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This paper first appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), pp. 3-7.

The ASKE email discussion network was buzzing with activity recently after one member drew our attention to a news item worthy of sceptical analysis. The gist of the story is as follows:

Italian police have issued CCTV pictures of a man who appears to hypnotise a supermarket cashier before stealing money from her till. According to reports from the Italian news agency, ANSA, the man asked the cashier to change a 100 euro note and as soon as the till was opened he proceeded to hypnotise her into handing over money. 'She was asked something concerning the banknotes', a police spokeswoman told Sky Italia. '(As) she opened up the till the man took away some money in a very natural way'. It is thought the man was working with a female accomplice, seen calmly leaving the supermarket behind the suspect. When the cashier came to count the till money at the end of her shift, around 800 euros was missing. "It was very strange," she said.'

It is not clear if there is only one recorded instance of this or several. The account at the following website implies the latter:

Before I go any further, I would like to tell you a true story. In 1967 there was a young man from the North of England - aged 18, but going on 14 - who had arrived the previous day in London at the start of his university career. He was doing some sightseeing around Piccadilly. This young man had been brought up to respect older people, to believe that everyone is essentially trustworthy, and always to help someone who is in trouble. A somewhat older man approached him and after some pleasantries explained that he was a visitor to London and, having just booked into his hotel, he had realised that he had lost his wallet. Being Sunday, he could not get to a bank and he was in dire straits. In no time at all the young man had handed over most of the hard-earned cash that his mother had given him to tide him over until he received his student's grant. He accepted the other man's assurances that he would post the money to his digs once he had been to the bank the following day.

Needless to say the money never arrived in the post. Possessed with such naivety, there is only one way one can learn about life. The hard way.

Now, back to the story of the supermarket cashier. The ensuing ASKEnet discussion touched on several themes. Is it really possible to hypnotise people into handing over their money (or generally to do something against their will)? What about Mr Derren Brown's apparent ability to persuade a passer-by to hand over his money and house keys? Is he hypnotising the man or is he 'doing NLP' (neurolinguistic programming) or both? And what exactly is NLP?

Hypnosis and crime: anecdotal evidence

First let's deal with hypnosis and crime. There are a number of questions we can ask in relation to this but the two main ones are 'Can you hypnotise someone to commit a crime (e.g. rob a bank)?' and 'Can you hypnotise someone so they become the victim of a crime (e.g. you steal their money)?'

At the time of this discussion I was unaware of a website that gives summaries of numerous claims that people have been hypnotised and persuaded to hand over money and possessions. This is at and at the time of writing, the most recent report (subsequent to 'the Italian job') concerns a man in Vladivostok who was robbed of 4,500 roubles in the street by two gypsies who, he claims, hypnotised him. (Update: two more recent reports have appeared on the website.) I am grateful for Professor Ray Hyman for alerting me to this. We'll hear from Ray again later.

The following was my first contribution to the ASKEnet discussion; I have only amended it slightly.

'I have been asked for my opinion by the defence in three criminal cases in which the accused claimed that he or she committed the crime under the influence of hypnosis or, as all the defendants were of African origin, some form of black magic or ju-ju. (Update: I have provided opinion in a fourth case in which a man claimed to have been hypnotised when he assaulted a pub landlord who told him he was 'barred'. His defence was not accepted by the court.)

'One of them claimed that the heroin that was in his luggage when he landed at one of the UK airports had been planted by acquaintances prior to his departure from one of the African countries. They had first put him in a trance and he only 'came round' when his luggage was searched at Heathrow and the offending substance was discovered. I said in my report that this was implausible but, from his account, his acquaintances could have secreted the drugs in his luggage when they visited him in his hotel room prior to his departure - he fell asleep while they were there, having been to a late-night party. He was convicted and received a long prison sentence.

'The second defendant was a lady who worked on a supermarket checkout. She was observed on security camera to pass over the price scanner a large quantity of purchases being made by two women (also of African origin) without their being registered on the scanner. (It was obvious from the CCTV footage that at times she purposefully orientated the objects in such a way that the bar code did not pass over the scanner). The bill for the commodities was derisively small. The security guards intervened but the two customers fled, leaving their trolley full of goods in the car park. The cashier claimed to have no memory of the customers, even when shown the video footage, claiming that they must have hypnotised her or put some kind of influence on her. Again I said that this was implausible. She was given a community sentence.

'The third case was that of a man who was working in the exchange bureau of some kind of finance company. A customer persuaded him to bring a large quantity of the firm's cash to a nearby hotel, where he would take it away and return with the money plus a large surplus for the man's employers. This that was the last the accused saw of him. The accused claimed that the man had hypnotised him or that he was under the influence of black magic. Again I said this was implausible and if the man had a defence it was that he was extremely gullible but acted in good faith. He received some form of community sentence.

'There is a literature on allegations of crimes committed while hypnotised. The consensus now is that hypnosis does not have any coercive properties. If the defendant genuinely felt obliged to act in the way he or she did, one needs to examine factors in the situation itself that may have contributed to this, whether or not hypnosis was used at all'.

(I might add here that, in my own experience, more common than claims of crimes committed while the defendant was hypnotised are claims of such while the complainant was hypnotised, the typical allegation being that of impropriety, indecent assault, or even rape, by the defendant.)

Well, this was cue for some cross-examination by Max Blumberg.

'Very interesting. You suggest that the evidence you put forward was that it was implausible. Is your opinion based on the literature to which you refer….? And if you have time, can you please give us an idea of the research approach(es) used in that literature? ………Personally, I would have thought the standard null hypothesis process applies - no hypnosis unless significant evidence otherwise. But were there ever even mixed findings? And if so, how did the H0 rejecters provide evidence for a hypnotic effect?'

Research evidence

My reply was as follows: 'OK. There are quite a number of learned papers, chapters and books devoted to the topic of "hypnosis and will" and I can't really do justice to Max's question in such a short space. Broadly speaking, the research on hypnosis has demonstrated that the experiences of responsive hypnotic subjects are 'genuine'; that is, they are not just pretending and their responses do seem to them to be effortless rather than the result of some conscious strategy, such as self-distraction (e.g. when they are told they will not experience pain or they will be unable to remember something). However, what has been called into question is the traditional idea that all this is achieved by first putting the subject into some special state of consciousness or trance (the induction) that renders them highly responsive to suggestion. In fact, subjects respond to suggestions without the induction (this is known as "waking" or "imaginative" suggestion) and the gains in suggestibility following the induction are, on the whole quite modest. Significantly, it does not seem to matter much what you do for an induction (the traditional eye-fixation plus suggestions of sleep; instructions to feel awake and energetic; "motivating" instructions to do one's best to create the experiences suggested; and so on). Hence the role of the induction, so far as suggestibility is concerned, is simply to enhance motivation, commitment, expectancy, and so on prior to delivering the particular suggestion or suggestions of interest. To put it another way, "hypnotised" subjects are no more suggestible than subjects who have the same motivation, commitment and expectations but who are not hypnotised. (We assume, of course, that both groups are drawn at random from the same population and do not differ in their waking suggestibility.)'

Are there any laboratory experiments that have investigated whether people are more likely to obey instructions to commit dangerous or antisocial acts when they have been 'hypnotised'? Yes, although nowadays the ethical rules on experimenting with human subjects would probably disallow such investigations. Suffice it to say that hypnotised and non-hypnotised subjects have been compared in their willingness, amongst other things, to make slanderous statements, plunge their hands in a beaker containing acid and throw the 'acid' at the experimenter, make homosexual advances, mutilate the bible, cut up the national flag (most of these studies were done in the USA), steal, and deal in heroin, the differences being non-existent or, if any, towards greater compliance by non-hypnotised subjects.

It is apposite at this stage to refer to the experiments of Stanley Milgram, which demonstrated that human volunteers are willing to administer seemingly painful and even potentially lethal electric shocks to another person in the context of a scientific investigation.

Stage hypnosis

Does this mean that stage hypnotists don't really have to 'hypnotise' their volunteers to get them to behave in the extraordinary ways that they do? Yes! Prominent amongst those who don't do a traditional induction is the American illusionist and stage hypnotist George Kresge, aka 'The Amazing Kreskin'. Kresge specifically instructs his participants, whom he does not test for suggestibility, to remain awake and not 'go into a trance'. Similarly in this country, the magician Martin S. Taylor holds stage hypnosis shows 'without using hypnosis'. A third such person is ASKE member John Birchall, for many years a well-known stage hypnotist, who now labels his performances as 'The Empowerment Show'. According to John, 'Any advertising that I send out to prospective customers or venues lists my show as "The Empowerment Show". Unfortunately some venues advertise me as a "Hypnotist". At the start of a show, my routine is as follows:- "I will shortly be looking for volunteers to take part in my show. It is your chance to entertain your family and friends. Not everyone who volunteers will be suitable. If you volunteer and nothing happens don't think there is anything wrong with you - not everyone is suitable. For those who do take part no one will be asked to do or say anything against their will or morals…….Who said, 'Pity'?"

'I go on to explain that, irrespective of the posters, I do not perform a hypnosis show. I do not believe that there is such a thing. I perform an "Empowerment Show". The difference is that during my show I do not claim to have any power over those taking part. They are in complete control of themselves at all times. I can ask them to do certain things but they will use their own imagination and talent to interpret my suggestions. They can refuse or stop at any time.

'I explain that some think that you have to be a bit thick or stupid to take part when in fact the opposite is the case. The best people are those with a well-educated, organised mind. Those who are not suitable are habitual liars and drunks.

'I then conduct a hands clasp test to see who has the required level of imagination. I tell those who are suitable that I will count to three and their hands will come apart. They can then sit down relax, concentrate and use their imagination. I do not make any reference to sleep.

'Before I start my show I go along those who are taking part and touch them on the shoulder and remind them that they are in complete control of themselves and they will use their imagination and talent. I cannot make them do anything.

'At the end of the performance I usually say to them, "None of you have been hypnotised have you?" To date no one has replied that they have.

'Examples of some who have (a) stopped or (b) refused to act out routines are as follows.

'(a) On a number of occasions some individuals have volunteered and I have started the show. When they suddenly realise that they are performing before an audience they stop. Sometimes after performing for a while they decide that they want to go and watch.

'(b) Two notable examples:- I was once in Stafford when I told a young lady she could be a Chinese lady and sing a song in Chinese that was top of their hit parade. This she did with some gusto. I then told her she was now a Russian. At this point she stopped and said no. I told her she could be a Japanese lady and tell us a joke in Japanese. This she did with no problems. At the end of the night she came over and apologised but said that part of her family was from Eastern Europe and they had been suppressed by the Russians and she did not want to have anything to do with Russians. On another occasion in North Wales I asked a young gentleman to be the world's greatest liar and tell the biggest lies ever. He refused. At the end of the night he also apologised and explained that in "real life" he could not tell a lie. He realised that the show was no more than play-acting but he could still not tell a lie.'

Hypnosis and will: conclusion

The take-home message therefore is this: hypnosis itself has no property that renders the subject unusually obedient to the hypnotist's instructions; it is the social demands, pressures and expectations of the context in which hypnosis is conducted (laboratory, clinic, stage show, etc.) that determine this.

But what about Derren Brown?

During the ASKEnet discussion, Alan Henness reminded us of Derren Brown's stunt on television whereby he seemingly persuade a passer-by to hand over his money and house keys. How does he achieve this?

Well, my answer is that I don't know. Neither do I know how the magician David Copperfield makes a jumbo jet disappear, but I am sure that the said object remains in its place or, if not, departs in the normal manner. Tony Youens knows more about such things than most and made the point that those who do are able to explain Mr Brown's stunts in more conventional ways. 'If you've seen his stage show it is much easier to unravel his tricks than when you see him on TV. For example, putting subliminal messages into people's minds so that they do what he predicts is complete b******s.'

I absolutely agree.

A lot of people seem to think that Mr Brown is engaged in an activity called 'doing NLP', using matching and mirroring of body posture and action, 'pattern interruption', and trance.

I spent years attempting to understand what people mean when they say someone is 'doing NLP' and came to the conclusion that the semantic elasticity of this expression allows it to cover more or less any form of human activity. However, there is no space here to enter into a critique of NLP. The Wikipedia account is quite good and there are also my papers on this website. Also for a good discussion of Derren Brown and NLP go to

Our ASKEnet discussion included a contribution from Mark Newbrook, commenting on the linguistic ideas put about by NLP writers. I'm not going to include them here as Mark is planning to write a paper on this theme for the 2008 'Skeptical Intelligencer'.

A YouTube thread of Derren Brown's stunt (update: this is no longer available) includes some derogatory comments about the gentleman who handed over his possessions to Mr Brown. How could he be so gullible and easily conned? Actually, what to me is more striking and intriguing is the gullibility of many of the viewers, including the contributors to the YouTube discussion, who believe that Mr Brown is 'doing NLP' or 'doing hypnosis' with 'the handshake technique' and so on. But if he is, then why don't we see and hear about many more people who have been trained to 'do NLP' helping themselves to people's possessions in the street and performing other remarkable feats like Mr Brown? (A similar question arises in the case of Uri Geller. Why only one such person? Surely we should have seen many more people on our television screens 'bending metal with the power of their minds'? Interesting….)

To throw further light on the Derren Brown stunt I asked Ray Hyman for his opinion. Ray is a retired Professor of Psychology from Oregon and a magician who, in both capacities is well-known in international sceptic circles. Here's what he has to say.

'I have some qualms about speculating about the alleged robbery by hypnotizing the cashier. Before sceptics should attempt to "explain away" an apparently paranormal or extraordinary claim, they should make sure that the alleged "facts" are correct. In addition, they should make sure that they have all the relevant facts. I have not searched the "facts" of this case diligently. What I have uncovered raises questions. From what I could find, this bandit has succeeded with this same ploy all over Italy. The video clip….states that the bandit simply told the cashier to look into his eyes. He then apparently reached into the till and took over $1,000 in cash. The cashier says she remembers nothing of this.

'If we accept these "facts" as true, then the Derren Brown video in which he talks his victim out of his house keys and wallet becomes irrelevant. At least if we accept the claptrap about NLP and mirroring. The bandit did not take the time to "mirror" or otherwise prime his victim. He merely told her to look into his eyes and the deed was done. Even the most dedicated NLP devotees do not claim they can manipulate a person in this way.

'The news reports state that this case is just one of several throughout Italy where the same crime by hypnosis has succeeded. Even the true believers in hypnosis and its powers would have to admit that something must be amiss.

'Hypnotic susceptibility, as measured by the accepted scale, varies greatly among people. Only a small percentage of the population is at the high susceptibility end of the scale. It is these individuals who they would claim might be victimised by such speed hypnosis. Even such highly susceptible individuals would require an induction procedure of greater complexity and duration than the simple "look into my eyes." So the probability is high that the hypnotic bandit will encounter cashiers who will be immune to his simple and quick induction. These non-susceptible individuals would have easily noticed the bandit attempting to reach into the till and they would have raised the alarm.

'So the story about this hypnotic bandit going from cashier to cashier and merrily pocketing cash from the till makes no sense. Even the fanatic believers in NLP or "speed hypnosis" do not claim that such consistent and speedy hypnosis can occur. Certainly not in a majority of randomly chosen cashiers.

'Indeed, the story begins to sound like an urban legend. When I tried to find more information about this particular case by searching the web, I discovered something quite interesting. For example, a London newspaper reported almost the same story about a hypnotic bandit and a cashier that took place in Reggio Calabria, Italy in 1998. Then I found a similar story about a hypnotic bandit in the Boston Globe in 1898. Indeed in the late 1800s there seemed to be an epidemic of cases where hypnotic bandits were relieving citizens and bank tellers and cashiers of their money. I found a report from 1897 where a bank president claimed that he had been hypnotised into giving someone a huge amount of the bank's money.

'I have read some of the technical literature on the disputes about hypnosis and its alleged powers. But I cannot claim to have expertise in this particular area. I have studied the swindle known as "change-raising". This is the inverse of the swindle known as "short-changing." In short-changing, the seller or the cashier manages to get away with giving the buyer less change than he or she is entitled to. In change-raising, the purchaser manages to confuse the cashier so that the cashier unwittingly provides the purchaser with more money than he is entitled to. Such confusion does not appear to have operated in the story of the hypnotic bandit.

'Given the preceding comments, I would think that the first step should be to make sure that we have the correct facts.' (Ray then makes some suggestions for following this story up, so watch future issues of the Newsletter.)

It strikes me that from the victim's point of view, the explanation 'I did it because I was hypnotised' may provide a useful explanation for allowing oneself to be conned. But for that silly lad in London, whom I mentioned at the start, this was not an option.