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Cognitive Science

Hypnotic suggestions can help induce changes in hard-to-update implicit attitudes, study finds

It is typically hard to change implicit attitudes, which happened automatically with little conscious thought. But new research provides evidence that a single hypnosis session can help people change implicit attitudes in response to contradictory information.

The findings have been published in the journal Psychological Science.

“People’s more spontaneous or automatic behavior can sometimes be in conflict with their more controlled behavior (e.g., we may say that we like someone but spontaneously avoid that person). Gaining insights into the underlying processes can help improve interventions that promote behavioral change (e.g., in the context of addiction or depression),” said study author Pieter Van Dessel of Ghent University.

“Research has found that dissociations often occur when controlled but not automatic behavior such as automatic liking is updated based on new persuasive information. In contrast to dominant views, these dissociations do not necessarily imply that two different types of learning underlie controlled and automatic evaluation. Instead, both types of preferences might depend on belief-based processes.

“In the current study, we argued that suggestions that are provided under hypnosis might provide a good means to update (automatic) beliefs. Hence, hypnotic suggestions that new persuasive information will be influential should allow for changes in automatic preferences. Two experiments supported this idea,” Van Dessel said.

In the study of 132 college students, participants read positive or negative information about two social groups or learned to associate one individual with positive words and pictures and another individual with negative words and pictures. They then completed assessments of their implicit and explicit (self-reported) attitudes towards the groups or individuals.

Afterward, some participants were hypnotized and received the following instruction: “You will now receive information that you will process more strongly than you normally can. Please remember well that the information that you will hear next will sink in more deeply than is typically the case.”

The rest of the participants, who were used as a control group, performed several relaxation exercises and were asked to listen carefully to the information they would hear next.

Participants were then given information that contradicted the information they had received earlier regarding the groups or the individuals. They then once again completed assessments of their implicit and explicit attitudes.

When it came to explicit attitudes, there was no significant difference between participants who had been hypnotized and those who had not. Both groups were equally as likely to update their explicit attitudes to accommodate the new information.

But participants exposed to hypnosis were more likely to update their implicit attitudes than those who had not.

“Our automatic or spontaneous preferences (i.e., implicit biases) are not always resistant to change. Interventions that focus on changing automatic beliefs that might underlie these preferences could prove highly effective,” Van Dessel told PsyPost.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Automatic evaluation can only be measured in an indirect manner and existing measures (such as the Implicit Association Test; IAT) are known to reflect also non-evaluative processes. Research is needed (and ongoing) that targets changes in implicit behavior as obtained via distinct measures and in real-life domains such as addiction,” Van Dessel explained.

“Though hypnotic suggestions could be a good way to target automatic beliefs and change automatic behavior, there are also other ways to achieve this. For instance, a recent study showed the potential of requiring people to repeatedly make adaptive inferences (e.g., that unhealthy foods lead to negative consequences).”

The study, “Hypnotic Suggestions Can Induce Rapid Change in Implicit Attitudes“, was authored by Pieter Van Dessel and Jan De Houwer.