Hypnosis and the Manufacture of Authority


I have recently concluded an independent study of the psychology of narrative. Narrative in psychology is a broad topic; I specifically focused on the episodic processing of memory in the working memory and the association between an individual’s mental representations and a culture’s semiotic systems (if I’m losing you with jargon, bear with me for a minute). What I’ve learned in my studies of symbol use, language, and narrative—and I don’t think it’s an understatement—is that symbols structure our reality.

If I asked you what hypnosis is, I would wager that anyone reading this would have some conceptualization, some idea or expectation, for defining hypnosis. We have heard stories, read accounts, saw advertisements, and perhaps even experienced it. Is it probable that expectation, and compliance to the norms of our expectations, is the prime inducer of the hypnotic state.

The idea that hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness has been challenged with role theory. In role theory, the hypnotist and the hypnotized act out roles. This isn’t to say that actors of the hypnotic drama are only pretending; role theory rather implies that we conform so strongly to expectancies that we make them real. Some scholars use role theory to make the argument that hypnosis is not an altered state of consciousness—I disagree. However, for me an altered state of consciousness is merely an abnormal perception of reality and it is abnormal (apart from daily life) to believe that one is hypnotized.

The hypnotist, according to role, is an authority figure. The hypnotist can follow a routine and induce others into a bizarre state of being (very much like the archaic shaman). The hypnotized are in a state of submission because they comply with the hypnotist’s requests, which is after all the only way this works. Through narrative (which need not be limited to linguistics; narrative also occurs through gestures and symbolic actions), we become aware of roles and role expectations. The hypnotist succeeds only by convincing us of their authority and gaining our compliance.

I consider hypnotic phenomenon the perfect model for understanding the manufacture of authority.