In order to talk about group and mass hypnosis, we first need to briefly explain what hypnosis is, and what mechanisms need to be present for the phenomena to expand to a group, or even to a mass of people.
Hypnosis as a phenomenon is as old as humanity itself. Humans are creatures of language and with very specialized awareness. We can pay attention in refined and specific ways. But even when self-awareness partly defines us as creatures on this planet, it is only but an iceberg in the midst of a vast ocean: our sub-conscious minds.
We give the credit to our consciousness, which seems to love the attention; but in truth, we are pretty much ruled by our unconscious minds. Our subconscious communicates with every cell in our bodies, and depending on what data it exchanges, we suffer or heal; we repeat negative patterns or we learn; we feel miserable, or happy and fulfilled.
The good news is, we can consciously and purposefully make a difference in what information is exchanged at the level of the unconscious. We can do this by communicating with it.
And this is hypnosis: to talk to the subconscious mind, whether it’s our own (Self Hypnosis), or someone else’s (Hypnosis or Hypnotherapy), by making suggestions that will bypass the demand for rationality of our ever-vigilant mind. If successful, those suggestions will be accepted as ‘reality’ by our sub-conscious, which will act accordingly.
For someone to talk to a sub-conscious mind (on purpose that is), they have to:
- Establish rapport with the subject
- Induce hypnotic trance
- Pass on the desired information to the sub-conscious
A tribe dancing and chanting for rain to come; a group séance in which a healer is ridding a subject of a bad spirit; a packed opera house watching Don Giovanni; a household around the TV. All these are opportunities for and examples of group trance, and some of them include ‘suggestions’ or information being triggered by the agent causing the trance, as well as subjects reacting as a group, sharing a reality.
The healer is deliberate in his actions, creating the atmosphere he needs for the participants to suspend disbelief. The messages delivered by the TV set are purposefully crafted to maximize the chances that the recipient will perform a certain action, like ‘buying’. The opera singer will use his or her talent to evoke certain feelings in the audience.
In all the examples above, an alternate reality is suggested by the agent producing the trance (the healer, the TV, the artist), and we are invited to enter this reality and to agree with its premises for as long as the experience lasts.
One difference between individual and group hypnosis, is in what someone can agree to do while in trance. During individual trance, the hypnotist knows that he can’t ‘make’ the subject do what goes against his/her core morals. In group hypnosis, however, the limits are more blurred, in part because there’s not only a rapport with a leader-type figure, but there’s also consensus with the rest of the group. This consensus can bring about a new agreement about what is morally right, and this new agreement can sometimes supersede each pre-existent individual code.
As infants, our first learning experiences happen by copying the adults we have around us. We've all noticed the child who falls down and just before reacting to the fall, looks at his mother for a quick clue on how to react. We all (consciously or not) look for clues on how to behave by watching what others do or say. This kind of behavior increases exponentially within a group. And however crucial this is for our development as well-adjusted social individuals, there's a flip side to it.
There have been experiments in which an individual's decision-making autonomy is put to the test by having a group of people show absolutely no reaction (they're all 'in on it' except for the subject), to a potentially life-threatening situation. The subject should by all accounts call 911 or run when smoke starts filling up the waiting room he shares with the group. Initially he's alarmed. But when he sees that others don't react, he decides to go against his own judgment and favor instead the consensus of the room, staying in a potentially
life-threatening situation rather than going against the group.
This is how influential groups are in the way we 'choose'.
Extreme examples of group trance are some manifestations of cult mentality, (which is not limited to 'cults' by the way). Another example is in political rallies and campaigning, where acts that would have been reprehensible at an individual level, become acceptable because it’s made Ok by the group consensus.
A power-hungry leader with plans of world domination can guide a mass of people into accepting premises which would have been unthinkable in the normal course of an individual’s life. This can and has been done very deliberately by many totalitarian regimes in history.
By the same token, there are leaders who utilize the power of mass hypnosis to assist people in evolving and becoming better human beings, better societies, and a better planet.
We should clarify that even in the above examples, there are always individuals who 'break the spell' that the group consensus creates.
So, ultimately, we are beings with free will, however conditioned this freedom may be. It is therefore our individual responsibility to be vigilant of our own mental processes, and to be aware of the power of the sub-conscious mind, especially when it comes to group and mass hypnosis.