January 13, 2009

Pacing and leading, hypnosis

In Tricks of the Mind I read some interesting stuff about how hypnosis is done. Here is a quote: "Hypnosis is based primarily on the understanding of pacing or feeding back the subject's experience to him and then leading him to the new desired behavior." The following example is given: "As you sit there, and as you, despite your environment, really focus on these words, and as you carry on reading this page, and the more you try to think about it, the more you'll notice the increasing feeling of wanting to scratch." So first there is the feeding back (pacing) of aspects of the current situation, and then, gradually, there is a shift towards the lead, which is a description of a new behavior or feeling.

Milton Erickson is known for his use of these kinds of hypnotic techniques in therapy. In fact, he is often seen as the father of hypnotherapy. And some solution-focused practitioners might use elements of pacing and leading too, in particular in such techniques as the miracle question. But the pacing and leading technique is probably more common than you think. When writing an article, for instance, authors often do the same. They start off by mentioning things which the reader will recognize as his current situations. The reader will be able to relate to the topic that way and will become interested to learn more. And in presentations it is also common to use pacing and leading.

I am interested in the ethics of using pacing and leading and other hypnotic techniques. When is it morally okay to use them and when isn't it? People used to say that Adolf Hitler were said to use mass hypnosis too. If that is true that seems a clear example of how pacing and leading may be used in an unethical way. Now there is someone claiming that Obama used hypnotic techniques too and therefore does not deserve the presidency. That seems rubbish to me. But it raises an interesting question.

If pacing and leading works and if the goal of a sales presentation or a political campaign is to convince people, how far can you go? If it works, can you expect someone who knows about these techniques to keep from using them? In other words, can you expect them to choose for a less convincing approach? On what grounds could you? I feel it has to with the question to what ends the person uses these techniques. The justification of being convincing lies in the content of the direction you try to lead. This is why Obama would be off the hook and Hitler wouldn't be. This also raises the question, however, what you could do to protect yourself and others from people who are using hypnotic techniques in an unethical way.

Here is an example of how Derren Brown uses hypnotic techniques to help a young man to speed date with confidence (fast forward to 6:17 for this).

By the way, do you feel like scratching yet?


  1. Hi Coert,

    What I find interesting in the accusation of "manipulation" is the presumption that it is actually possible in ways that almost rob people of their free will.
    I read a very interesting book on Brainwashing (Dominic Streatfeild: Brainwash -- the secret history of mindcontrol). The main conclusion was that it is not possible and that a lot of people starting from psychiatrists ending with the world's international secret services have tried very hard.

    I think that the only manipulation possible is to reduce people's choices -- pacing usually does not do that (at least not with a half intelligent audience). Critical thinking, questioning the assumptions of any speaker, albeit deemed Germanic and impolite in today's business culture is a good countermeasure.

    Thanks for the inspiration,

  2. Hi Kirsten,
    Thanks for your comment. I agree with your skeptical approach to the claim that it is possible to exercize this type of control over the mass. I not so sure about this either. I do believe in presentation skills and conversation skills and I think they do matter. But i am skeptical about the possibility of controlling the mass with techniques like subliminal perception. I will have a look at that book you mention.

    I am interested in the second part of what you say too. An interesting thing about the solution-focused approach is that you, as it were, lead the person in the direction of his own choice preference. So, there may be some leading, but you don't determine the content of the desired situation. You only suggest that in that situation, things will work, will be better etc. So if this can still be called manipulation, it would be a type of manipulation that I would call ethical.

    All the best,

  3. Hi Coert,

    how about: "you cannot not manipulate". If you take seriously that we are who we are and become who we are through our interactions with others, we will always BE (in a very fundamental sense) influenced by other people.

    The book is quite depressing btw.... all the things they did to find out that we cannot be made to do things we don't want to do except by limiting our choices (eg. will you confess or I will kill your pet rabbit)

    Kind regards,

  4. I agree. As John Weakland (of the Mental research Institute) said: "Influence is inherent in all human interaction. We are bound to influence our clients, and they are bound to influence us. The only choice is between doing so without reflection, or even with attempted denial, and doing so deliberately and responsibly."


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