Monday, August 17, 2015

Putting embedded commands in context

The basic idea of "embedded commands", for those who haven't heard of them, is that you embed commands in ordinary language so that people will subconsciously pick up on the command and do what you tell them to without consciously being aware of it (and therefore "unable to resist"). For example, you might say "that's cool. I wouldn't expect you to make an exception for me" while subtly emphasizing the command "make an exception for me". And if it "works", they'll make an exception for you even though they wouldn't have if you simply told them "make an exception for me".

No, it's not nearly as powerful or mind-controlley as people looking into covert hypnosis hope, but yes, there's something to it. In fact, like always, it's something that fits naturally into how we use language.

If you're sitting at the table you might say "could you pass the milk?", for example. Super sneaky mind control, eh? You asked a question, and instead of answering it, they succumbed to your embedded command!

Well, except that it's not sneaky. Yes, there's a command there, and yes they followed it. And yes, they might not have if you just said "pass the milk". But not because they have anything against passing the milk - just against the presupposition that you get to boss them around. Niceties like "please" and "could you?" still communicate the same command, but they also change the frame to acknowledge the favor making them a lot more willing to do it. If they catch you talking about "hah, I so tricked my brother into passing the milk! He had no idea I mind-controlled him!", then that frame is gone and guess what? It won't work next time.

The "wrapping" around the command provides context in which the command may make sense. Wrapping it with "you might want to ____" gives them information that you think they'd get something out of the command as opposed to doing it because you said so and you're the boss. "you don't have to ____" lets them know that you won't pressure them into doing it - but still implies that there's some reason for them to do it and brings the idea to mind.

And that's all it is, really - bringing the idea to mind without being forceful and turn-offish about it by supplying appropriate context. It doesn't provide any significant impetus to actually do what you asked for. They'll do it if it feels appealing in context, and they won't if it don't. No amount of stealthiness can make them want to any more. All you can hope for with embedded commands is to not shoot yourself in the foot.

To prove this, let's look at the results of a trick I came up with. It's a trick to give suggestions and cover it with amnesia without getting any real hypnotic responsiveness to mess with things. It makes the perfect test ground for things like this. Basically, I'd suggest that when I scratch my nose, they'd laugh, but that they wouldn't know why because they'd forget that I ever told them any of this as soon as I snap my fingers. I'd make sure they were actually listening and not pre-rejecting the idea, but neither building up any other motives or detailed frames to encourage them to actually do it. Then I'd snap my fingers and distract them for long enough for my suggestion for them to not remember take effect. And guess what happened? They'd laugh when I scratched my nose. They wouldn't know why.

But... they wouldn't laugh stupidly hard, even if that's what I suggested. They'd only laugh within the boundaries that that context allows. They're kinda curious about the mind trick, so I have some compliance. They can explain some laughter as something goofy or another, so they'll allow themselves to laugh a bit, but they can't explain and have no reason to laugh stupidly hard, so it won't happen. Doesn't happen. If you're sufficiently sneaky seamless/context-fitting with your embedded suggestions, you still hit this limit.

Neat to know about, I guess, but scary mind control it is not.


  1. I really, really appreciate all the effort you put into maintaining this blog, and that trick is a really good idea. How you are so imaginative escapes me , and you perfectly summed up my thoughts on embedded commands, and I'd like to know your opinions on a theory I sometimes hear get brought up of "hypnosis as reinforced placebo."

    (sorry for the wall of text, this was as concise an explanation I could come up with)

    Giving someone an injection of saline solution is a more effective placebo than giving them a sugar pill in some countries, probably because injections are thought of as being "more powerful." Acupuncture is a drawn-out process which people think requires much training and has complicated pseudoscience behind it, even though studies show that the client's satisfaction is the same whether the person doing the acupuncture actually knows what they're doing as opposed to putting the needles in random places. In both cases, the subject's mind hypnosis" as opposed to "pills" or "acupuncture". After all, the hypnosis would still work if you called it by some other name, like "ancient taoist meditation rituals" or anything else that would give the impression of credibility. What hypnosis then adds is interactivity. While with a normal placebo all one can do is say "x will do y because z", in hypnosis you can do things like tell them to hold their arms out in front of them, do some other hypnosis-y things for effect, then say "and your arms are getting heavy, difficult to hold up". Then the hypnotee thinks "gee, now that he mentions it, my arms are getting sort of heavy", attributing the natural tiredness that comes from holding out one's arms as something the hypnotist did to them via the power of hypnosis. Then, seeing the placebo's power demonstrated in front of them, its credibility rises. Evidence of this can be seen with the fact that when hypnotists tell people who have never been hypnotized before this point that the objects they see will take on a red tint, then use hidden red lights to really make the objects in the room tinted red, the subjects become much more suggestible (1990-06682-001, Wickless, C., Kirsch, I. (1989). Effects of verbal and experiential expectancy manipulations on hypnotic susceptibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 762-768

    I don't completely believe it, although I have to admit it holds a certain simplicity as it does away with things like the unconscious mind and connects it with another phenomenon (we should be careful about not letting 'hypnosis = placebo' become a curiosity-stopper as we still don't understand how placebos work). And, as a good rationalist, I propose an experiment: if hypnosis is a placebo which is reinforced by taking things that would have happened anyway and attributing them to it, then giving them a small dosage of a pill to make them drowsy and saying "first this pill will make you slightly drowsy for a few minutes, then your stress and anxiety will be eased for a few hours after" will be much more effective than giving them the same pill and saying "this pill ease your stress and anxiety." You seem to be pretty knowledgeable about this sort of thing and you're clearly quite an intelligent person, so I would be interested to hear what you have to say.

  2. I'd say that's basically right but not *complete*. Hypnosis doesn't require trickery of that sort and personally I don't use it. I find it more powerful to work within a frame where everything is both honest and rational. Harder to challenge the process that way.

    Google "active placebo", as it is almost exactly what you're talking about. While I don't remember reading any research on it, I'd definitely expect an active placebo to work better in any case where doubt is a factor.

    That's not the only factor though. There's a difference between "I have no doubts that there will be an effect" and "I expect the effect will be super super large". Needles increase buy in, so it better be worth it. "Commitment and consistency" comes to mind.

  3. Thanks for the tip about active placebo. And while hypnosis certainly doesn't require trickery to the degree I mentioned, I find most hypnosis has something similar if you look deep enough. Obviously watching a pocketwatch swing through the air will make your eyes sore or asking them to count backwards by 3s from 700 will make them tired, but even telling someone to imagine a time when they felt relaxed will cause them to relax, hypnosis dressing or no. Things like what you mentioned in your pacing post where how everyone giving a child advice for how to make his recent burn hurt less can make it hurt more don't really pattern-match as hypnosis to me, just social pressure to not be different from how everyone else seems to be and your "hurts?" was just telling him that it might not be a huge deal. Had it been a more serious burn I'm sure his pain signal would be large enough to tell him that there was a serious problem. I don't know if there's a different mechanism that causes the two phenomenon, though, they could very well be the same thing.

    How would you use hypnosis to, say, anesthetize a patient for a surgery he needed to stay conscious for?

  4. >I find most hypnosis has something similar if you look deep enough [...] even telling someone to imagine a time when they felt relaxed will cause them to relax, hypnosis dressing or no.

    It's certainly common. "Magnetic fingers" is another one like that. However, what *I've* found is that the deeper I look, the more the "tricks" start to click as rational but perhaps counterintuitive arguments.

    The "imagine a time when you felt relaxed" example is perfect to illustrate this. You look at it and think "Aha! But that works even without 'hypnosis'! I'm onto you!". As a hypnotist, my response is "then don't believe it's hypnosis, just follow along". It'll work just the same. If you're listening because you start to think "hypnosis works", great. If you just follow because everything I've said so far has been right, then that's fine too.

    So, at least the way *I* approach it, it doesn't have to be a trick. It's a way of saying "hey, remember that feeling? Of course you do. Now would be a good time to do that again" - and I'm completely open about that. No "gotcha!" needed.

    >[...] your "hurts?" was just telling him that it might not be a huge deal. Had it been a more serious burn I'm sure his pain signal would be large enough to tell him that there was a serious problem.

    Yes, more intense pain is treated differently and that whole batch of suffering was socially manufactured. *However*, that doesn't necessarily change a whole lot. I've had pain that "hurts?" would have gotten a "yeah, but whatever I'm fine" and continued suffering. The difference is that I had not yet let myself realize that I was already doing everything needed to treat it and learn from it - the kid had. Once I realized that, the suffering was 100% gone

    >How would you use hypnosis to, say, anesthetize a patient for a surgery he needed to stay conscious for?

    The main thing to take into consideration is the framing you're going into it with and the framing I have. Yours is probably like "not feeling pain during surgery is *weird* and intuitively impossible, but pain is bad so maybe we can use weird brain hacks to trick the brain into not feeling pain". Mine is "there is absolutely nothing wrong with pain itself, nor is there anything weird about "not feeling" or "not caring about" pain, and this person could easily choose to do that if it felt right, so if they want it but it doesn't feel right, what's that about?". The answer there guides my response. This holds true even when the thing in question feels intuitively impossible to me too! It's how I approach "self hypnosis", for example.

    The only time "your arms are beginning to feel heavy" or the like come out is if the answer involves "because they have this silly idea in their head that they have to block it until they're 'hypnotized'" and it's easier to convince them they're hypnotized than it is to shake them of this belief.

    How this actually caches out depends on the context and what their mindset is - stuff like what they're expecting me to do, what their problem with pain is, etc. By the time I'm doing "hypnosis" though, or delivering suggestions, it's agreed upon that these suggestions are good, feel right, and will be accepted.