tasks
later. Corollary: giving in now to "minor" requests that are mildly
uncomfortable makes it difficult to refuse more difficult and unsettling
requests in the future (Freedman, Carlsmith, & Sears, 1974, pp. 395-397).
Manipulators often seem unusually friendly, concerned and
sincere. When people perceive that someone likes them or cares about them, they
listen less critically to what is told to them and are also less apt to think
negatively about the communicator (Zajonc, 1968). Corollary: "love bombing"
(being made the center of attention and the target of an unusual amount of
praise, affection, etc.) makes it hard to disagree or resist.
Manipulators do not immediately ask for agreement, they ask
people to "try it" with an "open mind." Getting people to behave in a manner
that is somewhat contrary to their current belief system will often result
in changed attitudes (Deutsch & Krauss, 1965; Festinger & Carlsmith, 1968). That
is, acting on requests to "try it before you reject it" and assurances that "you
can disagree with what you are doing even as you do it" often leads to changes
in belief systems, especially if the subject is not overtly rewarded (e.g., by
being paid) for performing the new behavior.
Manipulators use group pressure. It is difficult,
especially over long periods of time, to be the only one in a group to disagree
(Jones & Gerard, 1967, pp. 331-386). It can be painful to feel rejected or
different, and sometimes even more painful to think of oneself as someone who
has trouble tolerating rejection. Hence, people conform but are not always
willing to admit to themselves that they are conforming (i.e., responding to
group pressure). People rationalize instead, and claim it was their "free
choice" to change.
Manipulators do not make things easy. People actually place more
value on their actions if the task to be performed is somewhat unpleasant or
difficult, even if it did not need to be unpleasant or difficult (Festinger,
1957). Corollary: making a task artificially "tough" typically makes it
appear more meaningful and important than it may in fact be.
Having a specific knowledge of
experimental/theoretical as well as practical hypnosis is also important to
resistance. What are the implications of role taking in hypnosis, for example?
This theory suggests that, by "pretending" to be in hypnosis, people can in fact
become more suggestible and open to influence. Research on classical and
"nonclassical" (e.g., Ericksonian) forms of hypnosis suggests the following:
It is possible to be hypnotized without being aware of the
induction process. Most hypnotic phenomena, including carrying out posthypnotic
suggestions, have been produced in subjects who were not aware of being in
hypnosis (Erickson, Rossi, & Rossi, 1976).
Hypnosis begins with a shift in attention (Hilgard, 1968).
Attention is normally motile. That is, it is dynamic and is relatively freely
focused on a variety of events within a large perceptual field; it moves back
and forth between the external (e.g., actions and events "outside" the self) and
the internal (e.g., thoughts and feelings). Trance is a state that involves
relatively focused, fixed or immotile attention. Corollary: anyone or
anything that results in decreased motility of attention is highly likely to
induce an altered state of consciousness ("trance") whether or not it is labeled
The language of hypnosis is marked by vagueness,
overgeneralizations, metaphors and abstractions. Classical inductions are not
the only way to "talk hypnosis" (although they can be found in many "meditation"
techniques not overtly labeled as hypnosis). Nonclassical inductions use
"normal" conversation and storytelling, often directed at more than one
representational system (e.g., sight, sound and touch) to shift attention, in
part by activating the subject's tendency to search within him— or herself in
order to find ways of relating what is being said now to experiences in the past
(Bandler & Grinder, 1975). Corollary: words that sound "deep" or meaningful
but feel confusing (and/or strangely calming) can induce trance outside the
In trance, memories, fantasies, feelings and thoughts are often
experienced more vividly and intensely than they are in the normal "waking"
state (Hilgard, 1981). If a person is unaware of being in trance, or is
unfamiliar or unconvinced of the phenomenon of hypnotic enhancement of
perception, fantasy and suggestibility, then that person is likely to
attribute the vividness and intensity of the trance experience to some special
characteristic of the message and/or communicator. That is, the person links
his/her feelings of intensity with what has been said or who has said it, not
with how (i.e., hypnotically) it was said. The message is therefore experienced
as "more real" or "more true" than other messages, and the communicator of the
message is endowed with extraordinary (or even supernatural) characteristics or
Hypnosis involves powerful transference. The induction process
involves establishing and utilizing rapport, and hypnosis is perhaps first and
foremost an interpersonal process (Fromm, 1979). Most subjects, after being
hypnotized, feel closer, more trusting, and more positively about their operator
than before. It is always more difficult to objectively assess someone (or
what that someone says) after a powerful transference relationship has
Hypnosis involves the suspension of "normal" logic. Trance
logic is characterized by, among other things, lack of criticalness and the
ability to hold two contradictory beliefs as true without one canceling out the
other (Orne, 1959). Thus, in trance one can have the sensation of cold and still
be aware of being seated in a warm, heated room. Corollary: in trance, people
can accept notions or ideas that they would otherwise reject because they
contradict other beliefs known to be based in reality. For example, the
members of one Hindu-based cult believe that the space program is a hoax and yet
may listen to and accept weather reports based on satellite pictures.
One's fund of general
information (e.g., philosophy, comparative religion and history) can be vital in
resisting manipulation. Perhaps more important, however, is an awareness of the
limits of one's knowledge base, and a willingness to add knowledge when one is
unsure of the validity of what is being said. For example, a new form of
so-called psychotherapy might claim to be "the modern science of mental health."
What makes a discipline a "science?" In part, it is the acceptance and
utilization of a very specific method of inquiry that has uniform steps for
positing hypotheses and validating them. What are these steps? When these steps
are not followed, what risks to validity are usually encountered? What is the
"scientific method?" If uncertain, one should seek the answers to these
questions before accepting any claim as being "scientific." Similarly, groups or
individuals may claim that their beliefs and/or practices are based on
scriptural passages, history, research or other literature with which one is
unfamiliar; before accepting anything else said, it is wise to check these
references for their accuracy. In addition, the following steps might be
"Paraphrase other peoples' thoughts both aloud and to yourself to
see if you're understanding clearly." Dr. Zimbardo and his associate, Susan
Andersen, recommend that if a message, book or lecture is difficult to
understand, repeating the central points in one's own words might help (Andersen
& Zimbardo, 1980). Ask questions. If the answer is equally or more puzzling, a
mental "beware" alarm should sound. The same alarm should go off if the answer
is something like "well, you will understand more later" or "of course you can't
understand now, you're too [nonspiritual, unenlightened, intellectual, ignorant,
materialistic, rigid, unaware, unconnected with your feelings, etc.]."
Do not relate personal experiences, thoughts or feelings, or make
any kind of confession that may be harmful should the information be released,
Anderson and Zimbardo (1980) warn. Confidentiality is not automatic:
nonlicensed/noncredentialed therapists and their clients may not come under the
protection of state doctor-patient confidentiality laws. Groups or individuals
that pressure people to reveal personal information may be acting unethically.
Put off any and all decisions until after the group experience is
over, and then decide only after obtaining other information or consulting with
Outside interests and social contacts are vital, state Zimbardo
and Anderson, and any group that makes an overt or subtle appeal to sever these
bonds should be rejected. These outside sources are usually instrumental in
providing reality-oriented feedback, and in helping to maintain a sense of
personal continuity (i.e., a sense of knowing "where I came from").
Any group or individual that arouses guilt to an uncomfortable
level should be carefully checked out and probably avoided.
Have at least one good friend who is a "natural born" skeptic or
critic. Or, if in a possible mind control situation already, seek out known
"doubters" within that group. Put off feeling guilty about doubts for a day or
two; discuss doubts now.
Seek outside information before joining or making a commitment to
a group. This may be the single most important guideline to follow. Read or
listen to critical arguments. If the group claims to be a religion, speak to
nonmember clergy or contact the local university's theology department or
divinity school and ask about it; if it claims to be a therapy or self-awareness
group, contact the local or state Psychiatric or Psychological Association and
ask for information, references and research on the group and/or the methods it
uses. If the group seems like it might be cultic, contact the American Family
Foundation <http://www.csj.org> (phone: 941-514-3081).
These organizations are
responsible and can act as guides to information that may be difficult to locate
on one's own. They can also usually find former members of the group in question
for in-person or telephone consultation. Become familiar with the literature on
deception (some of which makes for highly entertaining reading!). The field of
spiritualism and paranormal/parapsychological research has been so riddled with
deception and fraud that the Parapsychological Association itself has formerly
admitted to the need for "fraud checks." A number of professional magicians,
most notably James Randi ("The Amazing Randi") have made careers out of
debunking fraudulent and shoddy research on the paranormal, and have exposed the
deceptive tactics employed by scores of well-known "psychics." The
Parapsychological Association now recommends that scientists consult magicians
when designing experiments to test for psychic and spiritualistic abilities, in
large part because scientists are not particularly better than the average
person at seeing through deceptions.
ability to (with some objectivity) observe and reflect on one's own behavior—and
a sense of humor about oneself and others allows for greater independence in
general, and increased freedom of thought in particular. Most cults discourage
self-reflective thought (it is too "intellectual," "egotistical,"
"nonspiritual," "negative," and/or "selfish") in favor of "feeling" or
"listening to the heart." In contrast, nontotalitarian groups are
characterized by open questioning of authority and leadership.
Think back to situations in
which you have felt pressured or covertly influenced. How did it feel? In
retrospect, what were some possible warning signals:
Think back to situations in
which you have felt pressured or covertly influenced. How did it feel? In
retrospect, what were some possible warning signs (e.g., disorientation,
confusion, anxiety, guilt, sadness, embarrassment) that a deception was about to
occur? These signs can be "warning bells" to protect against future deceptions.
What is intimacy? What does it
mean to be a friend? Do true and lasting friendships come instantly, or are they
built, sometimes in struggle and/or pain? What is love? When is love
unconditional? Is it possible to be completely open, or to love instantly, or
completely, or equally? Think back to the past in order to begin to answer these
Be familiar with trance
experience; know what hypnosis feels like and experience a variety of
inductions. Again, these feelings can serve as an "early warning system," as
clues that one has been in hypnosis. Hypnosis can then serve as an alternative
explanation for "mystical" or "psychic" experiences that may have been
manipulated. No two people feel exactly the same under hypnosis; everyone has a
Recall previous experiences
with deception (e.g., magic shows). Be aware that people are in general easily
fooled, and that most if not all "supernatural powers" are easily reproduced by
magicians/illusionists. The world is full of mysteries, but what seems to be
impossible to explain does not necessarily mean it cannot be explained by
conventional logic or "mundane" science. Remember how impossible many magic
tricks appear to be! What if the magician claimed to be a prophet, and that his
"powers" were in fact "gifts from God" and thus proof of divine status? Absurd,
perhaps, but it is the rare mystic or cult leader who can perform more than the
most basic "mind reading" tricks, yet they continue to attract followers who are
convinced of their guru's "divine nature."
With the advent of electronic
mass media and telecommunications, we are experiencing an explosive escalation
in the amount of information that is available at any given moment. Moreover,
this information is available instantaneously at the turn of a dial or the flick
of a switch, and it is typically available in great amounts. In communications,
we know that with every increase in the volume and flow of information, there is
a subsequent increase in the transmission of "noise" ("information" that is
erroneous, irrelevant or simply invalid). As consumers of ever-increasing
amounts of information, we will be hard-pressed to tune out the "noise" in order
to receive and integrate that information that is in fact "meaningful."
While the systematic use of
manipulative communication and social coercion ("brainwashing") has existed for
thousands of years, a number of factors have in the past few decades converged
to forge, for the first time ever, mass-marketed, readily-available and, in many
cases, highly lucrative technologies of conversion. If, as many researchers now
suggest, we consider heightened suggestibility to be the central phenomenon
underlying the construct "hypnosis," then any technique or tool that, as a
direct or indirect result of its employment, results in increased suggestibility
can be thought of as "hypnotic." As our understanding of hypnotic communication
and our ability to subtly influence behavior increases, it may become the
obligation of the professional persuader (the hypnotist, the psychotherapist) to
assist clients to develop their resistance to manipulative groups and
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This article first appeared
in Suggestion: The Journal of Professional & Ethical Hypnosis, 1, (Summer
1985), pp. 34-44. It is reprinted with permission of the author.