Suggestion and Other Creative Fictions

Posted By William Dubin, Ph.D. on January 28, 2018 at 9:19am | General

Suggestion is an effective method of reifying a particular creative fiction. The method is to pretend, or act as if, the suggested premise was true. You do not have to really believe it; suggestion is merely an invitation to a try on a particular perspective.

Barry’s Biased Appraisals:

Barry is at a used-car lot where a salesman is showing him a shabby looking vehicle, saying: “It may not be much to look at, but is actually worth much more than its listed price, whereas your trade in vehicle is a piece of crap and nearly worthless.” The salesman may attempt to reify the fiction by quoting false Bluebook values.

The salesman is acting in bad faith, because he is engaging in a self-serving lie. Unlike the value of a motor vehicle of a particular make, model, and year, which can be appraised by an authoritative appraiser, there is no Bluebook value for Barry. According to some appraisal criteria Barry may be highly valued, according to others not so much. But no appraisal of Barry’s worth is more objectively valid than any other.

Unlike the self-serving appraisals promoted by the salesman, Barry’s critical appraisals of himself are self-sabotaging – that is, they promote bad outcomes for Barry.

When I asserted that his harsh self-critical perspective hinders his social performance, he replied that he knew that, but did not want “to lie [to himself] just to reap the benefits of doing so.” I countered that appraising himself as worthy of affection is no more a lie than appraising himself as unworthy of affection. Both appraisals are creative fictions made up by Barry and exist only in his mind. Barry’s beliefs about his like-ability has a great influence on his social behavior and hence his success is establishing satisfying relationships.

If you were rooting for Barry’s what would you tell him?

Recursive traps occur when your interpretation of the things that happen impairs your performance, and thereby confirms the validity of the handicapping interpretation. We would be invulnerable to recursive traps if we did not abstract from specific observations to general hypotheses, and act as if those hypotheses were true. Understand this: your beliefs about the causes and meanings of the things that happen are just abstractions created by your mind and are neither true nor false . . . yet.

The belief that “they will not like me” will impair Barry’s social performance more than the belief that “they will like me.” Both of these speculations are about an event that has not yet taken place; they exist only in his mind and one is no more objectively valid than the other. The reality will be determined by how Barry actually performs socially at the party. Sadly, there are several cause-and-effect principles that make it more likely that Barry will buy into the handicapping suggestion. His poor social performance will then confirm it, and so he will believe that it was true all along.

Those of us rooting for Barry want him to replace the self-sabotaging suggestion with an equally valid one that did not handicap his performance, or better yet a suggestion that was performance enhancing. Hypnotic suggestion is a method to select the belief that will determine your subjective reality.

Hypnotic Suggestion

The method of hypnotic suggestion, so powerfully demonstrated by stage hypnotists, can be an equally powerful tool in the service of therapeutic change. But because the procedure is portrayed as comedy, many people have developed the wrong idea of how it works.

How Stage Hypnosis Works:

The popular misconception that hypnosis compels the mindless subject to obey externally generated commands results from a technique called, the challenge—for example: “Your leg is getting heavier and heavier/you can try to lift your leg/but it will be so heavy/that you won’t be able to do it.”

This sounds like a battle of wills between the hypnotist and the subject. In fact the hypnotist is just reciting a script. The mechanism of action is the subject’s reification of the suggestion. The demonstration can produce humorous or shocking consequences when the subject acts as if the concepts suggested by the hypnotist’s script were actually true.  Acting as though an objectively false suggestion were true—e.g., flies are buzzing around your head — produces behavior that appears absurd to the audience who are not asked to buy into the suggestion.

Whether the source of the suggestion is a hypnotist, salesman, or you, the suggestion is an abstraction [e.g., the words, “your leg is getting heavier and heavier”] presented as if it were real or objectively true. Typically, the suggestion is designed to promote the interests of the source of the suggestion — unless, of course, the source of the suggestion is caught in a self-sabotaging trap.

The interests of the stage hypnotist are served when the subject performs in a way that makes the audience laugh; the interests of the salesman are served when the customer buys. Your interests are served when you follow your path of greatest advantage.

Hypnotists and salesmen have their own motivations for getting you to act in ways that are advantageous to them. Your motivation for using suggestion is to get yourself to act in accord with your interests and principles.

The most important suggestions — the suggestions that determine the course of each individual’s life — are neither true nor false. “Are you are hero or a loser?” The definitions of “hero” and “loser” are not part of the natural world; they exist only in the mind of the appraiser. You are neither a hero nor loser until you label yourself such. Once you do, your suggestion will have a profound, self-confirmatory influence on how you perform during crises, and on your ability to persevere through difficult times.

Negative suggestions in daily life

By the time of our first visit most of my clients have tried to resolve their problems many times. They sincerely intend to try harder this time, but expect to ultimately fail. The outcome of our collaboration depends upon them abandoning the suggestion that their efforts are doomed to failure.

Not surprisingly, those who are able to buy into the “hero” suggestion tend to perform better than those who cannot shake the “loser” suggestion. Appreciating this, I want my clients to replace their self-sabotaging suggestions with more helpful ones. Sadly, getting clients to give up their pathogenic suggestions is a major challenge, because they believe them to be true. Pathogenic suggestions have all the advantages, including: They are more salient; most clients have been conditioned during childhood to buy into them, or to resist positive self-evaluation.

To overcome the advantages of the “loser suggestion” we have to do something special: Hypnotic Suggestion is the method of exercising a willful influence over your subjective reality by pretending or acting as if the suggested reality was true.

The classic heavy shoe challenge asks you to imagine a subjective reality in which your leg and shoe are made of lead. Obviously, the premise is false. It is offered to give you an opportunity to experience how suggestion works, and to explore using this method to influence your subjective experience.

As you work with Hypnotic Suggestion you will be exercising your skill of reifying helpful creative fictions. The benefits of using this method are indirect, and come primarily from stopping the reification of harmful suggestions.

Hypnotic Suggestion is the most straightforward path to change: You simply
act as if the helpful abstraction were true. If, for example, your social performance is impaired by the belief that the people at the meet-up group are not going to like me [Fortune Telling], you can use suggestion to imagine and act as if the people at the group want me to interact with them so they look and feel popular.

The talent to use Hypnotic Suggestion varies from person to person. However, everyone improves with practice. For those who develop this capability, Hypnotic Suggestion is the most direct and fast acting path to escaping self-sabotaging traps.


Efficacy-enhancing suggestions, called Affirmations, are useful to counter negative creative fictions, including self-critical evaluations and predictions of failure. An audio example: Affirmations Script.

Enjoyed this post?

Enjoyed this post? Subscribe to our RSS Feed, Follow us on Twitter or simply recommend us to friends and colleagues!

Posted by William Dubin, Ph.D.

Bill received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has dedicated his career to the study of mood and addictive disorders and how to escape them.

Leave a Reply