Testing hypnotisability & hypnotic suggestibility

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When you want to hypnotise someone you might think that it would be quickest and most efficient to jump straight into the ‘hypnosis part’. Yet it can save you time overall, and perhaps more importantly, help you be more effective if you better understand your recipient’s likely response. A suggestibility test can help you do that. Whilst the consultation or initial conversation will give you some information about how a subject is likely to respond, this information is generally ‘subjective’, and comes from the recipient’s own beliefs and expectations relating to hypnosis. As well as those factors, hypnotisability and suggestibility can be influenced by other factors too, including many hypnosis myths and misconceptions and even a person’s past experiences of hypnosis.

The key benefit of hypnotic suggestibility testing, is that you can measure whether someone will respond well to hypnotic suggestion, and you get more reliable results than just ‘guessing’ after having a chat with someone. So, a ‘suggestibility test’ is the name given to any technique that is used for assessing a hypnotic subject’s acceptance of or response to suggestion, or how ‘suggestible’ they are.

Whether you are using hypnosis for fun stuff (impromptu/street hypnosis), entertainment (stage hypnosis), or helping people make positive changes in their life (hypnotherapy), hypnotic suggestibility testing can positively benefit any subsequent hypnosis work (and indicate where your subject is just not going to be receptive as well!).

‘Hypnotisability’ is a phrase that can often be used in a similar way as ‘suggestibility’, yet suggestibility tests tend to be conducted without a formal hypnosis induction (where someone is put into a state of hypnosis), whereas hypnotisability tests are generally conducted after someone has been formally hypnotised. Two examples of hypnotisability tests are the very well established ‘Harvard Group Scale of Hypnotic Susceptibility (HGSHS) and the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale (SHSS), which are widely used for research. Both the HGSHS and the SHSS are commonly used to categorise research hypnosis subjects according to their response performance (e.g. high, medium and low). Individual differences in research interventions or phenomena can then be explored to ascertain whether susceptibility has any influence on an outcome. For example, whether those who are categorised as ‘high responders’ are more, less or equally likely to experience trauma than ‘low responders’.

If you conduct a simple search for hypnosis research (e.g. Google Scholar), you are likely to come up with a huge number of studies that involve some aspect of hypnosis. However, if you read some of them you will notice that there is no single definition of hypnosis. A popular perception of hypnosis is that it is a ‘pluralistic phenomenon’, which might sound rather complex. In reality, it simply means that a range of processes are involved in hypnosis, rather than it being one single process. How it is employed in practice will influence what processes are involved. You are likely to find that common aspects of hypnosis include a specific ‘state of consciousness’ (or ‘trance’) which some regard as ‘altered’ and others think of as ‘focused’, together with elements of expectancy, rapport and suggestibility.

Hypnotist lifting a seated subject's arm in order to perform an 'arm float' hypnotic suggestibility test.

However, depending on the context (why they are being hypnotised), there can be other factors that can influence the process, such as motivation (if they want to be hypnotised) and attention (whether they can consistently pay attention). The engagement of imagination is another key aspect. Some people seem to already spend much of their time in an internal fantasy world, yet others keep themselves so strictly grounded in reality they find it hard (or even, for some, impossible) to let go of that and allow themselves to imagine anything. This can also apply to an individual’s connection to their emotions. Some people are able to experience a full range of emotions, whilst others keep them so tightly controlled that anything which may reduce that control is resisted.

There are even more influencing factors as to whether someone can be hypnotised which relate to key hypnotic phenomena. The first is movement in response to suggestion (ideo-motor ability) and lack of or inhibition of movement, commonly referred to as ‘catalepsy’. Also, the alteration of sensory perception, such as being able to experience seeing, hearing, feeling, or even smelling/tasting something not actually present (hallucination) and cognition alterations such as amnesia (e.g. ‘forgetting’ the number 6). There are many other relevant phenomena that you can consider, such as alterations to internal sense of time (‘time distortion’) and changes to self-awareness and absorption.

Commonly some subjects can be stronger at achieving phenomena than others. You might be really good at imagining your hands are magnetised and coming together and this results in actual movement, yet not so good at imagining that your hand is stuck to the table and cannot move, or that your eyelids are locked shut. One aspect that influences how capable someone is of achieving phenomena such as these is ‘meaning-making’ or what they understand by what you say. When would you (the hypnotist/hypnotherapist) like to find out that the person you are working with doesn’t understand you or has a different understanding of what you mean? During the hypnosis process? At the end when you received feedback? Or before you decide if and how to hypnotise them?

Suggestibility tests are a powerful tool for the modern hypnotist and serve a multitude of roles all at the same time. Firstly, as we have been exploring here, they give an indication of how receptive someone is to your suggestions. You can also find out if they have any particular strengths, weaknesses, dislikes or preferences (more about that in a moment). As well as an information gathering tool, they are an information provision tool for the individual subject that you are working with. They can give the subject an experience of what it is like to receive suggestion, without it being a full-on hypnosis session. This then acts as a form of ‘warm-up’ for the subject. Some people that you work with are likely to have an aspect of performance anxiety or concern, such as whether they can be hypnotised, if they can respond and so forth. A suggestibility test is a gentle introduction to a hypnosis experience and feedback and discussion can occur afterwards to help a subject better relate to and understand their experience. As you will notice further on, some suggestibility tests have a predominantly objective (observable) response, such as the ‘magnetic fingers’ test, whereas others are mostly subjective (perception of experience), such as the ‘lemon’ test.

So far, we have talked quite widely around the subject, and now it is time to explore some of the popular suggestibility tests in a little more detail. Although some will be more commonly associated with street/impromptu/stage hypnosis and others with the therapy environment, it really is more about selecting the most appropriate test for the specific context, to get the information you seek.

My ‘go to’ in pretty much every situation is the ‘magnetic fingers’ test. It is a popular test and there are a multitude of examples of it online as well as in our own ‘Hypnotic Suggestibility Testing 101’ online course. Being able to watch suggestibility tests being performed (and broken down) is really helpful. It can take thousands of words to explain something that you can be shown much quicker and more effectively by video. The magnetic fingers test gives suggestions for the subject to imagine their fingers are magnetised and will come together. You might think, “ah, a movement test” and you would be correct, it does assess ‘ideo-motor response’ or movement ability. It is a fabulous test as a warm up for a subject as it is quick, simple to present and easy for a subject to follow. However, this is also a rather sneaky suggestibility test (hence one of my favourites) as it also tests for resistance. If resistance is observed, then this can be discussed at this early stage in the process, rather than have it interfere with the hypnosis aspect of the session, or worse, the outcome.

Rory Z performing the magnetic fingers hypnotic suggestibility test with dr kate beaven-marks as the hypnotic subject,

The magnetic fingers test is a great first test and this can naturally lead into a similar movement test, such as magnetic hands (which is like magnetic fingers, but ‘bigger’), or a different type of test. You might choose the steel arm test or the hand clasp test to explore whether a subject is capable of achieving catalepsy, or something more imagination-based, such as the lemon test. The lemon is a fabulous test for any ‘nervous’ hypnotists as the subject’s eyes are closed, so the hypnotist is able to focus on what they are saying to the subject without the pressure of feeling observed. The lemon test is a test of imagination. Fundamentally, you would suggest that your subject imagines going into a kitchen, selecting a lemon, cutting it in half and squeezing some juice into their mouth. You would observe for any physical responses (e.g. swallowing) and with a little questioning afterwards, you are able to ascertain which of their primary (see, hear, feel) and secondary (smell, taste) senses they were able to connect to, and even which was strongest. If, for example, someone was not very visual and struggled to ‘see’ the lemon, it would help you to know this in advance, rather than do a whole hypnosis session with predominantly visual suggestions. Conversely, if someone is very visual and you are working on an emotional issue (more ‘feeling’ based), then you could perhaps use some visual metaphors (e.g. give the emotion a colour) to help the subject better connect to the emotions being worked on.

In addition to assessing the subject’s capabilities in terms of phenomena they can achieve, it can be good to explore their preferences in terms of hypnosis style, so whether they respond particularly well (or badly) to direct and authoritarian suggestions or to indirect and permissive approaches. If your natural style is direct and you are generally rather commanding in your approach, and this isn’t well received at the suggestibility test phase of the session, you have an opportunity to adapt your approach. You will generally get greater engagement if you adapt to suit the subject, rather than expect them to adjust to suit your style.

You may already be getting an understanding of how useful hypnotic suggestibility testing is for the hypnotherapist, but what about the street/impromptu hypnotist? Well, in these situations suggestibility tests are almost essential as an indication of whether a subject will engage with you. They can be neatly fitted in to part of a ‘compliance’ set, to prepare someone for a rapid induction (rapid induction would be most common here, rather than doing a long 20-minute progressive induction outside the train station or in a park!) before moving on to doing some fun hypnotic suggestions.

Rory Z performing an arm levitation hypnotic suggestibility test with two men in a park

For the stage hypnotist, suggestibility tests have additional benefits too. Often a stage hypnotist (whether comedy entertainment or corporate ‘power of the mind’) will use something like magnetic fingers or magnetic hands with an entire audience as part of the pre-talk (when giving information about hypnosis). This will warm up the audience (they will feel part of the show and thus engage more collaboratively). It also acts as a tempter for those who are thinking about volunteering to participate in the show. The hypnotist will then give more complex suggestibility tests, such as ‘bucket and balloon’ or ‘hand lock’ with the volunteers on stage. Being more complex, the hypnotist is better able to control these on stage with a smaller number (e.g. if someone looks like their heavy bucket is going to make them fall over), although this isn’t their primary purpose. They are used to filter out the slower or weaker responders, as a stage hypnotist will want the quickest and most visually dramatic responders. Someone might be on stage having an awesome internal experience yet sitting as still as a rock. That would not be very entertaining or informative for an audience. Someone else may take a while to get warmed up and into the process. That is fine in a therapy environment or even with some impromptu work in a park, yet may lose audience attention if they do not respond well at the start.

Although suggestibility tests are commonly taught on street and stage hypnosis courses, not all hypnotherapy training providers teach them. One common argument is that as they are ‘tests’ that the hypnotherapy client may ‘fail’, and if they think they’ve failed, they may then not engage well with any subsequent hypnotherapy. However, there is no need to call them a test, especially not to the therapy client. A suggestibility test can simply be referred to as ‘a warm-up activity’ or ‘an imagination exercise’. You could even say ‘let me show you something interesting before we begin’. Of course, some suggestibility tests are more ‘pass/fail’ by nature, such as the hand-lock test, where the hands either stay locked or the client brings them apart. Yet most tests are more about getting information about the subject you’re working with, and these can certainly be successfully employed in a hypnotherapy setting too!

Fundamentally, hypnotic suggestibility tests provide a great warm-up for any hypnotic subject, and they offer an effective form of convincer that they will be able to engage in a hypnosis process. For the hypnotist, they provide key information about the subjects abilities and limitations that can then be used to better inform the selection of hypnosis inductions and approaches, whether for therapy or entertainment.

If you’d like to learn more about suggestibility tests, our comprehensive  ‘Hypnotic Suggestibility Testing 101’ course goes into a huge amount of detail on pretty much every suggestibility test out there (that we’re aware of). With over 6 hours of video and a 160 page course manual, as well as covering the 12 main suggestibility tests that most hypnotists and hypnotherapists use, it also covers 4 of the most widely used ‘research suggestibility scales’, such as the Harvard Group Scale of Hypnotic Susceptibility and the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale! It really is THE course for learning how to effectively use suggestibility testing, no matter where you’re planning to do it!


We hope you’ve enjoyed this blog on testing hypnotisability & hypnotic suggestibility. If you have any more questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!

– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
(Hypnosis-Courses.com Trainer)

Dr Kate Beaven-Marks Hypnosis Courses Online hypnosis training

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