I had hoped to write about this before today, but such is life that following my wife requiring surgery, flying to Manchester for a self-hypnosis seminar and competing in the Great South Run all contributed to me being unable to properly sit down and get a good blog entry written…

Following the series opener entitled ‘The Assassin’ for Derren Brown’s new TV series The Experiments, many of my students and peers have asked about what I thought and would I comment.

The Assassin attempted to show that an individual could be hypnotized to commit murder on another, famous individual.

I thought it was very entertaining – good TV is supposed to be so. Yet I also thought it misleading and ill-informing, and that is in no way meant to be derogatory to the viewers of such TV shows.

Regardless of what I thought and rather than offering up pure opinion and cursory judgment, I thought I’d write about the evidence base in relation to that ever-so-hot debate that rears it’s head in the hypnosis world on a regular basis, and which was opened once again with the Derren Brown TV show… Whether someone who is hypnotised can be made to commit criminal or immoral deeds that they would not usually do… Can those innocents end up behind bars?

This debate has been central to the field for many, many years before I came along. Theodore Barber discussed it back in the late 1960s in his work Hypnosis: A scientific approach (1969), for example.

Throughout the years, most of the claims that hypnosis made by people to suggest hypnosis can make people engage in immoral or criminal acts tend to have been refuted by authors and academics. One early rebuttal of this notion can be found in the 1972 work by Wolberg entitled Hypnosis: Is it for you? in which he states:

“… read widely through one hundred and fifty years of medical literature and case histories and found no proof of a single violent crime committed under hypnosis… each subject could have committed the crime of which he was accused without the formality of hypnosis.” (p. 279)

There have actually been a couple of cases here and there which are exceptions to the thoughts of those sympathising with the above notion.

In the 1989 Old Bailey court case of R. v. Mohammed, Sarah Mohammed had been accused of involvement in a murder attempt. Expert evidence given by Dr Mottahedin and Professor Hayward at the trial suggested that Sarah mohammed had become a slave to her husband as a result of being hypnotised and subsequently brainwashed by him.

Dr Mottahedin subsequently wrote about this in the journal Contemporary Hypnosis in 1992 in his work entitled “Was hypnosis involved in the Nelson case?” and suggests that it was because of the evidence he gave that Sarah Mohammed received a suspended sentence while her husband got 8 years in prison.

There have been other attempts made in a court of law to suggest hypnosis was used to aid the crime. For those interested in further investigation, please take a look at the Australian court cases of R. v. Palmer (New South Wales Supreme Court) in 1979 whereby the judge believed the accused hypnotized the victim of an alleged rape to make the crime easier, and the case of R. v. Davies (County Court of Melbourne) in 1986 where again, the accused was supposed to have used hypnosis to disable the alleged victims ability to resist the rape.

Despite hypnosis being used in these cases, there was no discernable or indisputable evidence to demonstrate that hypnosis actually was used to make these things happen; just that it was involved. Isolating hypnosis as the cause has been incredibly difficult and troublesome to prove.

Those academics defending the previous, skeptical position about hypnosis being able to make people commit criminal acts argue that in these cases, the same crime could have occurred without hypnosis and evidence did often demonstrate the criminals propensity for related behaviours and indicators of people who perpetrate such crimes.

In the case where Dr Mottahedin was the expert witness, the accused had actually been  charged with various other sexual offences before this case, for example.  The case files and subsequent papers do present some fascinating reading, albeit all rather inconclusive.

As a result of the difficulty in real-life scenarios to isolate the so-called hypnotic effects of a crime from the other contributory factors, researchers have taken the issues to the laboratories to examine whether hypnosis can be used to make people commit crimes or immoral acts.

Soooo… If you look back at the research from the 1930s, 1940s and even the 1950s, some of the results would suggest that people can be made to do criminal and crazy acts as a result of being hypnotized:

Rowland’s 1939 paper Will hypnotized persons try to harm themselves or others? In the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology concluded that;

persons in deep hypnosis will allow themselves to be exposed to unreasonably dangerous situations. They also will perform acts unreasonably dangerous to others. A possible explanation, hinted at in two places in the account, is that confidence in the hypnotist causes the subject to forego his better judgment. If this be true, it follows that only professional psychologists should be permitted to make use of deep hypnosis. The author feels that the common belief that hypnotized persons will not perform acts that violate their ideals is badly in need of re-examination.” I highlighted that bit at the end as I thought it made the authors point.

Brenman’s 1942 study Experiments in the hypnotic production of antisocial and self-injurous behavior in the Psychiatry journal states:

Emphasizing that the subjects were not deceived but had a full understanding that the situation was purely experimental, the author found that hypnotized subjects could be induced to perform acts which under non-experimental personal and social conditions would be asocial in character.”

Young’s 1952 paper Antisocial uses of hypnosis in Experimental hypnosis states the following (I find this hilarious):

Rowland and Young found that hypnotized Ss were willing to carry out such apparently antisocial actions as grasping a dangerous reptile, plunging their hand into concentrated acid, and throwing the acid at an assistant.”

How much fun they must have had conducting this study!

Following these studies though, subsequent researchers and academics have scrutinized them and explain the findings in terms of the research subjects wanting to please and aid the researcher and hypnotist, believing that what they were doing was actually perfectly safe, and assuming that someone else was ultimately responsible for any wrong-doing.

I think these arguments could be given to everything done within the Derren Brown TV show last week too, don’t you?

Theodore Barber refuted much of the above research findings with those arguments in his 1961 paper Antisocial and criminal acts induced by ‘hypnosis’: A review of clinical and experimental findings in the Archives of General Psychiatry (1961). There are many similar arguments made by many other respected authors and academics in this field.

Graham Wagstaff (in Hypnosis, compliance and belief, 1981 and elsewhere) has written in much depth suggesting that whether they have been hypnotised or not, subjects are very motivated to fit in with the context of the research, including pleasing the person instructing the research. You only need to look at Milgrams infamous 1974 study whereby a set of people (all of whom were not hypnotised formally) knowingly administered what they believed to be lethal electric shocks to others because they were told to do so by the research leader.

Many further studies since have gone on to show that non-hypnotised subjects will just as easily perform criminal, anti-social or immoral acts than anyone who does so as a result of hypnosis being used. A large number of studies in the 1970s support this. Here are a couple of examples for you to start from:

Coe, Kobayashi and Howard (1972) An approach toward isolating factors that influence antisocial conduct in hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.

O’Brien and Rabuck (1976) Experimentally produced self-repugnant behavior as a function of hypnosis and waking suggestion. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis.

Therefore, with the addition to the large body of evidence and studies to support it, most professionals in the field of hypnosis (well, this is spurious, I should qualify this and state “most that I encounter” and recognise that this is not well evidenced) believe that hypnosis does not render individuals out of control of themselves so as they can be told to partake in criminal acts and they are no more likely than non-hypnotised individuals to do any such things.

To further add to this, in 1995 a study by Vingoe entitled Beliefs of British law and medical students compared to an expert criterion group on forensic hypnosis featured in Contemporary Hypnosis surveyed 10 prominent forensic hypnosis experts all of whom rejected the idea that the hypnotist has control over the individual when the individual is hypnotised. Thus not being able to make them commit crimes in the way depicted in the Derren Brown show.

It is a debate that won’t stop with me, or with Derren Brown’s beautifully delivered, elegant and dramatic depictions on TV… But I hope I have shed some light on what an evidence based hypnosis professional thinks of all the hullabaloo created by such a TV show.