The Power of Suggestion

Though many resent the fact, human beings are highly suggestible creatures whose reason and rationality is limited. Indeed, almost anything is open to suggestion, from thought and behaviour to memory and shopping habits. Inevitably, some exploit this fact. Advertisers make millions employing the technique – some even hire psychology graduates to help them. Disturbing as this may be, there is an up-side. The power of suggestion can also be used to speed recovery from phobias, shyness, and even physical illness.

Suggestion

So what is the power of suggestion? Put simply, if you repeat something enough, people will start to believe it. Of course, some are more resistant than others. Why this is so is still debated, but low IQ, weak self-esteem, and a poorly developed sense of identity can all play a part.

Those who attempt to use the power of suggestion, whether for good or ill, will usually follow three simple rules: keep it simple, assert it confidently, and then repeat it over and over again. Bullies know this instinctively. Think back to the nastiest, most spiteful children at school. Remember how they would demolish their victim with a simple statement, asserted so confidently and with such glee? No child ever goes into exhausting, subtle detail. They will simply say the same thing every morning, with the same deadly certainty, “You are fat and no one likes you.” After a few weeks, the victim is convinced it is true – and many remain convinced for the rest their life.

Even memory is vulnerable to suggestion. A court case recently collapsed in the UK because the judge suspected that a witness’s memory had been influenced by reports in the media. In other words, she was ‘remembering’ things that hadn’t happened. And defence attorneys often use suggestion on juries, insinuating that the victim was so drunk or emotional at the time of the offence that their testimony is unreliable. Those with supreme confidence will even re-shape a memory to fit the high opinion they have of themselves. Imagine someone who has been told all his life that he is very clever. At 18, he is interviewed for a place at Oxford University, but he is rejected. His adoring parents cannot accept this. Together, the three of them collude to re-shape events until they all believe that he was offered a place but turned it down. And this then becomes the official version of events. Years later, that is literally how the man will remember his interview.

Expectations

Once a suggestion has lodged itself in the subconscious, it will then shape expectations, and ultimately thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. And these expectations can be shaped non-verbally. For example, imagine you are about to take a vacation in Scotland. A work colleague went last Fall, but disliked the hotel, food and weather. Every time you mention your trip, he rolls his eyes, purses his lips, or grunts. You ask him what is wrong and he says “oh nothing – ignore me, I’m sure you’ll have a great time.” But the suggestion that you will not has already been made. And now you expect rain and bad food. This in turn means that when you arrive and the sky is a bit grey, or the hotel a little smaller than you hoped, you notice it more and allow it to spoil your vacation.

Unfortunately, suggestion can also lead to self-sabotage. A girl whose mother tells her she comes from a family that finds relationships difficult will expect this. The suggestion has been made that she is predisposed to fail. When she eventually marries a sweet, gentle man, she is expecting arguments and heartbreak. But they don’t happen. Instead of making her happy, this troubles her. It makes her insecure. So she provokes him and, when she doesn’t get a response, has an affair with someone at work and ruins her marriage.

Those who expect to succeed, however, will usually do better than those who expect to fail, even if they possess the same amount of talent. Any physician will tell you that medical professionals know who will recover from an operation and who will respond best to medication. And some take great pains not to suggest that the operation or tablets will do no good. The more optimistic and cheerful they can be, the higher the patient’s expectations will become and the quicker they will recover. There is even evidence that positive thinking can affect the immune system! It is certainly true that patients who take a worthless placebo during drug trials often recover faster than those who receive no drug at all.

Using the Power of Suggestion

How can you harness this power to your advantage? First, remember that you absorb more than you realise. You may believe that negative, depressed people do not affect you, but this is rarely true. Stay away from those who drag you down. Above all, avoid anyone you know to be spiteful. Many will do all they can to plant little seeds of doubt or self-loathing.

It isn’t only other people who plant these negative suggestions. Many inflict it on themselves. So get in the habit of monitoring your thoughts. Try and catch yourself before negative, self-critical thoughts get going. If they do, challenge them. Recognize how foolish and irrational they really are. And notice in particular how the mind simplifies things and makes complicated situations black and white. Finally, watch simplistic language. Do you say things like “I always fail,” or “no one likes me”? How true is this? Finally, be wary of your body language. Research now shows that not only do your thoughts and emotions affect your posture but your posture affects your thoughts and emotions. So stand up straight, with your chin out and your shoulders back.

The power of suggestion is in itself neutral. Human beings are vulnerable to the messages they receive, and knowledge of this brings responsibility. Everyone has a duty to use the power for good.



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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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