Why Does Stage Hypnosis Work?
How do those shows work? A hypnotist gets a whole bunch of people on stage, and before you know it they're doing silly things at the suggestion of the hypnotist. What is going on and how does that happen? Why does stage hypnosis work?
Summary (or TL;DR)
The hypnotist will find within any group those who are most readily hypnotisable on that occasion. Depending on her skill the hypnotist might require a large group to start with to improve their chances.
In any large enough group the results are almost certain.
The hypnotist then goes through a series of steps and variations on their hypnotic induction, dismissing those who are unresponsive, leaving a few good candidates on stage.
She then leads those candidates through a series of stunts and gags that build on prior gags and which get sillier and funnier as the candidates go deeper as a result of their engagement with the prior gags.
From The Beginning Let's start with the basic idea that hypnosis itself is real. This post isn't going to debate that (although you could).
Let's assume it is real and ask ourselves "how" a hypnotist does what she does.
In any group of people some are more suggestible than others. Some will respond more readily, and be more easily hypnotized than others.
Get enough people together and the chances are that there'll be some people who are suggestible enough to be hypnotized during the show.
This is the reason why many hypnotists will not do shows with less than 50 people. ([Gerard V] does shows with as few as 12 people).
Volunteers vs Pre Selection
There are a range of activities that hypnotists can do at the start of a show to determine who is more suggestible. Many hypnotists do this and then select their panel for those who respond well. Other hypnotists ask for volunteers up front and then work with whomever they get. This latter approach means no one is on stage before the hypnotist starts hypnotizing people, it's riskier but cleaner, because everyone is clearly choosing their role. This is the [Gerard V] approach.
Either way the main ingredient is the ability of the hypnotist to hypnotise the people on stage.
A really confident and capable hypnotist will work with a small group and not do any selection, instead relying entirely on their skill.
The opposite extreme is to have a large number of people and do pre selection activities so that the law of averages falls in the hypnotist's favour. Even a mediocre hypnotist can be successful under these conditions.
Aside: some people think that hypnotists have set up their volunteers in advance and that they are just acting. If only show business paid that well. In most cases there's neither the time nor the opportunity to do this, and actors would want to be paid. When you do the math, it is easy to see that hypnotists must be taking people from the crowd, and the only explanation for all of them aredoing what they do is that the hypnotist must be extraordinarily persuasive. That persuasiveness is one way to describe hypnotism.
Being On Stage
When on stage, a few people find that being in front of the audience makes them tense. They will likely be dismissed from the stage as being unresponsive. But many people, having volunteered, will find that being on stage places them under an obligation to focus and really give their attention. This works in the hypnotist's favour as it can tip the balance with someone who might have otherwise not have "gone under".
With enough people, depending on the skills of the hypnotist, there will be some people who volunteer, who are suggestible, and for whom being on the stage makes them a better subject.
All the variables can be influenced by the hypnotist through their skill at hypnosis, booking conditions that affect their audience size, and how comfortable the stage environment can be made.
Combined, these factors allow the hypnotist to "put people under". And from there, to utilize their trance state to stage gags that will entertain the crowd.
The Gags Even under trance people have limits: activities and behaviors that, for them, go too far. (This is why hypnotists cannot hypnotise people into robbing banks for them etc.)
A person in a light trance will generally do any reasonably mild request the hypnotist gives. So the first few gags a good hypnotist does will be ones that he believes will get a good response.
Those that do not respond are then either dismissed from the stage as being "not under" or the hypnotist might try a different hypnotic induction on them.
Those that do respond tend to become more deeply hypnotised as they engage with the hypnotists initial gags. Their response to the first gag will generally lead them deeper and therefore more compliant when the next suggestion comes along. (A few people become less hypnotised over time, the hypnotist might then either re-hypnotise them dismiss them.)
Once the hypnotist has a good responsive group of volunteers, he can ramp things up to lead to more outrageous stunts.
The process of hypnotising is called "induction".
While there is science that confirms that hypnosis is a real state, the process of induction is more of an art than a science. There is no "right" way, and no induction works always with all people.
Because of this you might see a hypnotist use a different approach with different people. And if her first induction did not work for some of her volunteers she may still go on to hypnotise them using other techniques.
A good entertainer will do this seamlessly so that many will not even notice her doing this and will think it is all part of the show.
Why do people volunteer and why would anyone want to be hypnotised?
Being hypnotised is very enjoyable. It gives people a freedom that they might not experience in their ordinary lives.
The author has been hypnotised literally hundreds of times at workshops and other events and performs internationally as a comedy hypnotist entertainer. Being hypnotised is relaxing, fun, and for many a new and slightly odd experience.