Building Resistance:

Tactics for Counteracting Manipulation

and Unethical Hypnosis in Totalistic Groups

By Steve K. D. Eichel


This article first appeared in Suggestion: The Journal of Professional & Ethical Hypnosis, 1, (Summer 1985), pp. 34-44.
SUMMARY: 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. Relevent 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 combatting 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, 1985).

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 nonethless 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 reference-points, provide them with instant acceptance from a seemingly loving group, 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 problems, and 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 developing resistance: self-knowledge, 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:

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:

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 helpful:

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 noteably 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.

Finally, self-knowledge -- the 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 sig


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 individuals.

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