This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.

The Problem of Leading Questions

One of the biggest problems with using hypnosis to guide memory retrieval is the influence of leading questions. Leading questions suggest something indirectly by conveying information that might stimulate the imagination. If a hypnotist asks, "Did the robber have a mustache," the subject is likely to answer "Yes" and at the same time imagine a robber with a mustache, simply because the question included that information. Worse yet, the person is likely to insist later, when no longer hypnotized, that this is a genuine memory.

What is a "leading question"? What was Laurence and Perry's (1983) "loud noise at night" study?

An important experiment demonstrated this effect. Laurence and Perry (1983) asked subjects under hypnosis, "Did something wake you last night around 4 a.m.?" Usually their subjects said, "Yes." The researchers then asked, "Was it a sudden sound?" Again, the subjects under hypnosis said, "Yes." Many went on to describe being awakened the night before by a sudden noise such as a gunshot. When these subjects were interviewed without being hypnotized the next day, most of them insisted the memory was genuine. They said they had been awakened by a sudden sound, two nights before. When the experimenters told them this was a false memory generated as part of the experiment, some of the subjects became irritable and refused to believe the memory was not accurate and true.

What is confabulation? Why can this not be detected with a lie detector?

The leading question gets its name from the fact that it directs or leads the person being interrogated. At worst, a leading question can lead a subject to make up an imaginary scene. The process of making something up and believing it is called confabulation. Perhaps this is where the word fib (meaning "a lie") came from. A confabulation is a fib that a person believes. The Laurence and Perry study showed how easy it was to make people confabulate under hypnosis. This is a real problem for law enforcement, because when a person truly believes in a memory, no lie detector test can expose the deception.

What is shown by controlled research on memory under hypnosis?

Controlled research shows that memory errors under hypnosis are common. Subjects who receive a list of words to memorize, then are asked to recall the words under hypnosis, are likely to recall more words than somebody who is not hypnotized. But they also make more errors, and they are unable to distinguish the errors from the correctly recalled words. Apparently hypnosis reduces the threshold for accepting something as true but it does not guarantee accuracy.

What precautions must be taken, if hypnosis is used to produce evidence in a criminal investigation?

Because leading questions can stimulate confabulation so easily, they must be carefully avoided during hypnotic interrogations in crime investigations. Hypnotic sessions used to obtain testimony must be videorecorded so a judge or a jury can verify that no leading questions were asked under hypnosis. Martin Orne, a specialist who studied confabulation under hypnosis, recommended that no evidence obtained under hypnosis be admitted in court cases, unless other forms of evidence corroborate it.

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