Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis: In Medicine, Dentistry, and Psychology, 2nd Edition

7. Laws of Suggestion


There are several important principles or “laws” that should be followed when employing hypnotic suggestion.2 The first is the law of concentrated attention: whenever attention is concentrated on an idea over and over again, it spontaneously tends to realize itself. Repetitive radio and television commercials that cause people to buy the advertised products are typical examples of this law. In many commercials, the listener's attention is gained without his knowledge through subliminal stimulation. This is even more effective than persuasion, as critical faculties are reduced.


The second is the law of reversed effect: the harder one tries to do something, the less chance one has of success. Trying to recall someone's name, for instance, often can be a difficult task. Regardless of how hard he wills himself to remember the name, he cannot. It seems that, whenever the imagination and the will are utilized, the imagination supersedes the will.

This law applies to the insomniac who tries to go to sleep, and to the food, drug, or alcohol addict who cannot stop by making an appeal or inner “speech” to his will. These respond more readily to imagination power than to will power! The sophisticated hypnotherapist employs technics which make full use of the principles embodied in the law of reverse effect.

It is difficult to negate the effects of the imagination, which comprises all an individual's past associations, feelings, and ideas. A typical illustration is the individual who lacks confidence in public speaking. When in bed at night, he “sees” himself walking up to the rostrum and “hears” himself delivering his address. The mere thought of the future talk causes palpitation, sighing, holding of the breath, and a panicky feeling. Thus the imagination produces the same effects as if the speaker were in front of the audience. This process is referred to as sensory imagery. If his imagination is negatively “programmed” in this manner, time after time, night after night, it is only natural that he will develop anxiety when he gets up to speak. Continually thinking negative, harmful, and destructive thoughts eventually leads to their realization because of expectation and belief that they will happen. Having an idea of an action often results in that action.

Therefore, one never resorts to the will to attain desired physiologic changes! The organism will not respond as well to direct authoritative commands as it will to permissive manipulation of the experiential background via the individual's imagination. When one is trying to develop glove anesthesia, for instance, it is incorrect to suggest, “I want your hand to get numb.” Rather, one must use a descriptive sensory imagery type of verbalization, such as: “Imagine that you are putting your hand in a pitcher of very cold ice water. As soon as you can visualize this, you will feel you hand developing a numb, heavy, wooden feeling, the same as if you had been sitting on it, or the same as if you had had an anesthetic injected into it.” Stimulating the imagination in this manner is more likely to produce the desired response.


The law of dominant effect also plays an important role in enabling suggestions to be received in a more meaningful manner. It is based on the axiom that a strong emotion tends to replace a weaker one. Attaching a strong emotion to a suggestion tends to make the suggestion more effective. Thus, when a person is having a pleasurable emotional experience and danger is imminent, the stronger emotion of danger displaces the former, which disappears instantly if the danger is pronounced.

Another illustration of this law is the use of a strong physiologic effect to reinforce a psychological suggestion. Suggestions of relaxation are increased by massage or gentle stroking. The effect of this principle is noted when a child slams the door on his finger and his mother remarks, “Oh I'll just kiss it and the pain will go away.” Here the mere touch of her lips becomes the more dominant suggestion and makes the finger feel better. Thus, at an early age, we become responsive to this fundamental principle or law.

Emile Coué popularized these laws.1 He also made a point of suggesting only the end result. He avoided details of how recovery should be accomplished and emphasized that a general, nonspecific suggestion was best, since it would be received uncritically. He became famous for a phrase he urged his patients to say to themselves several times a day, “Everyday, in every way, I am getting better and better.” He was specific, however, as to the end result, but he omitted the details involved in improvement. Such ego strengthening is now advocated by Hartland, who utilizes this approach with direct symptom removal without the need to ascertain the reasons for the symptoms.3,4


1. Coué, E.: How To Practice Suggestion and Autosuggestion. New York, American Library Service, 1923.

2. Davis, L.W., and Husband, R.W.: A study of hypnotic susceptibility in relation to personality traits. J. Abnorm. Social Psychol., 26:175, 1931.

3. Hartland, J.: The value of “ego-strengthening” procedures prior to direct symptom removal under hypnosis. Am. J. Clin. Hypn., 8:89, 1965.

4. _________: Medical and Dental Hypnosis. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins, 1971.

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