Suggestibility is the quality of being inclined to accept and act on the suggestions of others.

A person experiencing intense emotions tends to be more receptive to ideas and therefore more suggestible. Generally, suggestibility decreases as age increases. However, psychologists have found that individual levels of self-esteem and assertiveness can make some people more suggestible than others, which has resulted in the concept of a spectrum of suggestibility.

Attempts to isolate a global trait of “suggestibility” have not been successful, due to an inability of the available testing procedures to distinguish measurable differences between the following distinct types of “suggestibility”:

  • To be affected by a communication or expectation such that certain responses are overtly enacted, or subjectively experienced, without volition, as in automatism.
  • Deliberately to use one’s imagination or employ strategies to bring about effects (even if interpreted, eventually, as involuntary) in response to a communication or expectation.
  • To accept what people say consciously, but uncritically, and to believe or privately accept what is said.
  • To conform overtly to expectations or the views of others, without the appropriate private acceptance or experience; that is, to exhibit behavioral compliance without private acceptance or belief.

Wagstaff’s view is that, because “a true response to [a hypnotic] suggestion is not a response brought about at any stage by volition, but rather a true non-volitional response, [and] perhaps even brought about despite volition”, the first category really embodies the true domain of hypnotic suggestibility.

Suggestibility and hypnosis

The extent to which a subject may or may not be “suggestible” has significant ramifications in the scientific research of hypnosis and its associated phenomena. Most hypnotherapists and academics in this field of research work from the premise that hypnotisability (or suggestibility) is a factor in inducing useful hypnosis states. That is, the depth of hypnosis a given individual can achieve in a given context with a particular hypnotherapist and particular set of beliefs, expectations and instructions.

Dr. John Kappas (1925–2002) identified three different types of suggestibility in his lifetime that have improved hypnosis:

Emotional Suggestibility A suggestible behavior characterized by a high degree of responsiveness to inferred suggestions that affect emotions and restrict physical body responses; usually associated with hypnoidal depth. Thus the emotional suggestible learns more by inference than by direct, literal suggestions.

Physical Suggestibility A suggestible behavior characterized by a high degree of responsiveness to literal suggestions affecting the body, and restriction of emotional responses; usually associated with cataleptic stages or deeper.

Intellectual Suggestibility The type of hypnotic suggestibility in which a subject fears being controlled by the operator and is constantly trying to analyze, reject or rationalize everything the operator says. With this type of subject the operator must give logical explanations for every suggestion and must allow the subject to feel that he is doing the hypnotizing himself.

However, it is not clear or agreed what suggestibility (i.e., the factor on hypnosis) actually is. It is both the indisputable variable and the factor most difficult to measure or control.

What has not been agreed on is whether suggestibility is

  • a permanent fixed detail of character or personality:
  • a genetic or chemical psychiatric tendency:
  • a precursor to or symptom of an activation of such a tendency:
  • a learned skill or acquired habit:
  • synonymous with the function of learning:
  • a neutral, unavoidable consequence of language acquisition and empathy:
  • a biased terminology provoking one to resist new externally introduced ideas or perspectives:
  • a mutual symbiotic relation to the Other, such as the African conception of uBunthu or Ubuntu:
  • related to the capacity of empathy and communication:
  • female brain / left-brain characteristics of language-interpretation and garnering negative connotations due to (disputable) gender bias from a male-dominated scientific community:
  • a matter of concordant personal taste between speaker / hypnotist and listener and listener’s like of / use for speaker’s ideas:
  • a skill or a flaw or something neutral and universal.

Existing research into the phenomena of hypnosis is extensive and randomized controlled trials predominantly support the efficacy and legitimacy of hypnotherapy, but without a clearly defined concept of the entity or aspect being studied, the level an individual is objectively “suggestible” cannot be measured empirically. It makes exact therapeutic outcomes impossible to forecast.

Moreover, it logically hinders the development of non-bespoke hypnotherapy protocol. On this latter point, it must be pointed out that while some persuasion methods are more universally effective than others, the most reliably effective method with individuals is to personalize the approach by first examining their motivational, learning, behavioral and emotional styles (et al.). Few hypnotherapists do not take a case history, or story so far, from the clients they will be working with.

Hypnosis is rarely a ‘battle of wills’. Predominantly, people instinctively feel more subjectively comfortable when receiving positive suggestions in the understanding-framework we understand most easily. In practice, most people are less likely to resist the ideas for optimism or fresh perspectives if they: a) Concur with other ideas already held b) Are consistent with favourite decision-making patterns c) Flatter our self-identity to a level we accept d) Contain positive rather than negative enforcement – toward something good rather than away from something bad e) Are suggested in terms that mirror sensory combinations that person experiences the world through…making it easier for the suggestion to “make sense” – as in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

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