Category Archives: Writing

Feminist Theory and Spirituality

Woman Statue

Continuing on our stroll through counseling and psychotherapy theories and spirituality, we come now to complicated crossroad; this is where feminism and spirituality intersect. Our focus is on how feminist theorists and feminist therapists deal with spirituality.

This intersection is complex primarily because the manner in which many religions characterize women’s roles and women’s potential is, shall we say, limiting. In contrast, feminist theory views the limiting of women as inappropriate, inaccurate, unacceptable, oppressive, and pathology-creating. All this is to say that when religion and women’s rights converge, there’s ample room for conflict.

The following excerpt from Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice is a lazy stroll. It’s lazy because we don’t go very deep. Instead, because adherents of both perspectives may have strong beliefs (and emotions), we leave the going deep to you. As you contemplate going deeper, it’s nice to keep in mind the theological, philosophical, and practical idea of “Both-And.” There may be paths for becoming both profoundly spiritual and profoundly feminist. And, at least from the surface, the spiritual-feminist path has the look of something quite different from a lazy stroll.

Here’s the short excerpt:

Feminist Theory and Spirituality

Most dominant world religions have rules or practices that restrict women’s freedoms. In some cases, feminists view religion as abusive, coercive, and dangerous toward women. In most cases, feminists view dominant religions as laden with conservative, patriarchal values (Hagen, Arczynski, Morrow, & Hawxhurst, 2011; Jiménez, Almansa, & Alcón, 2017).

The naturally activist orientation of feminism can create tension between feminist therapists and specific religious practices. For example, female genital mutilation is considered a male-perpetuated human rights violation that sanctions systemic violence toward girls and women. Despite the feminist general philosophy of openness to diverse ways of being, feminists view systematic oppression of females in the name of religion to be intolerable (Jiménez et al., 2017).

Feminists see potential for affirmation and liberation in spiritual alternatives. Specifically, feminist writers have discussed ways in which sexually diverse women can use spirituality to enhance their resilience within oppressive sociocultural contexts (Hagen et al., 2011). Integrating affirming spirituality into feminist therapy is an acceptable and, for many clients and therapists, preferred practice (Funderburk & Fukuyama, 2001; Hagen et al., 2011)

Adherents to male-oriented religious or cultural norms are unlikely to welcome feminist critique of their values. This is where the potential for conflict is highest and where feminists could be viewed as imposing their values on other cultural or religious groups. Feminists view the systematic oppression of women as unacceptable, regardless of political, religious, or cultural justifications that might be used to support oppression.

 

 

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Existential Spirituality

Bikes Snow 2

An impromtu word search of the existential theory chapter for the 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice revealed 17 appearances of the word “spirituality.” That’s nice. Seventeen is a prime number. Seventeen is also one of my favorite spiritual numbers. Back in 2nd grade in Sunday school in a synagogue in Portland, my teacher asked us to guess a number from 1 to 20. The winner had the honor of taking a special Bible story book home for the week. My guess was a perfect 17. I got the book for the week. Obviously, the number 17 is a spiritual force in my life.

More important is the sublime integration of spirituality into existential theory. Or not. It seems to go one way or another. Either existential theorists are deeply spiritual/religious or they’re atheist/agnostic. There is no middle ground. Or maybe there is? [More on this conundrum below]

What follows are several short excerpts from the Existential Theory chapter. These excerpts culminate with the short section on Existential Spirituality.

Soren Kierkegaard

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) lived nearly his entire life in Copenhagen. Kierkegaard was devoutly religious. He was shaken when he discovered, at age 22, that his father had not only cursed God, but also seduced his mother prior to marriage. Subsequently, Kierkegaard’s writings focused primarily on religious faith and the meaning of Christianity. Eventually he concluded that religious faith was irrational and attainable only via a subjective experiential “leap of faith.” For Kierkegaard, virtuous traits such as responsibility, honesty, and commitment are subjective choices—often in response to a subjective religious conversion. Kierkegaard did not describe himself as an existentialist, but his work is a precursor to the existential philosophical movement, which formally began some 70 years following his death.

Friedrich Nietzsche

In contrast to Kierkegaard who began from a position of religious faith, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) had negative feelings about Christianity. It was he who, in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra, wrote, “God is dead.” Although he may have been referring to societal emptiness, he also claimed that religion used fear and resentment to pressure individuals into moral behavior. Instead of following a religion, he believed, individuals should channel their passions into creative, joyful activities. Irvin Yalom offers a fascinating view of Nietzsche’s psychological suffering in a historical fiction piece titled When Nietzsche Wept. In this novel, Yalom (1992) weaves existential principles into a fictional therapeutic encounter between Breuer, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche represent an interesting paradox or dialectic in existential thinking. A dialectic is a process where learning is stimulated from the integration of opposites. On the one hand, some existentialists embrace deep religious faith, whereas others are staunchly atheistic. Still others claim an agnostic middle ground. These differences in fundamental beliefs represent a wide sweep of human intellectual diversity and provide for fascinating philosophical exploration. You will glimpse existential dialectics intermittently in this chapter.

Four Existential Ways of Being

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958) described the first three of these existential ways of being. van Deurzen (1988) added the fourth.

These dimensions of existence are ubiquitous and simultaneous. Some people focus more on one dimension than others or shift from one to another depending on particular intentions or situations. For example, while on a hike up the Stillwater gorge in Montana, it’s easy to experience being-with-nature as water powerfully cascades around you. However, depending on other factors, this experience can take people inward toward eigenwelt, toward an uberwelt spiritual experience, or stimulate a deep mitwelt (albeit a nonverbal one). In most cases, the direction your being-ness moves within a given situation is likely a combination of several factors, such as: awareness, anxiety, previous experiences, intention, and/or your spiritual predisposition.

The Daimonic

According to Rollo May, “The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person” (1969, p. 123). Historically, Daimon possession was used to explain psychotic episodes and is popularly referred to as demonic possession. However, May repeatedly emphasized that daimonic and demonic are not the same concept: “I never use the word demonic, except to say that this is not what I mean” (May, 1982, p. 11).

The daimonic is an elemental force, energy, or urge residing within all persons that functions as the source of constructive and destructive impulses. May wrote, “The daimonic is the urge in every being to affirm itself, assert itself, perpetuate and increase itself .… [The reverse side] of the same affirmation is what empowers our creativity” (May, 1969, p. 123).

Similar to C. G. Jung, May considered harnessing and integrating the daimonic as a central psychotherapy task. He viewed psychotherapy as an activity that plumbs the depths of an individual’s most basic impulses … the purpose of which is to acknowledge, embrace, and integrate every bit of being and energy into the whole person. May commented specifically about the danger of leaving the daimonic unintegrated:

If the daimonic urge is integrated into the personality (which is, to my mind, the purpose of psychotherapy) it results in creativity, that is, it is constructive. If the daimonic is not integrated, it can take over the total personality, as it does in violent rage or collective paranoia in time of war or compulsive sex or oppressive behavior. Destructive activity is then the result. (May, 1982, p. 11)

The goal is to integrate natural daimonic urges and energies in ways that maximize constructive and creative behavior.

Existential Spirituality

A spiritual-oriented client was engaging in guided imagery with an existential therapist. The client “discovered” a locked door in the basement of his “self.”

“What’s behind the door?” the therapist asked.

“It’s darkness,” he said. With shivers of fear, he added, “There’s dread. It’s the dread of being unacceptable. . . of being unacceptable to God. Even worse, it’s my dread of being unforgiveable.”

“Shall we go in?” asked the therapist.

Silence followed.

The therapist noticed his client’s reluctance and said, “Let’s wait a moment and breathe. I’m wondering if you can even get in the door. I’m wondering if you want to get in. There’s no rush. We know where the door is. We can wait. Or we can create a key and try to get in. Or we can leave the door shut. But first let’s wait here and breathe before deciding anything.”

For two minutes, client and therapist sat breathing together. The paralyzing fear diminished and the client said, “I have a key. Let’s look inside.”

“Yes. Let’s look inside.”

The key opened the lock. The door creaked open. In the dreaded darkness, there was light. A dialogue with the dread and unforgiveable ensued and the client found a broad sense of love and acceptance. There were tears of relief. His spiritual load was lightened. His basement demons were exorcised.

In this chapter we’ve discussed the deep and profound quality of existential psychotherapy. Schneider (2010) called it the “Rediscovery of Awe.” Frankl and Wong referred to it as the pursuit of meaning. In existential therapy, meaning and awe are individualized, as is spirituality. There’s great potential in combining the existential and the spiritual in psychotherapy, but clients should be forewarned and informed: combining the spiritual and existential isn’t about formulaic or surface explanations; it requires a commitment to go deep and explore doubts, uncertainties, and core vulnerabilities.

Here’s a link to the new Theories 3rd edition cover: https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Context-Practice/dp/1119279127/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

 

 

Parenting in the Age of Trump . . . and other Parenting Challenges

John and Paul with Fish

This past week, Donald Trump posted another name-calling Tweet about Kim Jong Un being short and fat. Before that, he was famously recorded by Access Hollywood saying it was okay to grab women by the pussy. Somewhere in between, he tweeted about shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood and referred to “firing those SOBs.”

This blog isn’t designed to be political. I don’t mean to be picking on Donald Trump. However, the extraordinary number of provocative statements he generates every day makes him a ready example of a poor media role model. His statements are often of the ilk that republicans, democrats, and independents would all rather not have their 12-year-old children hear, much less repeat. The point is that sometimes politicians, news reporters, comedians, musicians, athletes, and other celebrities make statements that are incompatible with mainstream American family values. This isn’t new. For those of us who were parents back then, about 20 years ago President Bill Clinton made a statement about oral sex that—at the very least—constituted horrid advice for teenagers. The other point is that somehow parents have to figure out how to best deal with provocative statements that leak out of the media and into our children’s brains.

In this week’s episode of the practically perfect parenting podcast, Dr. Sara Polanchek and I take on the contemporary Trump phenomenon, as well as the equally challenging phenomenon of comedians who try to make a joke out of holding a picture of a severed Trump head. How should parents deal with this stream of objectionable content?

Not surprisingly, Sarah and I have a thing or two to say about Parenting in the Age of Trump. We encourage you to contemplate, in advance, how you want to address revolting media-based material to which your children will be inevitably exposed. Our hope is for you to identify your personal and family values and then learn how to stimulate your children’s moral development. Bottom line: we can’t completely control the objectionable media discourse, and so we might as well use it for educational purposes.

You can listen to the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or you can listen to it on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

You can follow and like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PracticallyPerfectParenting/

And just as soon as I gain better control of my Twitter finger, then you’ll be able to find us on Twitter too.

 

Building Better Counselors

JSF Dance Party

This is a link to a hot off the presses article in Counseling Today. The focus is all about how professional counselors (and all psychotherapists) can be BOTH evidence-based AND relationally oriented. My co-author, Kindle Lewis, is one of our fantastic doctoral students in the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana. And . . . by the way. . . the University of Montana is NOW the NEW best college destination on the planet. Ask me why:).

Here’s the link: http://ct.counseling.org/2017/11/building-better-counselors/

The Psychology of Doing Good

R and J in Field

At this point in history, it seems especially important to contemplate the psychology of doing good things in the world. I could have said this last month; and next month will doubtless be the same. The point is that even in these ostensibly difficult times, people aren’t built to exclusively do harm and be destructive . . . we’re also built to do good and be constructive. If I was into using bad metaphors, I might even say we’re hard-wired to do good.

You might wonder if I’m serious. Absolutely yes.

You might wonder why and how I would decide to write about doing good, when it seems so common right now for everyone to be doing the Dale Carnegie opposite: losing friends and insulting people.

The short answer to this is: Alfred Adler.

Alfred Adler is the short answer to many questions. He was a contemporary of Freud who perpetually saw the glass as half full. When Freud was writing about women having penis envy, Adler was writing about how women just wanted social equality and equal power. When Freud was writing about the death instinct, Adler was writing about the best and most important psychological concept of all time. What was it? Here it is. Get ready.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl

Gemeinschaftsgefühl roughly means social interest or community feeling. Carlson and Englar-Carlson (2017) provided the meaning of this uniquely Adlerian concept.

Gemein is “a community of equals,” shafts means “to create or maintain,” and Gefühl is “social feeling.” Taken together, Gemeinschaftsgefühl means a community of equals creating and maintaining social feelings and interests; that is, people working together as equals to better themselves as individuals and as a community.” (p. 43)

The coolest thing about Gemeinschaftsgefühl is that it’s all natural. We are pulled toward social interest and community feeling. In fact, there’s no other good explanation for why so many people around the world reach out to help their neighbors, friends, family, and strangers—without expecting anything in return.

As my friend and colleague Richard Watts has emphasized, Gemeinschaftsgefühl also makes for a fabulous therapy goal.

Tomorrow (or Thursday), I’ll be posting about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. For today, I just want you all to get to know Alfred Adler a bit better. So here’s a short excerpt about him from our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories text.

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Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was the second of six children born to a Jewish family outside Vienna. His older brother was brilliant, outgoing, handsome, and also happened to be named Sigmund. In contrast, Alfred was a sickly child. He suffered from rickets, was twice run over in the street, and experienced a spasm of the glottis. When he was 3 years old, his younger brother died in bed next to him (Mosak, 1972). At age 4, he came down with pneumonia. Later Adler recalled the physician telling his father, “Your boy is lost” (Orgler, 1963, p. 16). Another of Adler’s earliest memories has a sickly, dependent theme:

One of my earliest recollections is of sitting on a bench bandaged up on account of rickets, with my healthy, elder brother sitting opposite me. He could run, jump, and move about quite effortlessly, while for me movement of any sort was a strain and an effort. Everyone went to great pains to help me, and my mother and father did all that was in their power to do. At the time of this recollection, I must have been about two years old. (Bottome, 1939, p. 30)

In contrast to Freud’s childhood experience of being his mother’s favorite, Adler was more encouraged by his father. Despite his son’s clumsy, uncoordinated, and sickly condition, Adler’s father Leopold, a Hungarian Jew, firmly believed in his son’s innate worth. When young Alfred was required to repeat a grade at the same middle school Freud had attended 14 years earlier, Leopold was his strongest supporter. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) wrote about Adler’s response to his father’s encouragement:

His mathematics teacher recommended to his father that Adler leave school and apprentice himself as a shoe-maker. Adler’s father objected, and Adler embarked upon bettering his academic skills. Within a relatively short time, he became the best math student in the class. (p. 2)

Adler’s love and aptitude for learning continued to grow; he studied medicine at the University of Vienna. After obtaining his medical degree in ophthalmology in 1895, he met and fell in love with Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein, and married her in 1897. She had the unusual distinction of being an early socialist and feminist.

Historical Context

Freud and Adler met in 1902. According to Mosak and Maniacci (1999), Adler published a strong defense of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and consequently Freud invited Adler over “on a Wednesday evening” for a discussion of psychological issues. “The Wednesday Night Meetings, as they became known, led to the development of the Psychoanalytic Society” (p. 3).

Adler was his own man with his own ideas before he met Freud. Prior to their meeting he’d published his first book, Healthbook for the Tailor’s Trade (Adler, 1898). In contrast to Freud, much of Adler’s medical practice was with the working poor. Early in his career, he worked extensively with tailors and circus performers.

In February 1911, Adler did the unthinkable (Bankart, 1997). As president of Vienna’s Psychoanalytic Society, he read a highly controversial paper, “The Masculine Protest,” at the group’s monthly meeting. It was at odds with Freudian theory. Adler claimed that women occupied a less privileged social and political position because of social coercion, not physical inferiority.

The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society members’ response to Adler was dramatic. Bankart (1997) described the scene:

After Adler’s address, the members of the society were in an uproar. There were pointed heckling and shouted abuse. Some were even threatening to come to blows. And then, almost majestically, Freud rose from his seat. He surveyed the room with his penetrating eyes. He told them there was no reason to brawl in the streets like uncivilized hooligans. The choice was simple. Either he or Dr. Adler would remain to guide the future of psychoanalysis. The choice was the members’ to make. He trusted them to do the right thing. (p. 130)

The group voted for Freud to lead them. Adler left the building quietly, joined by the Society’s vice president, William Stekel, and five other members. They moved their meeting to a local café and established the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research. The Society soon changed its name to the Society for Individual Psychology. This group believed that social, familial, and cultural forces are dominant in shaping human behavior. Bankart (1997) summarized their perspective: “Their response to human problems was characteristically ethical and practical—an orientation that stood in dramatic contrast to the biological and theoretical focus of psychoanalysis” (p. 130).

Adler’s break from Freud gives an initial glimpse into his theoretical approach. Adler identified with common people. He was a feminist. These leanings reflect the influences of his upbringing and marriage. They reveal his compassion for the sick, oppressed, and downtrodden. Adler embraced egalitarianism long before it became anything close to popular.

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Stay tuned. Tomorrow I’ll be posting some content on Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I can hardly wait.

Today, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Adlerian quotations.

“An incalculable amount of tension and useless effort would be spared in this world if we realized that cooperation and love can never be won by force.” (Adler, 1931, p. 132).

When a doctor once said to Adler: “I do not believe you can make this backward child normal,” Dr. Adler replied: “Why do you say that? One could make any normal child backward; one should only have to discourage it enough!” (Bottome, 1936, p. 37)

“All our institutions, our traditional attitudes, our laws, our morals, our customs, give evidence of the fact that they are determined and maintained by privileged males for the glory of male domination.” (Adler, 1927, p. 123)

“[E]ach partner must be more interested in the other than in himself. This is the only basis on which love and marriage can be successful.” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p. 432)

This is a photo of Jon Carlson. He was a devoted Adlerian and a great man. He passed away earlier this year. I, and many others, am indebted to him for the amazing work he did to not let Adler’s ideas fade into the past. Thank you Jon.

John and Jon on M

 

 

Psychoanalytic and Spiritual Compatibility: A Friday Evening Spiritual Reading

Rainbow 2017As we roll through the revisions in our Theories text, we’re adding a short section in each chapter on spirituality. This seems important partly because spirituality is so meaningful to so many people and partly because counseling and psychotherapy is often viewed as at odds with or contrary to religious beliefs. Of course, this new integration might also be related to Rita’s ongoing blog titled, Short Visits with an Honest God. Check it out at: https://godcomesby.com/

In this sneak peek of the 3rd edition, we briefly (very briefly) discuss Freud, psychoanalytic approaches, and religion/spirituality. Our purpose isn’t to go into greata detail, but to offer students a taste of spiritual integration in counseling and psychotherapy.

As always, if you have any reactions, please feel free to share them using your preferred communication modality.

Spirituality and the Psychoanalytic Approach

Freud was no fan of religion. He often referred to himself as a “Godless Jew.” Gay (1978) wrote that Freud “advertised his unbelief every time he could find, or make, an opportunity” (p. 3). Freud (1918) viewed religious beliefs as irrational, projective, and regressive. In return, most religious people are no fans of Freud. Casey (1938) captured some of the disdain early psychoanalysts held toward religion, “Even in the higher religions with their impressive theological facades there is always . . . a myth, a rule of piety, a cult, which is rationalized but which neither begins nor ends with reason” (p. 445).

Despite this rather poor start, contemporary psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners have made strides in accepting religion and integrating spirituality into psychotherapy. A common psychoanalytic position is that religious and spiritual experiences are meaningful and therefore deserve the same level of analysis and respect as sexuality, family relationships, work, and other life domains (Rizzuto & Shafranske, 2013). This respectful stance toward religious experiences is relatively new and exciting territory for practitioners who want to integrate religion and spirituality into psychoanalytic approaches.

As one example, Rizzuto and Shafranske (2013) wrote that, “God representations always involve a representation of the self in relationship with the sacred” (p. 135). They view client disclosures about religion as opportunities to attain a deeper and more useful understanding of clients. God representations are not only respected, but also explored as multidimensional components of human experience that can exert both positive and negative influence on individual’s lives. They believe, “Religion and spirituality can serve as a foundation for the healthy appreciation of the self and for the resolution of psychic pain and trauma” (p. 142). Clearly, this perspective plays better with religious clients than beginning with an assumption, like Freud, that all religious views and experiences are immature and irrational.

That time when I conducted a scientific research study designed to test the effectiveness of using hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum and transport 18 people to the future so they could fill-out perfect March Madness brackets.

Flower in Bricks

You can probably tell by the title of this post that I’m pretty stoked about scientific research right now.

I typically don’t do much empirical research. That’s why it was a surprise to me and my colleagues that, about six weeks ago, I spontaneously developed a research idea, dropped nearly everything else I was doing, and had amazing fun conducting my first ever March Madness bracket research project.

My research experience included a roller coaster of surprises.

I somehow convinced a professor from the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana to collaborate with me on a ridiculous study on a ridiculously short timeline.

My university IRB approved our proposal. Seriously. I submitted a proposal that involved me hypnotizing volunteer participants to transport them into the future to make their March Madness bracket selections. Then they approved it in six days. How cool is that?

I managed to network my way onto ESPN radio (where we called the study ESP on ESPN; thanks Lauren and Arianna) and onto the Billings, MT CBS affiliate (thanks Dan).

And, this is the teaser: with only 36 participants, the results were significant at the p < .001 level.

Damn. Now you know. Scientific research is so cool.

Of course, there’s a back-story. While you’re waiting in anticipation to learn about those p < .001 results, you really need to hear this back-story.

Several years ago, while on a 90-minute car ride back from Trapper Creek Job Corps to Missoula, my counseling interns asked me if I could hypnotize someone and take them back in time so they could recall something that happened to them in a previous life. I thought the question was silly and the answer was simple.

“Absolutely yes.” I said, “Of course I could do that.”

Questions followed.

My answers included a ramble about not really believing in past lives and not really thinking that past life hypnotic regression was ethical. But still, I said, “If someone is hypnotizable, then, I’m sure I could get them into a trance and at least make them think they went back to a previous life and retrieved a few memories. No problem.”

Have you ever noticed that once you start to brag, it’s hard to stop. That’s what happened next, for several years.

Somewhat later in another conversation, I started exaggerating bigly. I decided to extend my imaginary prowess into a fool-proof strategy for generating a perfect March Madness bracket. I said something about, “Brains being amazing and that you can suddenly pay attention to the big toe on your right foot and, at nearly the same time, project yourself not only back into your 7-year-old self, but forward in time into the future. That being the case,” I waxed, “it’s pretty obvious that I could hypnotize people, break down the space-time continuum, and take them to a future where all the March Madness basketball games had been played and therefore, they could just copy down the winners and create a perfect March Madness bracket.”

Through this process, I would turn a one-in-a-trillion possibility into absolute certainty.

I enjoyed bragging about my imaginary scenario for several years. That is, until this year, when, I decided that if I was set on bragging bigly, I should also be willing to put determined it was time to put my science where my mouth is (or something like that). It was time to test my hypnosis-space-time-continuum hypothesis using the scientific method.

We designed a pre-test, post-test experimental design with random assignment to three conditions.

Condition 1: Education. Participants would receive about 20 minutes of education on statistics relevant to making March Madness bracket picks. My colleague, Dr. Charles Palmer, showed powerpoint slides and provided insights about the statistical probabilities of 12s beating 5s and 9s beating 8s, and “Blue Blood” conferences.

Condition 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The plan was for Daniel Salois, one of my graduate students and an immensely good sport, to do 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation with this group.

Condition 3: Hypnosis. I would use a hypnotic induction, a deepening procedure, and then project participants into the future. Instead of having everyone fill out their brackets while in trance, I decided to use a post-hypnotic suggestion. As soon as they heard me clap twice, they would immediately recall the tournament game outcomes and then fill out their brackets perfectly.

Unfortunately, on short notice we only recruited 36 participants. To give ourselves a chance to obtain statistical significance, we dumped the progressive muscle relaxation condition, and just had the EDUCATION and HYPNOSIS conditions go head to head in a winner-take-all battle.

Both groups followed the same basic protocol. Upon arrival at the College of Education, they were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (Charlie or me). When the got to their room, they signed the informed consent, and immediately filled out a bracket along with a confidence rating. Then they received either the EDUCATION or HYPNOSIS training. After their respective trainings, they filled out a second bracket, along with another confidence rating.

We hypothesized that both groups would report an increase in confidence, but that only the EDUCATION group (but not the HYPNOSIS group) would show a statistically significant improvement in bracket-picking accuracy. We based our hypotheses on the fact that although real education should help, there’s no evidence that anyone can use hypnosis to transport themselves to the future. We viewed the HYPNOSIS condition as essentially equivalent to raising false hopes without providing help that had any substance.

IMHO, the results were stunning.

We were dead on about the EDUCATION group. Those participants significantly increased their confidence; they also improved their bracket scores (we used the online ESPN scoring system where participants can obtain up to a maximum of 320 points for each round; this means participants got 10 points for every correct pick in the first round, with their potential points doubling in every round, and concluding with 320 points if they correctly picked the University of North Carolina to win the tournament).

Then there was the HYPNOSIS group.

HYPNOSIS participants experienced a small but nonsignificant increase in their confidence. . . but they totally tanked their predictions. We had a participant who picked Creighton to win it all. We had one bracket that had Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State in the final. We had another person who listed a final score in the championship game of 34-23. When I shared these results to our research class, I said, “The HYPNOSIS participants totally sucked. They did so bad that I think they couldn’t have done any worse if we had hit them all on the head with a 2 x 4 and given them concussions and then had them fill out their brackets.”

So what happened? Why did the HYPNOSIS group perform so badly?

When told of the outcome, one student who had participated offered her explanation, “I believe it. I don’t know what happened, but after the hypnosis, I totally forgot about anything I knew, and just wrote down whatever team names popped into my head.”

My interpretation: Most of the people in the HYPNOSIS group completely abandoned rational and logical thought. They decided that whatever thoughts that happened to come into their minds were true and right.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to link this to politics, but it’s hard not to speculate. It’s possible that candidates from both parties are able, from time to time, to use charisma and bold claims to get their supporters to let go of logic and rational thought, and instead, embrace a fantastical future.

Another faculty member in our department offered an alternative explanation. She recalled the old Yerkes-Dodson law. This “law” in psychology predicts that optimal arousal (or stress) is linked to optimal performance. In contrast, too much arousal or too little arousal impairs performance. She theorized that perhaps the hypnosis participants had become too relaxed; they were so under-aroused that they couldn’t perform.

It seems clear that the hypnosis did something. But what? It wasn’t a helpful trip to the future. Some friends suggested that maybe they went to the wrong year. Others have mocked me for being a bragger who couldn’t really use hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum.

What do you think? Do you have any potential explanations you’d like to offer? I’d love to hear them. And, if you have any ideas of which scientific journal to submit our manuscript to, we’d love to hear that as well.