Notes On Hypnosis – 2: The Amazing Kreskin Speaks

In my previous episode on hypnosis, [stderr] I began by framing my views on the topic by dividing it into two separate things, stage hypnosis and hypnotherapy. I’m going to stand by that distinction, as I think it’s useful – but I’ve got a bunch of new angles that I need to add to my notes.

In stage hypnosis, the performer attempts to get their subject to grant the performer a degree of control over their actions. There are different metaphors that the performer may use, for example Derren Brown talks about Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a pseudo-science that claims we can influence behavior by priming a target (or ourselves) with subliminal verbal cues. It sounds a lot like the popular psychology theory of “priming” in studies because that’s basically what it is. But it’s not so simple; Andreas Avester noted in a comment [stderr] that Derren Brown is dismissive of NLP in one of his books, so I had to pause and collect and read Brown’s books. Brown mentions that he learned much of his techniques from Kreskin (“The Amazing Kreskin”) so I did some searches for material by Kreskin and found his books Secrets Of The Amazing Kreskin [wc] and The amazing Kreskin : Mental marvels, feats and stunts from the world’s greatest mentalist [wc] also a charming 80s DVD of Kreskin demonstrating and explaining some techniques. [amazon] There’s a great deal in Kreskin’s books about hypnosis, and it really surprised me.

Brown was skeptical about NLP, in spite of claiming it was how his tricks worked (they are tricks not techniques) but Kreskin was skeptical about hypnosis in general. His perspective and how he explains it made a lot of changes to my views of hypnosis, which is why I have taken a while to continue this series. In fact, it made me wonder if I should continue, at all, but I feel that I should because it might serve as an interesting lesson in following curiosity where it leads rather than trying to look smart. Kreskin has a whole chapter devoted to hypnosis, from which I will quote:

The concept of a “hypnotic trance” is a myth. It’s as real as the goings-on of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus. Yet it’s a myth around which a cult has formed, and that makes it dangerous.

You can imagine my, “um, uh-oh.”

I didn’t always recognize that. In fact, for nineteen years I included the sleeplike “hypnotic trance” in my concerts and TV appearances, and during that time I “hypnotized” more than thirty-five thousand people. But after some years I became first curious and then skeptical about what was really happening to produce the phenomenon everyone was calling hypnotism. Was there really a trance state? If so, what brought it about? And was the trance necessary to produce the results the hypnotists claim to achieve?

Dr. William Kroger, one of the leading medical researchers in the field, has made this enlightening statement, “it is a wise hypnotist who knows who is hypnotizing whom.”

In one of Kreskin’s tricks performed on the DVD, he uses “the power of suggestion” to keep a person from getting up from a chair; the pitch is that his finger on their forehead plus the power of suggestion makes it impossible for them to stand. Kreskin then explains that what he does it have the subject sitting slightly forward on their chair, so that their balance-point, where they would lean forward in order to stand up, cannot be reached because of the finger on their forehead. What Kreskin is doing is giving the subject a set of incorrect reasons for why they can’t stand up, one of which is “suggestion” but really it’s a matter of ergonomics.

Kreskin gives a brief history of hypnosis which I won’t completely quote here, but interestingly he ties it together with therapeutic applications (contrary to my attempt to separate them):

We now realize that the Chinese have been doing the same for some six thousand years – through acupuncture. We  have absolutely no scientific evidence that the meridians and tsubos, the points that are punctured, exist. Yet belief in acupuncture’s effectiveness is universal among people of the Orient, and it’s this faith that produces the result.

Since acupuncture is a placebo, I wonder if Kreskin would extend that reasoning so far as to claim that placebos are hypnosis, or vice-versa.

Kreskin is extremely critical of “court jesters” and “con artists” who use “hypnosis” for psychic communications and attempting to extract testimony from impressionable witnesses. He claims that, when the New Jersey State Supreme Court held an enquiry into the use of hypnosis in courts, he brought in a volunteer and demonstrated how easy it was to implant “memories” by suggesting them. I’m interested that apparently Kreskin’s efforts failed; there are a lot of people that still take “hypnotic regression” seriously and I know a sexual assault victim who underwent “hypnotic regression” in a clinical environment. It certainly sounds like Kreskin is claiming that all such practices are bullshit, or perhaps placebos. My assessment of acupuncture and medical hypnotherapy is that – like other placebos – it opens the possibility for the subject to believe something that they already wish to believe. That can be beneficial, or self-deceptive, depending on the subject.

What Mesmer did, what Braid did, what the stage magician does, what doctors and police officers and mediums and psychotherapists are doing and calling hypnosis is nothing more than you learned to do in the previous chapter. “Hypnosis” is the persuasion of a subject to accept your suggestion.

It is not a trance. If a trance occurs, it is the result of an accepted suggestion. It is not a spell. It is not a form of sleep. To the extent that we respond to suggestion by others, we are all “hypnotized” every day of our lives. We meet some people who are so full of enthusiasm that they inspire us, and we accept the suggestion that whenever we are around them we’ll feel inspired.

In the current times, with a massive cult-like following that appear to be convinced that there is a high-level leaker in Washington with ‘Q’ level clearance, supporting President Trump, Kreskin’s comments about suggestion and conviction are particularly appropriate:

In everyday conversation we use the word suggestion lightly. But in the context of hypnosis, I use it as a synonym for conviction: a secure, unwavering, and unquestioning belief.

The depths of conviction a subject can reach depends on the degree to which he manifests three qualities:

  • Imagination. At one point during my concerts I invite fifteen or twenty volunteers to join me on the stage, quickly determine which ones will make the best subjects, and send all but a handful back to their seats. Then, step by step I offer more and more incredible suggestions: they are sweating, they’re chilly, the chairs are moving, they are talking to other (invisible) people on stage. Obviously if these subjects are too limited in imagination to recall the sensations of sweating or shivering, they would not be capable of accepting the suggestion. Nor would they envision people who were not there.

This was a thing I had planned to discuss, but let’s let Kreskin open the topic. When I watch hypnosis performances, one thing I noticed is that the artist is very observant of the audience. “I’d like a few volunteers” – and they look and see which hands come up the fastest, or which audience members are told to raise a hand by a friend. Eagerness may be a sign of a skeptic, or a true believer and the artist doesn’t know until they begin to winnow the volunteers out once they are on stage. Often, when the performer is working with the volunteers, they will ask them to do small things, and observe how they respond, e.g.: “let’s have you stand over there by her so you’re arranged by height.” Then, the performer watches to see who responds quickly without thinking, “why?” If you observe faith healers or religious performers who are “casting out demons” you can see the same sorting taking place. [youtube] Don’t forget that, allegedly, Jesus of Nazareth performed these basic tricks on his fans – quite a basic divine being, he was.

Imagination is a tricky one: you want people to be able to imagine things that are easy and do not require a lot of mental engagement. I have found, for example, that asking a subject to indicate “yes, by squeezing my hand once, no by squeezing twice” works better than asking them to form sentences. Also, it appears to me that suggestions that put the subject into a different “head space” than normal – i.e.: not vocalizing, or in an atypical pose, reduces the chance they will engage skeptically with the situation. I don’t recall where I read it, or if I made it up, but the idea sticks in my mind: “choosing the right subjects is crucial.”

Back to Kreskin:

  • Ability to concentrate. Through many years of experience I can now determine quickly which of the volunteers I initially bring on stage are really paying attention to me and which are glancing at the audience, fidgeting, analyzing, or wandering in their thoughts. A good subject, accepting my suggestion as conviction, will focus all of his attention on my words.

So important is concentration that a study published in the April 1982 American Journal of Psychiatry showed that psychotically ill hospital patients are significantly less capable of accepting suggestions – or being “hypnotized”, to use the authors’ term – than are normal people. The researchers concluded that “anxious preoccupation may well inhibit the concentration necessary to experience hypnosis.”

In my recent post about Hitler, Mussolini, and the Trumpist putsch, I mentioned the spoken word performances of those characters, and how they appear to have specific behaviors intended to keep the viewer’s attention locked. In fact, they speak very fast, almost gabbling sometimes, and I believe it’s to maintain a lock on the listener’s attention. [stderr] In intend to return to this topic in future postings, but I haven’t figured out how to frame it, yet. The point is, that I think there are specific (Iwon’t use the word “trance” in honor of Kreskin) focus-inducing verbal tricks that politicians, evangelical preachers, and stage hypnotists may be using. In all of these cases, the object is to lock the target’s attention, while sounding confident and disengaging their ability to listen critically by throwing out a storm of bullshit. Example, if you wish, watch this:

It’s not “impersonation” – before he became a successful comedian, Sam Kinison was a Baptist revival preacher. In his Breaking All The Rules performance, he briefly shifts into the rhythm and cant of the preacher. If you did listen to that clip, now think: what did Sam say? Nothing. He made a bunch of attention-grabbing noise with very little message buried in it. The change to his body-language is also interesting.

In performance hypnosis one of the most important things is to maintain an air of confidence. It is important to have a fluid delivery and a script in your mind that won’t cause the subject to pause and engage their curiousity. “Fluid delivery” means steady, rhythmic, and soothing. I suspect that a political speech intended to make the listeners rise up and riot would need the same, except without the “soothing” bit.

Back to Kreskin:

  • Willingness. An estimated 15% of the population don’t make good subjects for suggestion, and I believe the main reason is that they’re simply not willing to accept the influence of another on their thoughts and behavior. That’s not to say that an experienced person can’t lead even that 15% to accept suggestions, but it requires subtlety and practice – and time. Unwilling people rarely make good subjects.

Of the original fifteen or twenty potential subjects who join me onstage at the beginning of my concerts, I usually select about six who are excellent subjects. These people will sweat genuine perspiration on cue. They’ll shiver. They’ll believe themselves floating in space – and they’ll enjoy the evening perhaps more than anyone.

I’m sure that some of you are thinking about Bob Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians and are thinking “what percentage of a population are likely to be authoritarian followers?” Unfortunately, sampling bias is a huge problem with such studies. [see notes]

Kreskin’s next observation is a gold nugget:

Here is the key to all I’ve said about con men, court jesters, quacks – and Kreskin: The essential quality that makes suggestion work is faith-prestige. Once that’s established, the rest comes easy.

Put simply, faith-prestige is a conviction-like trust in the suggester based on the respect the subject feels for his ability and authority. We see faith-prestige in action every day. An elderly doctor visits his patient at the hospital and learns that drugs and attempts at encouragement by relatives have had no effect. The doctor examines the patient , names the illness, takes the patient’s hand in his, reassures him that he’s healing rapidly and should already begin feeling well again. The patient’s face loses its lines of tension and within minutes of the doctor’s departure, the formerly anxiety-ridden, emotionally tense patient relaxes in peaceful sleep.

Kreskin also addresses some of the psychology of crowds:

As every performer knows, the toughest audience is the smallest one.

Part of the explanation is that the crowd response seems to validate our own feelings. If others laugh, it’s all right for us to laugh too. If the masses show anger, we’re justified in showing it as well. The critical analysis we usually impose on our feelings, decisions, and behavior is set aside because we accept the suggestion – reinforced by hundreds or thousands of crowd members – that a particular response is appropriate.

So, if you’re part of a mob, and someone is ranting at you with occasional drops of violent “us versus them” imagery and you’ve already demonstrated your selection bias by traveling to the even, and you’re hooked into social media sites where, in real-time, people are cheering you on and saying things like “break some glass” or “hang Mike Pence” you might find your beliefs reinforced and accept the suggestion of the mob. As I mentioned in my other piece, Kurosawa’s scene in Yojimbo does a particularly good job of revealing how groups of people reinforce each other and psych each other up for a fight. Then, someone fires a shot, and it’s the signal for general mayhem – the sound of the shot ratifying the reason that the person came to the protest: to fight. This reveals another dynamic of mob action: as soon as there’s an unexpected reversal, that may be enough to break the mob’s confidence in itself, and re-engage their critical faculties.

Perhaps I should do a posting on the events of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup of the 18th of Brumaire; it did not go as expected and nearly ended his political career because it revealed that he was not, after all, an untouchable god-like figure who always succeeded at everything.

What is the one thing that con-men almost always try to project? Wealth and success. It’s easiest to get the suckers to fall into line if they think you’re a successful businessman who has made billions. Such a person would surely be a genius, because (as we know) it’s hard to make billions. Such a person might have a Q-level clearance and play multidimensional chess better than Mr Spock. Once someone is emotionally invested in believing in such a person, it takes a lot of contrary evidence, or a single whiff of grapeshot, to break the attachment.

------ divider ------

Some aspects of Kinison’s performances are not appropriate and never were. But, I fell in love with his amazing take-downs of christianity, which – at the time – were ground-breaking. I also enjoyed Kinison’s open ambiguity about his experiences with drugs; at the time I felt that he was a worthwhile counter to the prevailing anti-drug approach, which was purely ideological. I am no longer a fan of Kinison, and don’t listen to his material, but the moment when he switches into Evangelical mode retains its interest.

As much as I am fascinated by Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians I have a problem with his epistemology. His authoritarianism scale does not measure anything more or less than how a person scores on his authoritarianism scale. Sure, there may be correlations with other expressed self-reported attitudes but we still don’t know what “authoritarianism” is other than that “it’s how you score on Altemeyer’s scale.” This is a general problem that I see all over the social sciences – the quintessential example being IQ tests, which don’t measure what “intelligence” is (we don’t know what “intelligence” is) other than that it’s what’s measured by an IQ test. Checklists of attributes are interesting for opening discussions about what a person believes or feels but they are often treated as though they are oracles, which I suspect is more a case that they reflect the sampling bias that was inherent in their construction. Put another way: I’ll be more inclined to believe in Altemeyer’s authoritarianism scale if it is demonstrated to not be culturally dependent. It’s still interesting work, but I take it with a large sack of salt.

Altemeyer and John Dean publish a book revealing a desire for authoritarian leadership among republican voters. [washpo] – I am tempted to say, “wow, that was pretty easy” but it’s more complicated than that. How could anyone not realize that “republican voters” are a self-selected sample? Hey, I bet that “republican voters” also tend to agree about things that are on the republican platform, too!

Altemeyer’s scale measures respondents’ agreement or disagreement with 20 statements, such as: “Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us” and “It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds.”

See what I mean? You could do a “liberal scale” too, by seeing who supports characteristic issues like LGBTQ rights and non-cruelty agriculture. Or who drives a Volvo (kidding, there, I think) but yeah, people who self-select as holding a certain package of beliefs tend to hold those beliefs. It’s incredible. Hey, I bet there’s a hard correlation between being a Qanon follower, and a Trump voter, too.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    “Brown was skeptical about NLP, in spite of claiming it was how his tricks worked”

    Lots of people “know” how NLP “works”. Far more than know how to do oil and water or the Ambitious Card. NLP is useful therefore as a hook to hang your abilities on. It’s important for certain forms of performance to give the audience a mechanism by which they can understand what’s happening. I could have you select a card, then simply tell you the card. If I don’t present you with a possible mechanism, I’m just obviously an arsehole with a gimmicked deck or a friend standing behind you. If I let you consider the possibility that I’ve detected the warmth of your hand on the card, or that I have superhuman riffling skills, you’re more likely to be entertained. NLP is NEVER the method. (Superhuman riffling skills sometimes are).

  2. sonofrojblake says

    “I wonder if Kreskin would (…) claim that placebos are hypnosis, or vice-versa”.

    They’re likely related. Ben Goldacre has much interesting to say about placebos. “Better than placebo” is very much not the same as “better than nothing”. Big pills work better than little ones, red ones work better than green ones, and injecting a substance works better than taking orally – even when all the options listed are inactive treatments. There’s a measurable, repeatable difference in efficacy based on physical appearance, method of administration and other factors, even in the absence of active ingredients. Placebo is *complicated *.

  3. says

    In my recent post about Hitler, Mussolini, and the Trumpist putsch, I mentioned the spoken word performances of those characters, and how they appear to have specific behaviors intended to keep the viewer’s attention locked. In fact, they speak very fast, almost gabbling sometimes, and I believe it’s to maintain a lock on the listener’s attention. [stderr] In intend to return to this topic in future postings, but I haven’t figured out how to frame it, yet. The point is, that I think there are specific (Iwon’t use the word “trance” in honor of Kreskin) focus-inducing verbal tricks that politicians, evangelical preachers, and stage hypnotists may be using. In all of these cases, the object is to lock the target’s attention, while sounding confident and disengaging their ability to listen critically by throwing out a storm of bullshit.

    Many people are pretty bad with listening critically. Here’s a test you can try. Find a video of some popular politician talking confidently for several minutes while saying nothing substantial. Show this video to a bunch of people. Ask them their impression of the politician and their words. At this point people will say that the politician sounded good and they liked what they heard. Next, ask your test subjects/students the following question: “In your own words, summarize what was the politician’s main point in this speech fragment and what arguments they used to back up their assertions?” Most people cannot answer this. (I used to be a teacher in my university’s debate club, and back then it was my job to teach students to listen critically and analyze the content of other people’s speeches. I usually asked them to ignore the oratory and listen purely for the content of some speech. Take a pen and, while listening, write the main point of some speech and arguments used for defending this point. After doing this a few times, my students tended to get better at it.)

    Listening critically is a learned skill. Schools don’t teach it. Universities teach it only occasionally if a student is lucky with getting some great professor. Many people is our society are pretty bad with critically evaluating speeches made by good orators who know how to sound confident while making mouth noises and saying nothing substantial.

    Of course, like you said, there are various tricks good orators use to manipulate their listeners. Evoke strong emotions. Carefully choose your intonation, pacing, repetitions, etc. But the problem remains that simply sounding confident is enough to fool many people who haven’t practiced analyzing and critically dissecting other people’s performances.

  4. billyum says

    There is a lot here. :) Let me offer a few comments.

    On Hitler and charisma: From what I have read, it seems that Hitler was not only a charismatic orator, he was charismatic in person. That is not unusual among sociopaths. Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler is brilliant, but I remember being struck by Alec Guinness’s portrayal. Instead of projecting confidence, in intimate settings Guinness’s Hitler often appeared weak, even vulnerable, eliciting sympathy. To some extent Trump, although blusterous in his performances, often portrays himself as a victim, to elicit sympathy, but he never reveals any weakness. Another thing that Hitler did was to use silence to gain attention and expectancy, particularly at the beginning of his performances. What is the Führer going to say?

    I have mostly studied hypnosis and suggestion in one-on-one settings. I agree that the most important variable is the focus of attention. The establishment of rapport is also important. Prestige and confidence are generally not enough to gain rapport, and are not necessary. As indicated, vulnerability may be a way of establishing rapport. In those settings you have to expect resistance. Handling resistance is very important. Confident assertion may, in fact, elicit resistance. One way around that is to use halting speech. You know how when people speak slowly or haltingly you can often complete their sentences for them in your head? This holds true even when you disagree with what they are going to say. In that case halting delivery bypasses resistance by getting the other person to think what you want them to think without your having to say it. Then when you do say it, they are rewarded for thinking it by the fact that they successfully predicted what you were going to say.

    Another way to bypass resistance is to use questions rather than assertions. The Q writings do that, as is easy to verify. Here is a decidedly non-Q example.

    Was the Jew Epstein the leader of a secret underground group of pedophiles preying upon underage girls? Were Trump and his Jew lawyer members of that group? Was Trump’s Jew son in law a member, as well? Why did Trump barge into the dressing rooms of his teenage beauty contestants? Was he looking for pliant future victims? What happened on those long flights on Epstein’s private jet?

    Scott Adams, who became one of Trump’s cheerleaders, has also studied suggestion. He calls Trump a Master Persuader, and will freely admit that Trump is a con-man. On his old blog he mentioned one technique that Trump uses which was new to me. You can be fairly certain that some things will happen in the near future, particularly in the political arena. Trump ties those likely events to some of his assertions. Then, if and when they do occur, that will trigger the memory of those assertions among his followers and the truth of his predictions will reinforce those assertions.

  5. billyum says

    Also, is Trump an authoritarian? Are his followers?

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself? ;)

    It has been a long time since I read Altemeyer, but I believe that his scale is a refinement of one that was developed after WWII. That one was about Fascism. We didn’t mince words back then. But I think that authoritarianism is a more general and more accurate term. IIRC, Altemeyer’s scale does predict behavior in certain role-play scenarios or games. Back in the 1970s I was amazed by the sea change among Southern Whites with regard to racism in the two decades since the desegregation of Little Rock schools. Racism in the South had caught up with racism in the North. Unfortunately, little progress has been made since then, and there has been backsliding with regard to voting rights and policing in particular. At the time I attributed the progress in the South to the fact that the South is a conformist culture. Now I think that authoritarian is a better description. Authoritarianism does have a strong cultural component. This is clearly reflected, not perhaps in Altemeyer’s scale, but in the four question test used by political scientists. That test is basically about child rearing. It indicates that the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child form of child rearing of patriarchal cultures produces a lot of authoritarians. That helps to explain why so many of Trump’s followers live in the Bible Belt, despite the fact that Trump could be considered an anti-Christ figure.

  6. says

    I believe that his scale is a refinement of one that was developed after WWII. That one was about Fascism

    Correct, he was building on Adorno’s work.

  7. John Morales says

    Kreskin then explains that what he does it have the subject sitting slightly forward on their chair, so that their balance-point, where they would lean forward in order to stand up, cannot be reached because of the finger on their forehead.


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