Hypnosis – Moral Issues and Potential Dangers

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2012
The argument is advanced that hypnosis itself is harmless and that potential complications arise only from the therapist who misuses the practice. But even granting this claim, concerns must still be raised over the widespread use of hypnosis when incompetence and abuse among therapists are so frequent.

Hypnosis – Moral Issues and Potential Dangers

Robert A. Baker[1] taught psychology at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was professor of psychology emeritus of the University of Kentucky and the author of They Call It Hypnosis, in which he argues that hypnosis does not exist as a unique state of awareness or consciousness. He argues that what is called hypnosis is merely a normal state of creative imagination, relaxation, and suggestion[2] and that it is not dangerous at all in the hands of a qualified therapist. “In fact, almost no one believes the use of hypnosis constitutes any danger.” He also cites authorities on hypnosis who claim that the procedure is harmless.[3]

Nevertheless, prior to this he points out that dangers do exist in hypnosis, but that they are no worse than those associated with psychotherapy in general. The real dangers, he insists, arise with the therapist, not with hypnosis:

Just about anything and everything can be dangerous if it is misused or misapplied…. There are no deaths on record due specifically to hypnosis. In spite of this fact, a number of years ago Harold Rosen launched a nationwide campaign against hypnosis, on the premise that it could endanger a patient’s physical and emotional health and life through serious adverse sequelae such as incapacitating substitute symptoms, suicidal depression, and psychotic episodes. In an article in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, A. Meares (1961) pointed out nine possible areas of difficulty the hypnotist or his client might encounter. These were:

1. Perverse motivation; either the patient or the physician may misuse the situation to satisfy ulterior needs.

2. Untoward personality effects; hypnosis can increase a subject’s suggestibility and over-dependence; conversely, continued use of hypnosis may exaggerate unfortunate facets of the physician’s own personality.

3. Traumatic insight; sudden confrontation with repressed material intolerable to the subject.

4. Precipitation of a psychosis.

5. Development of disabling substitute symptoms when the original symptoms have been removed by hypnotic suggestion.

6. Sudden panic reactions occasioned by the experience of hypnosis.

7. Complications arising from misunderstandings of communication.

8. Possible unscrupulous use of hypnosis.

9. Difficulty in waking a subject and unfortunate effects of incomplete waking.

Meares concluded that the use of hypnosis by an unskilled person can represent a real danger, but the dangers, he felt, are minimal in the hands of a trained physician. It is obvious, however, that most of the dangers listed above are by no means peculiar to hypnosis. They are intrinsic to all intimate interpersonal relationships that develop during any type of psychotherapy. In fact, if there is any danger at all with regard to the use of hypnosis, it resides almost wholly in its use as a therapeutic tool, and the danger in that case is primarily to the hypnotist rather than the client.

Sydney Pulver (1963) called attention to the fact that many patients suffer from delusions following a hypnotic session, and the delusions are usually the result of the interplay of three factors:

1) the heightening of transference fantasies due mainly to the regression of the hypnotic state;

2) the presence of major ego defects, projective defenses, or other predisposing factors in the patient’s character; 3) counter-transference reaction on the part of the hypnotist which touch on a specific area of conflict within the patient.

The delusions most commonly take the form of the patient accusing the hypnotist of violating the patient’s person, property, or privacy, of unduly influencing him, of rendering him helpless against the sexual or financial influence of others, etc. Pulver recommends that anyone using hypnosis should be careful to conduct a good preliminary evaluation and select patients who are free from dispositions to delusions, and also be aware of his own emotional responses to the patient….

As for hypnosis being of any danger to the client, other than in a few rare and isolated instances, hypnosis has proven to be one of the safest tools in the armamentarium of the healing professions. This was the conclusion of a special symposium devoted to hypnotic complications that was published in the January 1987 American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. J. H. Conn (1972), among others, has also minimized the complications related to the use of hypnosis and concluded it is a very safe procedure. According to Conn, “There are no significant dangers associated with hypnosis per se and the actual dangers are those which accompany every psychotherapeutic relationship….

In his book Hypnotism: Its Powers and Practice, Peter Blythe (1971) notes that even trained professionals make mistakes in their use of hypnotherapeutic procedures. In his words, “My intention has been to illustrate that there are no dangers inherent in hypnosis itself, and any dangers which do arise are created by the hypnotist, and not hypnosis.”[4]

Thus, the argument is advanced that hypnosis itself is harmless and that potential complications arise only from the therapist who misuses the practice. But even granting this claim, concerns must still be raised over the widespread use of hypnosis when incompetence and abuse among therapists are so frequent. After all, it is conceded that “even trained professionals make mistakes in their use of hypnotherapeutic procedures,” and that such mistakes can result in serious complications for the patient. The argument that hypnosis is safe seems unestablished if the dangers of hypnosis cannot easily be separated from the expertise of the hypnotist. And if even the experts make mistakes, what about the majority of hypnotherapists who are not expert? And even some experts in hypnotic procedures may be immoral or abuse hypnosis for personal reasons.

Dr. Baker also points out, and it is becoming increasingly evident to many, that psychotherapy itself has certain risks; indeed, entire books have been written on this subject, such as Dorothy Tennov’s Psychotherapy: The Hazardous Cure.[5] But if therapy itself has potential dangers, then to introduce hypnosis into the equation complicates problems.

To concede that hypnosis has similar risks to those found in therapy in general is to concede that hypnosis is potentially dangerous. This is especially true given the large number of amateur or unqualified hypnotherapists, and the equally large number of humanistic, Jungian, and transpersonal therapists, whose experimental, eclectic, and frequently occult approach to therapy does indeed constitute a risk factor.

Dr. Baker also cites Dr. Frank J. MacHovec’s Hypnosis Complications, which details a large number of problems and complications related to hypnosis. While Baker is convinced that these result from preexisting personality disorders of the patients, rather than from hypnosis, we are not so convinced. But even if it were true, it would still show that hypnosis is dangerous for some people. And who doesn’t have at least some degree of preexisting personality disorder that they bring into therapy? How can therapists know they determined the real extent of a patient’s problem or the effect hypnosis may have?

We think at least five distinct variables must be considered when evaluating the risks of hypnosis:

1. The religious, ethical, and philosophical orientation of the hypnotherapist.

2. The emotional history and condition of the client.

3. The degree of technical expertise and past experience of the therapist.

4. The motive and purpose for engaging in hypnosis.

5. The hypnotic state itself.

In the material following, we will cite a number of authorities. We will briefly examine the potential dangers of hypnosis in popular and psychotherapeutic methods, and then we will document the dangers arising from the occult potential of hypnosis.[6]

A popular belief is that a hypnotized subject cannot be made to do something against her will or to commit an evil act. But this is simply not true. Dr. J. Meerloo, a psychiatric consultant in the geriatric department of the Municipal Health Service of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, discusses how and why hypnosis can be used to manipulate people to commit evil acts. He is supportive of professionally administered hypnosis, but he seeks to dispel certain myths:

Several textbooks on hypnosis inform us that the patient’s superego is strong enough to protect him against immoral suggestions given in a trance. Experimental hypnosis has shown that this is not the case. The art of moral seduction is based on repeated fragmentized suggestions that gradually permit the other party to give in to what he or she would never have done without those repeated suggestions…. The act of suicide, especially, can be suggested by an aggressor with daily nagging admonitions or in semi-hypnotic trance. In a previous study I called this criminal suggestive strategy psychic homicide….

Indeed, hypnosis is a means whereby one can manipulate the conscience of other people…. At the close of the Second World War, one of my tasks was to investigate SS officers. I discovered that several of them had participated in the most outrageous, unthinkable crimes while in a kind of collective trance. Indeed, they broke down when a more realistic awareness took hold of them.

There are numerous other examples to indicate that a person can be induced to commit antisocial acts while under the influence of hypnosis or under collective suggestion, or because of servile dependency. He would have considered these deeds unacceptable to him had circumstances allowed him to remain an independent thinking individual.[7]

In theory, there is no immoral act that a hypnotized subject could not be tricked into committing:

Since reality becomes distorted during a trance, the subject cannot properly evaluate which actions make sense and which ones do not. Hilgard says that in the trance state there is a trance logic that accepts “what would normally be found incompatible.”… If reality is distorted and the person is not able to make reality judgments, his means of responsible choice have been impaired. He is unable to exercise his own will responsibly.

A well-known textbook of psychiatry states: “Hypnosis can be described as an altered state of intense and sensitive interpersonal relatedness between hypnotist and patient, characterized by the patient’s nonrational submission and relative abandonment of executive control to a more or less regressed, dissociated state.”

… A hypnotist can deceive a person into committing an act which would be in violation of his normal range of choice. A hypnotist can even lead a person into committing murder by creating an extreme fear that someone is attempting to kill him. The patient would discern it as an act of self-defense. Through hypnotic deception, it is possible to cause one to do something against his will by disguising the act into one which would be within his choice.

Because hypnosis places responsibility outside the exercise of objective, rational, full conscious choice, it does violate the will. The normal evaluating abilities are submerged and choice is made according to suggestion without the balance of rational restraint. The will is a precious treasure of humans and shows forth the indelible hand of our Creator. The human will requires more respect than hypnosis seems to offer. Bypassing the responsible state of reason and choice just because of the hope for some desired end is bad medicine and, worst of all, bad theology.[8]

Most people falsely assume that hypnosis can never be misused professionally. But there has been more than one case where therapists have confessed to hypnotizing patients to take advantage of them sexually. With the expected use of hypnotic suggestions to forget the sexual encounter, one wonders about how many unreported cases there are.

Psychologist and leading parapsychologist Dr. Charles Tart acknowledges that when hypnosis was “reintroduced” into America through mesmerism “much of its emphasis was on power over people.”[9] He also confesses, the “god-like” power the hypnotist exerts over his client is “what attracts a lot of us into the field.”[10] Although Dr. Tart uses hypnosis clinically and experimentally, he acknowledges that the power of hypnosis:

… horrifies me every time I see it done…. You can induce total analgesia….

You can have people hallucinate…. You can tamper with their memory in certain ways so they do not remember what went on in a hypnotic session or they remember selected parts of it or you can induce false memories of one sort or another. These sorts of things can happen after the hypnotic session, post hypnotically. [S]o it’s what I might call a very strong phenomenon…. The phenomena are pretty striking.[11]

The following statement by Dr. Tart underscores the occult quality of hypnosis (in spite of its scientific image) as well as an apparent motive of many hypnotherapists for entering the field, that of seeking power over others:

Now, I’ve talked about these kinds of cycles in terms of hypnosis being used for too many things, to cure everything. But, in point of fact, it’s actually more than that. Because while I run with a bunch of people who are the scientists in this field and we talk very scientific language and all that, if you think about it there’s a tremendous magical quality to hypnosis and this never ceases to amaze me. It doesn’t work well with everybody, but for about 20 percent of people in general it works extremely well.

And for these people I can sit down, and in the course of talking to them for half an hour or sometimes less I can change their whole perceptual world. And it really blows my mind to think that I can talk to somebody for a half an hour and tell them Marilyn Monroe is floating through the window, and they really see it. As far as I can tell from anything they say, they really see it.

This is a phenomenal change in somebody’s experience. And this smacks very much of magic. In fact, if you look at a lot of old magical procedures, a lot of the techniques were similar to the kinds of techniques we use in hypnosis now. Now, this is something that isn’t discussed very often in modern scientific hypnosis….

In a sense, the hypnotist acquires a certain amount of god-like power over the subject. He can simply restructure his reality. This attracts a lot of us into the field. I came into it for that. I really dug having all this power over people. I hope I’ve changed. I’m not sure sometimes, but at least I’ve got a good set of rationalizations now. Being a hypnotist can be a marvelous ego trip. You can bend men’s wills and change their reality and even give them good experiences and that’s really an ego trip. A number of charlatans come into hypnosis, of course, because of that….[12]

Dr. Meerloo, quoted earlier, also discusses some of the problems and dangers that may occur during psychotherapeutic hypnosis:

As long as the hypnosis is applied incidentally to initiate anesthesia or soothe pain, not much harm will be done. But in repeated hypnotherapy, the therapist’s feelings of omnipotence (of which he is not always aware) may be aroused too much in response to the patient’s infantile dependency without either participant escaping from this delusional labyrinth. While working with future psychotherapists I learned that especially those whose infantile magic thinking is not sufficiently under control like to use hypnosis as a means of therapy….

I have also seen patients who after a hypnotic session lived for days in a kind of hysterical fugue, roaming around without finding the initiative to resist influences from outside….

Acceptance of hypnosis by the therapist as a method of cure unobtrusively influences his option for a patient’s free, independent, individual mind, or a state of mental dependency. The therapist’s choice of hypnosis as a means of cure almost always implies a preference for passivity and obedience on the patient’s part and a non-acceptance of the challenge of uniqueness, loneliness, and isolation.

Inadvertently, hypnosis holds out the lure of a quick cure while ignoring the complexity of complications and involvements that follow in its wake. Because everybody can learn how to hypnotize in a few lessons, the danger of oversimplified, panacea-like attitudes is very real. The disappearance of symptoms, rather than an understanding and working through of them, becomes the sole aim.

Hypnosis unwittingly tends to propagate man’s living by proxy. Indeed, people with a feeble will may temporarily borrow the strength, goals, aims, and illusions of the hypnotist. It may at the same time be an exercise in detachment and withdrawal. From this breeding ground of dangerous, passive mental defenses, often no return is possible.[13]

The Bobgans stress the problems involved in treating symptoms rather than the underlying problems:

Immediate positive results from hypnotism should especially be dismissed as evidence for validity of the practice, since many who gain initial victory over problems later suffer defeat. The pain which was “cured” may return, the sleep turns again into sleeplessness, and the temporarily improved sex life deteriorates.

Besides this possibility of the quick cure, short-term change with later failure, there is the possibility of symptom substitution. For example, those who are relieved of migraine headaches through hypnosis may end up with ulcers. A study conducted at the famous Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago revealed the strong possibility of symptom substitution. They found that of those migraine patients who had learned to control headaches through biofeedback, “two-thirds reported the development of new psychosomatic symptoms within five years.”[14]

In his Demonology Past and Present, noted theologian and counselor Dr. Kurt Koch also refers to the possibility of symptom substitution or transference:

Hypnotism is a highly controversial subject. The famous psychologist, Dr. Paul Tournier of Geneva in Switzerland rejects its use entirely. He argues that hypnotism illegally interferes with the subconscious mind and the soul of man. On the other hand I have met missionaries who have regarded hypnotism as a means of obtaining healing.

I will quote an example concerning the head doctor of the Cruz Blanca Sanatorium, Esquil, Argentina.

One of the doctor’s patients was a woman suffering from a pronounced complex…. Hypnotizing her, the doctor told her that when she regained consciousness the spiders would be gone. The experiment was successful. Yet from that time onwards the woman began to develop a strong alcoholic addiction, something she had never suffered from before. The doctor told me that because this transference had taken place, he now had reservations about using hypnotism in his practice.

A similar example to this was told me in the Swiss canton of Berne while I was counseling a person there. A Christian woman was hypnotized by a doctor while she was suffering from a gall-stone colic. The hypnosis was surprisingly successful and the almost unbearable pain disappeared within minutes. Afterwards, however, the woman began to suffer from terrible outbursts of rage…. In this case the hypnosis had triggered off a lack of self-control, and the many similar examples I have come across in my work have led me too to reject the use of hypnosis as a means of therapy….

I can quote an example of occult hypnosis to help us understand the problem more clearly. It comes from a Baptist minister in the United States…. [At college his] son had taken part in one of the school’s entertainment evenings. The highlight of the evening came when a hypnotist invited 25 of the students to come up onto the stage and then hypnotized them. He suggested to them that they were all taking part in a horse race.

When the act ended, the hypnotist told the students to come back out of their hypnotic states. The minister’s son, however, remained in a trance. The college president was extremely worried. In the end they were forced to call the hospital, and the boy was taken away in an ambulance. The doctors attempted again to bring him out of his hypnotic state, but with no success. It was only after five days had passed that his father was finally notified as to what had [really] happened.

Immediately he had his son transferred to his own home. Together with his wife and some friends they began to pray for the boy. Yet even then the hypnotic effect was not broken.

In the end, when a few more days had elapsed, the father felt constrained to command his son in the name of Jesus. To his amazement, his son responded at once. The hypnotic effect was broken.

I could quote many examples like this involving so-called harmless hypnotists. People must be warned of the dangers involved in allowing their children to take part in what they think are only harmless hypnotic games.

The unfortunate thing is that occult hypnosis is often used as a means of obtaining healing. The apparent success of the hypnosis, however, is accompanied without fail with all sorts of mental and emotional disturbances. As the previous example shows, even qualified doctors are unable to undo the damage done by occult forms of hypnosis. The problem is not a medical one, but rather a religious one.[15]


  1.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Baker.
  2.  Robert A. Baker, They Call it Hypnosis (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1990), pp. 288-89.
  3.  Ibid., pp. 269-70.
  4.  Ibid., pp. 268-69.
  5.  Among the scores of critiques of modern psychology showing problems in efficacy, theoretical base, or its potential dangers are: Walter Bromberg, From Shaman to Psychotherapist (Regnery); Richard Stuart, Trick or Treatment: How and When Psychotherapy Fails (Research Press); Jeffery Moussaieff, Against Therapy (Athenium; Bernie Zilbergeld, The Death of Psychiatry (Chilton); Thomas Kiernan, Shrinks, Etc. (Dial); Michael and Lise Wallach, Psychology’s Sanction for Selfishness (W.H. Freeman); Hans Strup, et al., Psychotherapy for Better or Worse (Jason Aronson); and Martin and Deidre Bobgan, The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way and Psychoheresy. These are only a few of the scores of texts critical of modern psychotherapy in addition to literally hundreds of scholarly articles. Cf. John Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Facts on Self-Esteem, Psychology and the Recovery Movement, ebook.
  6.  Documentation concerning the potential dangers and/or misuse of hypnosis can be found in e.g., Eugene E. Levitt, et al, “Testing the Coercive Power of Hypnosis: Committing Objectionable Acts,” The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1975); Campbell Perry, “Hypnotic Coercion and Compliance to It: A Review of Evidence Presented in a Legal Case,” The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1979); Steven Starker, “Persistence of a Hypnotic Dissociative Reaction,” The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1974); Josephine R. Hilgard, “Sequelae to Hypnosis,” The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. 22, No. 4 (1974); Moris Kleinhauz, et al, “Some After-Effects of Stage Hypnosis: A Case Study of Psychopathological Manifestations,” The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1979); Doris Gruenewald, “Failures in Hypnotherapy: A Brief Communication,” The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. 19, No. 4 (1981); Moris Kleinhauz and Barbara Beran, “Misuses of Hypnosis: A Medical Emergency and Its Treatment,” The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1981); Moris Kleinhauz and Barbara Beran, “Misuses of Hypnosis: A Factor in Psychopathology,” American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Jan. 1984.
  7.  J. Meerloo, “Crime and Hypnosis,” Parapsychology Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, March/April, 1970, pp. 1-2; cf. pp. 22-24.
  8.  Martin and Deidre Bobgan, Hypnosis and the Christian (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany, 1984), pp. 34-36.
  9.  Charles Tart, “Transpersonal Potentialities of Deep Hypnosis,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, No. 1, Vol. 2, 1970, p. 8.
  10.  Ibid., p. 30.
  11.  Ibid., pp. 27-28.
  12.  Ibid., pp. 29-30.
  13.  Meerloo, “Crime and Hypnosis,” p. 23.
  14.  Bobgan and Bobgan, Hypnosis and the Christian, p. 46.
  15.  Kurt Koch, Demonology Past & Present (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publishers, 1973), pp. 114-15, 127-28.

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