Pssst, Subtle Suggestions Can Alter Your Behavior

Exposing yourself to the media is exposing yourself to the power of suggestion.

By Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

In recent posts, I have written about the importance of critical thinking, and how it can be impeded by cognitive biases. Another obstacle to the clarity of critical thinking can be the Power of Suggestion.

The power of suggestion is very powerful indeed. If I say, “Don’t think of a red apple.” you are going to think of a red apple anyway, even if it is just the momentary flash of an image in your brain. And, when our subconscious mind is exposed to a constantly repeated message it is going to penetrate unless we are paying attention.

When I taught advertising classes, I introduced the concept of the Power of Suggestion to my students by sharing this description: “Imagine you’re holding a ripe, bright yellow lemon, now see yourself rolling it back and forth underneath your palm on a table to break up the pulp inside and loosen the juice. Next cut the lemon in half, and pick up one of the halves. Hold it upright, bring it close to your face, squeeze it, feel the juice spray, watch it pool up on the surface, and smell the sour lemony aroma. Now lean in and slurp the juice into your mouth… raise your hand if your mouth is watering.” I’ll bet your mouth is watering too – just from reading this!

When it comes to advertising, most of us are accustomed to seeing the power of suggestion in action: a sizzling steak with crisscross grill marks, a steaming pizza with bubbling cheese, or lobster, shrimp and crab drizzling with hot butter – all popping up on our screens around dinner time in order to trigger our appetites.

How else is the power of suggestion being used? Is it being used for good or bad?

The healing power of suggestion

Most of us are also familiar with the concept of placebos which are (usually sugar pills) given to someone in a drug trial, who then gets better even though he or she did not receive the real medicine. Placebos work because of the power of suggestion. Another concept, Nocebo, is when someone who is given a placebo experiences the adverse reactions or side effects that are attributed to the real medicine.

I recently watched a documentary (Mind Field, Season 2, Episode 6: The Power of Suggestion) that featured a feasibility study conducted by Samuel Paul Louis Veissière, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and Jay Olson, Ph.D. Psychiatry, and professional magician, to determine if some childhood illnesses could be cured by the power of suggestion. The subjects of the study included a boy with chronic headaches; a girl with eczema who was compulsively picking at it and causing bleeding and scabbing; and a hyperactive boy with ADHD. They were put into a deactivated MRI scanner and told that the treatment would help with their problems. After the treatments all three children saw their symptoms go away.

I was fascinated by the study and especially how Dr. Olson used his expertise in magic to increase the credibility of the procedures to make them more believable to the subjects. So I reached out to Dr. Olson requesting an interview, and he agreed.

Q:How did your background as a magician lead you to an interest in researching the power of suggestion?”

Dr. Olson: “Magic led me to psychology. Magicians don’t know why magic tricks work; they know how to make them work; they know how to fool people; but they often don’t know the mechanisms underlying the different tricks. What pulled me into psychology was studying some of these tricks… and then I started using magic and a kind of deception that magicians use as a method to enable other things in psychology like new kinds of paradigms, and one of those paradigms we showed in that documentary where we were making people feel like we were controlling their mind.” He continued, and said that led to his asking this question: “What if we could make people feel like they have more control over their symptoms?”

Q: Elaborate on this statement you made in the documentary, “What we do with the MRI scanner is we stack so many different layers of deception in their head: this is a proper neuroscience study done at the Neurological Institute, and that’s why we wear lab coats, why we have all this scientific looking equipment, by the time they actually started the study they’ve already in their mind built up all these different layers of credibility. They really believe that what we’re doing is real.”

(NOTE: in the documentary Dr. Samuel Veissière, qualifies this further by stating “The work we do with children actually does not involve lying. We tell them at first that everything that they see and that everything that we do in the lab is a suggestion. We explain to them that suggestion is a way to tap into the power of their mind, and we keep emphasizing even as they go into the scanner that it is their mind and their brain that is doing the healing that they are basically reprogramming their own brain.”)

Olson told me about the Swiss Cheese Model of Deception and how it is used in social psychology studies. He explained how it’s a metaphor that many thin layers of imperfect protection can be more helpful than one thick layer such as a big elaborate cover story. Each thin layer is fairly effective, but it has holes in it like the holes in a slice of Swiss cheese. If there was only one layer then someone might see through the hole and recognize the deception, but if you stack several thin layers it is less likely that the holes will line up such that someone might see through the deception. The layers will be subtle things like lab coats, stethoscopes, and different pieces of equipment showing brain scans. All of these little hints and cues increase the power of suggestion. He concluded, “When you add up all these different small layers of deception, you end up planting assumptions in people’s heads rather than making explicit statements. If we say, ‘we are credible neuroscience researchers,’ then people may question that.”

As this study demonstrates, people are influenced by authority figures, and we have many of them who figure prominently throughout our lives starting with parents, then teachers, physicians, religious leaders, politicians and even our peers.

Much of What You Believe May Be the Product of Suggestion

Hypnotists use the power of suggestion to help people change behaviours. They begin by getting the subject to relax. Once the subject is relaxed or in a trance (a state of semi-consciousness between being asleep and awake), the hypnotist will make suggestions which will hopefully be accepted by the subject’s subconscious mind.

In his book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander cites that many experts consider television watching to be on par with hypnotism. This made me wonder how the constant negative stories presented by the news media might begin to stack up and increase the levels of fear felt by the viewing audience. When people are frightened or otherwise thrown off balance, they are more prone to suggestion. For example, after seeing a news report of a tragic event such as an airplane crash, some people will be more likely to fear flying. People often overestimate the chances that it will also happen to them (see Availability Bias in my article: Cognitive Bias is the Loose Screw in Critical Thinking). Another example is when you hear on the news that it is flu season, that suggestion may give you an expectation of catching the flu which might actually cause you to suffer flu-like symptoms.

We watch television to relax and be entertained, however when we are not on guard against the power of suggestion, we are vulnerable to it; advertisers and media programmers count on this. Protect yourself by staying alert, or – better yet – turn the TV off!


Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an innovation/change speaker, author, and consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive through innovation and with people who want to think more creatively. For more information on Rob, please visit http://www.RobWilsonSpeaker.com

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