Using Hypnosis in the Legal System
Hypnosis is widely applied and used in clinical psychology and psychotherapy to help patients recall events, particularly long-forgotten painful experiences. Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists do this by age-regressing patients, that is, allowing them to re-enact events as if they were at a certain age, or at a certain period. The ability of hypnosis to help patients recall events is applied in the legal system to help mostly traumatized rape victims remember their perpetrators.
Actual Legal Cases That Used Hypnosis
The Ann Arbor Case (1977): Two nurses were accused of poisoning nine patients at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan because one victim "remembered" the presence of one of the two nurses in his room after he was hypnotized by FBI agents. The court convicted the nurses, but the judge later on called for a new trial, and the prosecutors chose not to try the case anymore.
The Chowchilla Case (1976): Through hypnosis, the bus driver recalled two out of three digits of the kidnappers' vehicle license plate even after he, with 26 schoolchildren, was buried alive in a trailer, underground in a gravel quarry. The kidnappers were pursued and prosecuted accordingly.
Disadvantages of Using Hypnosis to Recall Events
Although hypnosis proved helpful in the Chowchilla case, the nurses in the Ann Arbor case were not much grateful for it. This shows that hypnosis cannot always help people remember better, especially for crucial situations like legal battles. Below are the reasons why hypnosis cannot always be used to recall events:
- Hypnotized individuals remember more correct and more incorrect information. Nadon, Lawrence and Perry (1991) showed participants a videotape of a mock-armed robbery, and asked them details about it. The researchers asked the participants twice after seeing the tape, twice after a week, once during hypnosis, and once after hypnosis. They found that high-hypnotizable participants remembered more true and false crime details than low-hypnotizable participants did. The researchers concluded that high-hypnotizable participants are more willing to report whatever that comes to their mind, with or without hypnosis, than low-hypnotizable participants.
- Some hypnotists use leading questions. Hypnotized individuals are vulnerable to suggestions, and leading questions can influence them to construct pseudomemories instead of recalling actual information.
- Hypnotized individuals show extreme confidence with their pseudomemories, unlike non-hypnotized individuals. Because cross-examinations are designed for liars, hypnotized individuals are immune against it, because they believe that what they recalled is true. They show strong support and belief of the truthfulness of their pseudomemories. Jane Dywan (1995) explains that hypnosis gives the illusion of familiarity to "recalled" memories.
How to Use Hypnosis in the Legal System Effectively
Hypnosis was proven useful in some cases, although not in others. Due to its questionable reliability, Santrock (2003) advises courts of those states that allow hypnotic testimony, and some clinical psychologists, to follow these recommendations:
- Use corroborating evidences. In the Chowchilla case, the schoolchildren's testimony provided corroborating evidence of the bus driver's memory. However, it would have been better if, in the Ann Arbor case, the patients were instructed to remember the names, instead of just the faces of the accused nurses.
- Avoid using leading questions. As much as possible, let the participants remember willingly. This is to minimize the possibility of generating pseudomemories.
- Use hypnosis only when needed. Some non-hypnotic instructions can aid in remembering, and it is important to utilize these resources first before relying on hypnosis. This gives the recalled information more weight, as witnesses are described as "lucid" and not "brain-washed".
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