Forget framing — it's hypnosis!

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[Update 10/29/2008 2:20 p.m.: A bunch of hits from freerepublic.com and similar sites suggest that Rush Limbaugh picked this story up, apparently in a credulous way, on his show today. I believe that he referenced the AAPS site, not this one, but people are finding their way here via web search.

So for any internet pilgrims who may be reading quickly: There is no credible evidence that Barack Obama -- or any other candidate in the current election cycle -- is attempting to use NLP or any other hypnosis-like technique. The discussion in the item on the AAPS site is a combination of unsupported assertions, transparent falsehoods, and general properties of political rhetoric as practiced by all effective candidates of all parties. The longer anonymous piece at Freedom's Phoenix is no better.

In my opinion, no one should treat this story as anything other than an opportunity for a good laugh at the wilder edges of current political paranoia; and anyone who promotes it seriously is either a fool or a scoundrel.]

At the web site of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons ("A Voice for Private Physicians Since 1943"), there's an unsigned "News of the Day" item dated October 25, 2008, under the title "Oratory — or hypnotic induction?". This article's disturbing message is indicated by the rhetorical questions in its opening sentences:

Is Barack Obama a brilliant orator, captivating millions through his eloquence? Or is he deliberately using the techniques of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a covert form of hypnosis developed by Milton Erickson, M.D.?

67 additional pages of anonymous evidence and argument can be found in "An Examination of Obama's Use of Hidden Hypnosis Techniques in His Speeches", hosted at Freedom's Phoenix ("Reigniting the Flames of Freedom"), a conservative website based in Phoenix, AZ.

But please don't panic; simply put on your tinfoil hat and continue straight ahead to the end of this post.

Before considering these issues further, we need to help you distinguish between the AAPS whose red-white-and-blue logo has the rod of Asclepius between the two As, and the AAPS whose yellow-green-and-white logo has the it between the second A and the P:

The first one is the "Association of American Physicians and Surgeons", based in Tucson, Arizona. Wikipedia quotes Time Magazine as calling it "an ultra-conservative political action group", and notes that its publication, The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, has published articles arguing that the FDA is unconstitutional, that humanists have conspired to replace the "creation religion of Jehovah" with evolution, that HIV does not cause AIDS, and that vaccination and fluoridation are harmful to public health. Ron Paul is a prominent member. They are against government regulation and in favor of Newfoundland dogs.

The second one is the "American Association of Physician Specialists", with offices in Tampa, Florida, which publishes the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, and is one of the organizations that oversees board certification and re-certification in medical specializations from Anesthesiology to Radiation Oncology. They appear to approve of the FDA, and to have no official position on dog breeds.

As another piece of background, you may need a primer on Neurolinguistic Programming, familiarly (if confusingly) known as NLP, an approach to psychotherapy developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder at Santa Cruz, CA, in the 1970s. The Wikipedia article is a reasonable introduction, or at least it seems that way to me. I'm certainly no expert — I've never quite gotten over being puzzled about the name, since the ideas seem to have nothing at all to do with programming, and very little to do with either neurology or linguistics.

OK, the stage is set for an epic confrontation: the libertarian medical wingnuts of Arizona against the New Age psychological moonbats of California, with Barack Obama in the middle of it all. Can the robocalls be far behind? News at 11:00.

Alas, that's all that I have time for this morning. Keep those tinfoil hats on tight, and in due course we'll take a look at the evidence and the arguments.

[Hat tip: Christian DiCanio]

[Update: Although the cited news item is unsigned, I gather that this web site is managed by Dr. Jane Orient, the Executive Director of the AAPS. Therefore, I'll refer to her as the author, pending better information. She (or the author operating under her guidance) writes that:

A fundamental tool of “conversational hypnosis” is pacing and leading—a way for the hypnotist to bypass the listener’s critical faculty by associating repeated statements that are unquestionably accurate with the message he wants to convey.

In his Denver acceptance speech, Obama used the phrases “that’s why I stand here tonight,” “now is the time,” and “this moment” 14 times.

The most obvious interpretation of the last sentence is that the cited three phrases were used 14 times each, for a total of 42 hypnotic repetitions. Alternatively, you might think that the sum of repetitions across all three phrases was 14 -- certainly less hypnotically effective, but still perhaps noteworthy.

However, under either reading, the AAPS claim is simply a lie. According to the transcript of that speech, the sum of uses of the cited three phrases is 9:

Phrase Count
"that's why I stand here tonight" 1
"now is the time" 6
"this moment" 2 (4)

(Sen. Obama uses "this moment" twice -- but on one of the occasions of use, he repeats it three times because it's the start of a sentence after a big applause line, and the applause doesn't die down, so that he has to stop and start over twice. Thus you could count this phrase as occurring twice, or as occurring four times. Less than 14 in either case...)

[Update: in the comments, Brad pointed out an unfortunate mistake in the earlier version of this post -- I originally counted just one use of "now is the time", not six -- I guess I looked by mistake on just one on-line page.  The count is now corrected above.]

Dr. Orient's explanation continues:

Paces are connected to the lead by words such as “and,” “as,” “because,” or “that is why.” For example, “we need change” (who could disagree?)…and…that is why I will be your next President.”

Her rhetorical point may be valid, but again, there is an extraordinary lack of elementary care to stay within the bounds of truth. The phrase as cited doesn't appear in the transcript of Sen. Obama's speech. Nor do any of the three-word subphrases "we need change", "that is why", "I will be", "your next president".

No doubt one can find examples in Sen. Obama's acceptance speech — as in any speech — where universally accepted formulations are coupled with more controversial assertions. What's shocking here is that Dr. Orient didn't even bother to try to find one, but simply made something up. This is even more breathtakingly solipsistic than James Wood's attack on Sarah Palin's pronunciation and use of verbiage.

I could go on, but it would be cruel. Could it be that Dr. Jane Orient is a sort of Manchurian Libertarian, programmed by evil leftists at Columbia Medical School to infiltrate and subvert the movement for free-market medicine, by publishing absurd conspiracy theories full of easily-checked falsehoods?. That's implausible, I know — but what's the alternative? That she's a dishonest polemicist who is used to inventing "facts" out of thin air, secure in the belief that no one in her audience will ever check? Surely that can't be true of a medical school professor.]

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15 Comments »

  1. Karen said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    NLP? Is that the "treatment" that can overcome a decades-long phobia with one ten-minute chat and a touch on the shoulder?

  2. Mark P said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    I think these people have a fear of some kind of mystical contamination. Perhaps they desire to preserve the purity of their precious bodily fluids? They apparently fear that if they listen to Obama, they will somehow be convinced through abilities he has gained through his dark knowledge. I have no personal knowledge of this particular issue, and I base my opinion only on my experience with mass mailings of certain politically conservative groups, mainly those opposed to the upcoming merger of the US with Mexico and Canada, and those who think Obama and the UN will take away our weapons.

  3. Nicholas Waller said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    Re the Newfoundland dog mascot… Coincidence, or could there be some connection to the William Tenn short story Null-P, in which the most average man in America, a Mr Abnego, and his average descendants, become successive Presidents of what remains of the USA after a nuclear war (back to normal with the Normal Man) and as mankind eschews elitism in favour of averageness human beings began to decline in intellect?

    "The reign of homo abnegus …. was disputed finally — and successfully — by a group of Newfoundland retrievers who had been marooned on an island in Hudson Bay…." They breed humans to throw sticks, until they can develop machines to do it for them.

    http://www.reachm.com/amstreet/archives/2004/11/07/nipping-at-our-heels/ , where I suspect Ayn Clouter is some kind of composite spoof of Ayn Rand and Ann Coulter

  4. Peter said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    I am reminded of this New Yorker cartoon by Charles Barsotti:

    http://www.cartoonbank.com/product_details.asp?mscssid=QM12FFQJ83GH8NEH5J70WDMMD313ACW5&sitetype=1&did=4&sid=41219&pid=&keyword=opposable+thumbs&section=all&title=undefined&whichpage=1&sortBy=popular

  5. sandra wilde said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    For what it's worth, NLP is garbage and wasn't developed by Milton Erickson, who was a brilliant, one-of-a-kind psychotherapist. The developers of NLP just traded on his name.

    This Obama stuff is reminiscent of saying that Satan convinces you to believe what Obama's saying – how else could they explain away his popularity?

  6. John Cowan said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

    The name "Null-P" clearly indicates that the Tenn story is also an internal satire: it alludes to "Null-A" (non-Aristotelian reasoning), as discussed in the sf novels of A. E. van Vogt, associated in those novels with the domination of intellectual supermen.

  7. scott said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus

    Wikipedia would have us believe that the 'caduceus' you mention is, in fact, the rod of Asclepius.

    Usually I wouldn't dream of nitpicking, but it seems like it fits with the blog (meant in the best possible way)

    [(myl) Thanks for the correction. I've fixed it in the body of the post.]

  8. Sili said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

    "Anyone who likes whisky and hates dogs can't be all bad."

    NLP seems to be completely discredited as woo, but I can't find it dissected at any of my usual anti-woo sites.

    The Skeptic's Dictionary has an entry, though.

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

    The "programming" in NLP comes from an unsophisticated understanding of what it would mean if the human brain is a computer (in the Turing sense). I happen to believe that it is, but that itself is sufficiently controversial to make any argument based on it a bit dubious. From this uncertain foundation NLP adds some ideas about Turing equivalence and takes a running jump off into the void by asserting that you can reprogram yourself to have any ability that anyone else has, using ordinary language! Essentially it's a type of magic, reformatted for an age where people want to believe that what they're doing has some sound theoretical basis. It works as well as you'd expect for magic.

    In practice NLP reminds me of those guys who bounce up and down. Yogic flyers I think they call themselves. They say that you can learn how to levitate, and often show photographs of people apparently effortlessly suspended in the air. But if you watch video of them in action, rather than photographs, you see that they're just bouncing. However, if you object that their levitation claim is nonsense they will respond by arguing that the bouncing is just one step towards flying. First, bouncing, and then, flying, right? NLP works the same way. Your instructor reproduces some simple psychological effects, which don't need a crazy explanation like NLP, and then says "Therefore NLP is very powerful". QED.

  10. John Roth said,

    October 28, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

    I should probably stay out of this, but since I know something about the subject (NLP) from having taken classes (including a practitioner's training) in the early 80s before deciding that computers were a lot easier to work on than people, I thought a few comments might be appropriate. So if you're interested in comments from 20 year old memories, read on, otherwise skip to the next comment.

    First, on the name. 20 year old memories of what other people said indicate that it was kind of drunk out that night. Although I may be mixing it up with something else. It may make some sense that John Grinder was a Ph.D linguist on the faculty at UCSD, and the Ph. D. thesis adviser of (at least) one of the people in this site's blog roll. The linguistics piece can be found in: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Structure-Magic-About-Language-Therapy/dp/0831400447 and it's second volume.

    Second, while Pace and Lead is one of the techniques in the NLP toolbox, I think absurd is a good description of trying to use it to sway the opinions of a crowd. In that context it would be no better than the typical non sequitor, which it greatly resembles at first glance. There are techniques that would have some short term effects, but they're no better than anything else in keeping people from waking up and wondering "what was I thinking?" the next morning.

    The 20 minute phobia cure. With appropriate training and experience, it works better than one would expect, which is to say it actually does work at times, but is far from being a miracle cure. You can believe that people touting it as such either have years of experience or have never used it enough to get a sense of how it works – and when it doesn't. (Parenthetically, there is nothing in the NLP toolbox that works all the time. That's one of the problems people have with it.)

    Erickson. No, they didn't "just trade on his name." They studied him and with him for some time and wrote two books where they attempted to deconstruct how he got his results. He wrote a short introduction to one of them where he says that, while they got very little of what he did, they did get more than anyone else. See http://www.amazon.com/Patterns-Hypnotic-Techniques-Milton-Erickson/dp/1555520529

    Sili: the reason you can't find it dissected is that it's rather big, and anyone who actually goes back to the original books and tries some of the techniques will discover that they work – more or less. NLP, contrary to what a lot of the real fakes who are peddling stuff under that name, takes a lot of work to get good enough at to see reliable results. This, together with the fact that none of it was supported by the kind of careful, step by step lab work that academics like is a great part of why people "discredited" it.

    One final thing to note: think on how little of what we know of how the mind works today agrees with how people thought it worked 20 years ago.

    John Roth

  11. Brad said,

    October 29, 2008 @ 3:19 am

    Maybe you should check the transcript of the Denver speech again. "Now is the time," is said 6 times not 1 as you state in you post.

    [(myl) Oops. Apparently for that one, I searched only in one of the online pages; I had two windows open, one expanded to the whole transcript, and the other with just one part, and I selected the wrong window by mistake. It's now fixed in the body of the text, with credit to you for catching the error.]

  12. DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » Forget framing — it’s hypnosis! said,

    October 29, 2008 @ 6:45 am

    [...] Read it. OK, the stage is set for an epic confrontation: the libertarian medical wingnuts of Arizona against the New Age psychological moonbats of California, with Barack Obama in the middle of it all. Can the robocalls be far behind? News at 11:00. [...]

  13. ricketyclick said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

    Hope-nosis…

    There's a paper floating around [PDF, 935 KB] alleging that Barack Obama is hypnotizing his followers using the techniques of "Neurolinguistic programming", aka NLP.
    You know, it's tempting. Obama has captured so many otherwise …

  14. Metro said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    Wait, wait …

    So it's not witchcraft?

    I notice Dr. Levin is suggesting that would-be Obama voodoo magic hypnosis resistors wear special clothing for voting:

    So wear your earplugs and eye blinders when you go to the polls.

    Because only an idiot who was also blind and deaf would support McPalin.

  15. But, Look… « Mordant’s Magazine said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    [...] am certainly not suggesting, as some on the right have, that Obama's repetition is a deliberate attempt to hypnotize us. I don't even think that the repetition either effectively proscribes the weighing of [...]

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