May I Suggest…?

Though it sounds sort of magical and mysterious, the ‘power of suggestion’ can often be a part of your everyday life. For example, let’s say you mistakenly drink a caffeinated beverage close to bedtime, but don’t realize it until the next day. You’re surprised that you slept just fine—despite the fact that you normally stay awake when you drink caffeine that late. People tell me about things like that all the time.

Simply put, a person is ‘suggestible’ if he or she accepts and acts on suggestions by others. ‘Suggestions’ can range from lies to misunderstandings to incorrect perceptions (like the caffeine example). In other words, your mind, and in some cases, even your body (in conjunction with your mind), will ‘trick’ you into believing that something is true, even when it isn’t.

In his book, ‘Predictably Irrational,’ psychologist and author John Grohol tells us that people taking name brand medication nearly always feel it’s more effective than the equivalent generic version. Yet, by law, generics must be manufactured exactly as the name brand. Other research studies have found that when consumers pay more for something, it becomes more valuable to them, whether or not the product is actually more valuable. For example, the cost of a pain pill was directly related to the relief experienced by people taking the pill. Subjectively measured, a $2.50 pill relieved more pain than the 10-cent pill—even though both were identical.

People tell me over and over that they often feel better immediately after going to the doctor. Or that they feel better right after taking the first dose of an antibiotic, even though it could not possibly have an effect so soon. We humans are, indeed, a suggestible lot.

Researchers warn against confusing ‘suggestibility’ with ‘susceptibility.’ Susceptibility refers to a weakness or predisposition related to some kind of abnormality (like being susceptible to colds), while suggestibility is a more natural, mental phenomenon. It seems to me that suggestibility could also turn into a weakness. Frankly, it makes me nervous to know that my mind is capable of creating a reality that is, at one and the same time, out of touch with reality. It seems that the best way to guard against this problem is to engage in ‘critical thinking.’ Critical thinking means standing back and looking at people and situations objectively—especially yourself.

If you’re in the habit of thinking critically, you would ask yourself questions like: ‘I slept well last night despite the fact I drank caffeine without knowing it. Is it possible that I’m less susceptible to caffeine than I assumed?’ Or: ‘I just came back from the doctor and I’m feeling better—though I took the first antibiotic pill only ten minutes ago. Is it possible that I wasn’t as sick as I thought I was, or that I was starting to recover anyway?’

Non-critical thinkers don’t ask those sorts of questions, especially about themselves. They assume that because it’s difficult to be objective about yourself, it must be impossible. This is fraught with peril for many different reasons. One is the danger of suggestibility turning into naivetand gullibility. The famous saying, ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ may be true—but only where critical thinking is ignored, discouraged or outlawed.

Not surprisingly, some mental health professionals are suggesting that individual levels of self-esteem and assertiveness can make some people more or less suggestible than others. Essentially, self-esteem means confidence in your mind and in your ability to think critically. In other words, ‘I know what’s going on—and if not, I’m capable of figuring it out.’ Given that definition, it’s easy to see how greater self-esteem can reduce suggestibility. People with genuine self-esteem regularly engage in critical thinking. Self-esteem minus critical thinking equals nothing more than bluster, bravado, and arrogance.

There is a lot of fascination with how hypnosis relates to suggestibility. Hypnosis is defined as a trance-like state that resembles sleep, induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject. Over the years I have encountered many people who have tried hypnotherapy. From what I’ve seen, its greatest effectiveness seems to involve helping people stop smoking—although only for a limited period of time. I’m always in favor of anything that works or helps, but I remain unconvinced that anything other than a lasting commitment to behavioral change will ever enable a person to permanently quit habits such as smoking, overeating, or drug/alcohol abuse. Either you want to change or you don’t. If you do, you’ll find a way to do it. In that case, self-suggestion is perhaps the most powerful suggestion of all!

I love this quote from the Greek philosopher Aristotle: ‘For though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires to honor the truth first.’ In more up-to-date wording, it simply means that self-esteem, objectivity and critical thinking are most important. If you respect your mind and your sense of reality, suggestibility will never be a problem.