How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The ethics of hypnosis
There are a lot of fears about hypnosis that, whilst there is some basis for them, are in practice often more a case of misinformed agitation that clear and present danger.
A basic fear is that the hypnotist has complete control over the person, including what they will believe, think and do.
Security forces around the world experimented with this for many years. The bottom line is that the 'Manchurian Candidate' effect or the 'sleeper' is very difficult if not impossible to achieve without the willing participation of the subject (which rather negates the original idea).
Another fear is that the person will do something of danger to themselves or others after the hypnotic session that was unintended by the hypnotist. The classic case is the mention of a trigger word that causes them to fall asleep, perhaps at the wheel of a car.
In practice post-hypnotic effects are often deliberate for therapeutic purposes. Professional hypnotists understand these hazards well and carefully avoid or remove these.
Hypnosis can occur in a number of contexts, each of which have ethical considerations.
In stage hypnosis, members of the audience are often made to perform what may seem to be demeaning and embarrassing acts, and some would say that any stage hypnosis is unethical.
In practice subjects are volunteers and generally know what they are getting into. The hypnotists should nevertheless take care to avoid delicate personality types. It is also more effective to find people who enjoy the identity boost of showing off under the guise of 'being hypnotised'. In practice, stage hypnosis is often as much a tacit agreement between the hypnotist and the subject to have fun as it is about trance and suggestion.
The therapeutic situation is very different to the stage. Subjects are, by definition, broken to some extent, and are seeking a cure to some psychological or psychiatric malaise. The therapist has the same responsibilities as a doctor here: at least to do no harm and then to do their best to effect a lasting cure. Healing the human mind is not as straightforward as a heart-swap operation and this has to be done with great care.
Where does hypnotism start? Many people try it out on their friends and relatives. With light trances, the subjects are always aware and harm very seldom happens. Nevertheless, there is opportunity here to cause harm and such experiments should be done with great care and prior learning. It is far better to practice under supervision of an experienced hypnotist.
A basic rule of any research or treatment is that the subject understands something of what is going to happen to them beforehand and has the free and unchallenged opportunity to back out at any time.
When treatments require delving into painful areas, the therapist needs to gain consent beforehand about what is to be treated, although it may well not be practical to gain consent for what exactly they will do, as this may be responding to the current context. In any case, the therapist must always be asking 'Should I stop now? What are the risks to the client's well-being? Is it right to go on?'
Under hypnosis, the subject may reveal personal and sensitive information. It is important that the hypnotist respects the person and keeps all information confidential. This includes ensuring any notes about the person are stored securely and cannot fall into the wrong hands. Thus locked cupboards and encrypted, password-protected computer files may be necessary.
Qualifications can be a tricky question as there are many practicing hypnotists who do not have any formal qualifications. Going on courses may increase knowledge but does not qualify a person to hypnotize others. There are clinical qualifications, but these generally require the person to already be a doctor.
The best bet for reasonable qualifications is the well-established institution that is patronised by professional hypnotists who have a vested interest in the continued good reputation of the profession.