Implications of Suggestibility: The Power of Influence in Perception

AllisonImageA suggestion: envision yourself at a magic show. You have been invited to join the stage with the performer and pick a card. With 52 options, how does the magician seem to be able to correctly guess which card you have picked each time? Next trick—how about something a little more radical: hypnosis? Besides entertaining illusion art, suggestibility, or the distortion of perception has major implications for societal behaviors, including wide-ranging stereotypes based on race or sex and mental processes in early education. Suggestibility indicates how receptive an individual may be to others; in that regard, human response to authority may be one of the most pervasive instances of the effect of suggestibility as a product of the inherent human allure of strength, evolved as a projection from more primitive behaviors [1,2]. Suggestion is also important in both research and healthcare due to the placebo effect.

Since the work of renowned neurologist Sigmund Freud, the power of suggestion has been increasingly considered as a significant factor in influencing individuals’ decisions [1]. Freud presented suggestion as an outcome of group psychology and referred to how an individual may be intrinsically compelled to conform or follow the impulses of a group or prestige, defined to be an authority that lends a degree of ethos. In particular, he heavily incorporated the precepts of suggestion and suggestibility into his psychoanalytic theory, specifically tying suggestion to hypnotic treatments [1].

Perhaps the most familiar application of suggestion, hypnosis is an altered state of psychological consciousness characterized by maximal suggestibility and relaxed physiology. In this more receptive state, suggestion allows for direct communication with the subconscious [3]. Comparable to the effects of induced sleep or daydreaming, hypnosis causes the body to relax as the conscious mind becomes less reactive to external stimuli, and the subconsciousness rises to the forefront [3]. As such, the subconscious mind allows for a direct channel to impulse and to the acquisition of the essence of sensory information and emotional impressions [3]. Used as a method of psychotherapy, hypnosis employs the suggestibility of a patient a la Inception in order to glean information about repressed memories and thoughts [3].

From a physiological point of view, the relationship between the brain and the mind undergoing suggestion is relatively unknown. Researchers at McGill University have shown that, between what human minds can control innately and willfully, suggestion is able to alter the course of involuntary ingrained sensory processes [4]. In that regard, using the McGurk effect that uses audio and visuals to create an illusion, researchers were able to show that process that have become or are automatic and instinctive may be overruled by a suggestion using hypnotic techniques [4]. However, on the other hand, verbal suggestion has not been shown to create a difference neurophysiologically in tactile perception, according to Italian researchers [5].

Aside from hypnotherapy, suggestion is tied to the development of young children. In children’s education, studying suggestibility allows educators to better understand the cognitive ability of youngsters [6]. Researchers have found that pre-school age children, with a greater propensity for retentive distortion in memory than adults, are more susceptible to suggestion; the naiveté of toddlers is often attributed to their weak recognition memory [6]. Furthermore, the effect of source misattribution, where the subject mistakenly recalls to have acted in a situation, has been observed to account for the perceived changes in suggestibility with age [6]. Both cases justify why children are particularly impressionable. Studies conducted by psychologists demonstrate how misleading suggestion distorts the results of assessments across a range, as groups are subjected to differing types of suggestion including those given by prestige suggestion, repetitive suggestion, and “erroneous” suggestion [7]. These reports have yielded insight into the importance of the environment of education and the necessity for particular suggestive mechanisms to maximize accurate reporting by tests and optimal retention for students.

In the case of adults, perception of others is affected by widespread suggestions that pervade throughout the roots of culture; the effects of these long-term insinuations have manifested in the form of commonly integrated societal stereotypes. Typecasting of individuals by explicit discriminating factors such as race or sexual orientation is perpetuated across large groups of people over periods of time. As psychologist Claude M. Steele asserts, stigma pressure wrought on by social stereotypes impacts the validity of conscious perception of identity[8]. The prospect of a “stereotype threat” is evident in what are widely considered to be societal norms: African-American students underperform across standardized tests, while females appear to be hindered by a palpable “ceiling” in areas such as mathematics [8]. In these cases, the suggestion is the stereotype itself perpetuated by society as a construct, harking back to suggestion as a product of group psychology.

Religious movements such as the Second Great Awakening have also been driven by prestige suggestion, typified by the employment of reverence and other awe-inducing governance by authoritative figures [2]. This suggestibility indicates the inherent human allure of strength, supporting how suggestibility has evolved as a projection from more primitive behaviors [1].

In more current affairs, researchers have taken suggestibility increasingly into account in the placebo effect. The manner in which a physician might verbally prescribe medication and the aural nature of the medical nomenclature inevitably and unavoidably bias results with no way of truly accounting for all possible sources of suggestion that may have some sway in the ultimate effect of the medication on the patient [9].Irving Kirsch’s response expectancy theory in particular credits the role of the subject’s own acuity in prejudicing the functionality of placebos, referring to how individuals anticipate their reaction, be it emotionally or mentally [9]. Such an expectancy renders the subject to be influenced, regardless of intended or undeliberate actions, to achieve the expected result following anticipating [10]; thus, the relation between cognition and behavior may be questioned in light of the increasing context of the role that suggestibility plays in influencing what may appear to be conscious decisions that are instigated by unintentional suggestion.

The degree by which suggestion permeates our living whether unconsciously or knowingly ought to be curbed for the sake of ensuring true individuality. Regardless, the intricacy of how suggestion affects both the brain and the mind leaves the prospect of such impartiality dubious.


[1] Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. N.p.: n.p., 1922.

[2] Gault, Robert H. “Suggestion and Suggestibility.” American Journal of Sociology 25, no. 2.

[3] Harris, Tom. “How Hypnosis Works.” HowStuffWorks. August 7, 2001. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[4] Déry, Catherine., Campbell, Natasha K.J., et. al “Suggestion overrides automatic audiovisual integration.”

[5] Fiorio, M., Recchia, S., et. al. “Behavioral and neurophysiological investigation of the influence of verbal suggestion on tac­tile perception.”

[6] Leichtman, Michelle D., and Steven J. Ceci. “The Effects of Stereotypes and Suggestions on Preschoolers’ Reports.” Developmental Psychology 31, no. 4 (1995).

[7] “Interference and Inhibition in Cognition and Behavior: Unifying Themes for Educational Psychology.” Educational Psychology Review 11, no. 1 (1999).

[8] Steele, Claude. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do., 2011.

[9] Kirsch, Irving. “Hypnosis and Placebos: Response Expectancy as a Mediator of Suggestion Effects.” Anales de Psicología 15, no. 1 (1999).

[10] “The Power of Suggestion: What We Expect Influences Our Behavior, for Better or Worse.” ScienceDaily. June 6, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2014.

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Retrieved September 5, 2014 from: laura-worldwide on deviant art.


Allison Kiang is a rising senior at The Harker School. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook