In the last post of my series on mental illness and moral responsibility, I would like to ask a question about hypnosis. Given that hypnosis is used to model symptoms of psychiatric disorders (e.g. delusions), it would be interesting to know whether people under hypnosis are regarded as morally responsible for what they do.
To this purpose, I have interviewed Dr Rochelle Cox, Macquarie University Research Fellow, who has published widely on hypnosis.
Lisa: What do you use hypnosis for in your research?
Rochelle: I use hypnosis as a tool to model clinical conditions such as delusions. Delusions are pathological beliefs that are seen in a variety of neuropsychological and psychiatric conditions, such as dementia, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Delusional patients can believe the most extraordinary, clearly false things. They may say, for instance: “My wife has been replaced by an impostor” or “When I look in the mirror I see a stranger”. The scientific study of delusions has proven challenging because delusions typically co-occur with other clinical symptoms. However, I have used hypnosis to model clinical delusions and “bring them into the lab”. Hypnotic models have been described as a way of creating “virtual patients” with temporary, reversible psychological disturbances. They allow us to manipulate important factors that are difficult, if not impossible, to manipulate in the real world. Hypnosis is particularly suited to modelling delusions because both delusions and hypnotic experiences are believed with conviction, maintained despite evidence to the contrary, and experienced as involuntary and as compellingly real.
Lisa: Do you think that highly hypnotisable subjects are responsible for what they say and do when they are hypnotised?
Rochelle: During hypnosis, high hypnotizable subjects are actively thinking about how they might experience the hypnotist’s suggestions but their responses to these suggestions often feel quite effortless. Disconnections of this type are hallmark features of hypnosis but they do not mean that hypnotised subjects are not responsible for their actions. Hypnosis itself doesn't make people more susceptible to doing things against their will or things that they morally object to.
Lisa: Can you give some examples?
Rochelle: A number of classic studies suggest that hypnotized subjects will do absolutely anything that is asked of them. In these experiments, highly hypnotizable subjects have stolen exams, sold heroin, and thrown acid in someone’s face at the request of the hypnotist. However, in all of these cases, subjects knew that they were participating in an experiment. This strongly implies that they will be protected from any negative consequences arising from their hypnotic behavior. It is worth remembering that subjects who are not hypnotised have also performed morally dubious actions in experiments such as in Milgram’s classic obedience study. Here, subjects continued to administer electric shocks to people well past the point of danger, despite their victims crying out in pain, all at the request of the experimenter. In a sense, all laboratory studies lack ecological validity because in the real world there is no safeguard that comes with being an experimental subject. Ethically, we could probably never construct an adequate test of the coercive power of hypnosis!
Lisa: In fiction, we are familiar with cases of people who are led to commit crimes (e.g. rob banks) by an objectionable and devious use of hypnosis. Is this realistic in your opinion? Can people's actions be "controlled" at a distance with hypnosis?
Rochelle: This is indeed purely fiction! There was a case in Denmark where a hypnotized person robbed a number of banks and ended up committing murder. At the trial, the defendant claimed to have been a victim of hypnotic coercion. However, this was rejected by the court and both the defendant and the hypnotist were convicted. Laurence and Perry have argued that it is the close interpersonal relationship between the hypnotist and subject that drives this behavior, rather than anything about hypnosis itself.
This exchange with Rochelle clarified things a lot for me, and I hope it was interesting for you too! If you are fascinated (as I am) by the research programme in which Rochelle is involved - modelling delusions with hypnosis - have a closer look at her work.
Okay, this is it for this month. My thanks to Adam for inviting me to guest blog here, and to all of you for reading my posts.