A woman in Germany has claimed she was hypnotized outside of a supermarket, put into a trance, and later woke up at home having been robbed. A March 4, 2014 Daily Mirror news article, explained that “A pair of hypnotists are being hunted by police after a victim claimed she was put in a trance before being robbed. Police in Germany are investigating a spate of crimes involving two Russian women who tell their victims they will read their fortune. In one incident 66 year-old Sarah Alexeyeva told detectives she was spoken to outside an Aldi supermarket in Elmshorn, Schleswig-Holstein. But the next thing she knew she snapped out of a trance and was sat in her armchair at home. All her jewellery and valuables had disappeared, police said.”
Though such claims are unusual, they are not unheard of. According to a 2008 BBC News story, “Police in Italy have issued footage of a man who is suspected of hypnotizing supermarket checkout staff to hand over money from their cash registers. In every case, the last thing staff reportedly remember is the thief leaning over and saying: ‘Look into my eyes, before finding the till empty.”
There’s a certain creepy gothic allure to the idea that a mesmerizing stranger can ask you to stare deeply into his eyes, or ask you to follow a pocketwatch swaying seductively to and fro and listen to him count backwards into a hypnotic trance. But it’s pure fiction.
Hypnosis is a widely misunderstood psychological phenomenon, due largely to its depictions in popular culture and film. Many people believe that hypnosis is a way to access memories of traumatic events that have somehow been hidden or forgotten. In the book Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory, Dr. Ian Neath of Purdue University notes, “The majority of studies do not find that hypnosis allows recollection of information that could not otherwise be recalled.”
In fact there is a significant danger that any information or memories that may be recalled under hypnosis may be false, created accidentally by the power of suggestion. False memories elicited using hypnosis played a role in the “Satanic Panic” scare of the 1980s and 1990s in which dozens of people were falsely accused of physically and sexually abusing children. Some people even spent years and decades in prison for crimes they did not commit based on little or no evidence other than hypnosis-derived memories.
Another common myth about hypnosis is that it can put someone into a helpless or suggestible trance-like state. To psychologists, however, this idea has no basis. If it were possible to simply stare deeply into a stranger’s eyes to induce a trance-like, compliant state, then it would happen all the time. Anyone with practice or skill in hypnosis could easily turn to a life of crime by walking into a bank, casting a hypnotic stare at a teller, and take whatever they like.
In their book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein debunk this popular myth: “Recent survey data show that public opinion resonates with media portrayals of hypnosis. Specifically, 77% of college students endorsed the statement that ‘hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, quite different from normal waking consciousness.’… But research refutes these widely accepted beliefs. Hypnotized people are by no means mindless automatons.”
Many psychologists believe that hypnosis is not some special altered state of consciousness, but simply a form of deep relaxation. Stage hypnosis—such as the kind seen in Las Vegas comedy acts where “suggestible” audience members get on stage and pretend to be chickens or caught in embarrassing situations—is not true clinical hypnosis but instead a combination of showmanship and participatory comedy.
There is some evidence that hypnosis might be useful in addressing some behavior-related medical issues such as quitting smoking or weight loss. There may be a placebo-like effect in that a person who is highly motivated to change their habits might get a boost from believing that hypnosis is helping them. However the evidence is weak because people who seek out hypnosis for help with their problems are by definition highly motivated, and any added success rate may be due to that motivation, with or without the benefit of hypnosis. It’s not clear why a person would believe or assume that he or she had been put into a hypnotic trance when they had not. Such a belief may be due to memory loss or confusion, but there’s no reason to fear hypnotist bandits.