Gordon Cochrane and John Friesen of the Department of Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia, conducted a research study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. There have been previous reports of the effectiveness of hypnotherapy when used to treat obesity; however, they were not substantiated by any controlled research studies until Cochrane & Friesen (1986).
Previous studies did indicate success although no follow-up information was recorded. Winkelstein (1959) used group hypnosis as a treatment method and results showed an average weight loss of 27 pounds during a 4-month period. No details of concurrent conditions or variables were considered and follow-up information was not recorded. Wollman (1962) conducted group hypnotherapy using visualization but no variables in the subjects’ characteristics were noted and follow-up data was not recorded.
Hanley (1967) concluded that weight loss which occurred at the beginning of the study was superficial and the subjects tended to relapse when deep psychological issues surfaced that may have been the reason or at least contributory factors to the obesity problem to begin with. Psychotherapy in conjunction with continuing hypnotherapy may have led to continued weight-loss. However, the research study did not consider that possibility.
The Cochrane study (1986) was carefully constructed to consider variables in relation to each group of participants. The 60 female subjects were selected in a random fashion by advertising in a newspaper and listing the criteria each applicant must possess. Subjects were between 20 and 65 years old and met the requirement of being at least 20% above optimal weight as established by a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Actuarial (1960). Subjects were prohibited from taking part in any other weight-loss programs and they could not have a medical condition that would conflict with a weight-loss endeavour.
Subjects were randomly placed in one of three groups. Group 1 received hypnotherapy. Group 2 received hypnotherapy followed by hypnotherapeutic audiotapes to take home and listen to once a day for 6 months. Group 3 served as the control group. The proposed hypothesis was that the two experimental groups would show a much greater weight loss based on percentage of body weight than the control group. Each subject had her weight recorded once before the study began, again immediately after the study ended and a third time 6 months after the study ended.
In addition, data was recorded on the following variables: Suggestibility, self-concept, quality of family, age of obesity onset, educational level and income level. Significant effort was made to minimize the effect of other variables.
Evaluation of subjects included administering the Barber Suggestibility Scale (BSS), the Tennessee Self Concept Scale (TSCS), the Family History of Distress Scale (FAM) and the Representational Systems Inventory (RSI), which was developed by Cochrane. The latter measures the level of absorption in imagery activities.
Each subject was weighed at the beginning of the study. Those in the two experimental groups were treated using 3-hour sessions of hypnotherapy twice a week for 4 weeks (total of 24 hours). At the end of 4 weeks, all subjects were weighed for the second time. Participants in one group were then given self-hypnosis audiotapes and instructed to listen to them once a day. Next, 6 months were allowed to pass without any contact between researchers and subjects. At the end of 6 months all 60 subjects were weighed for the third time.
The conclusions drawn from this controlled study supported Cochrane’s original hypothesis. The group receiving hypnotherapy and the group receiving hypnotherapy plus audiotapes to use at home lost comparable amounts of weight. Subjects in the control group lost significantly less. According to the results, hypnotherapy was the key element facilitating weight loss. The margin of difference between the hypnosis only and the hypnosis plus audiotapes group was insignificant. Subjects in both those groups lost significantly more weight than those in the control group.
Notably, educational level, economic level and age of the subject at the onset of obesity did not appear to be possible causative factors. Cochrane’s well-controlled study provides empirical evidence in favour of the use of hypnotherapy as an effective treatment option for obese individuals. The conclusions suggest that future research studies should focus on hypnotherapeutic techniques as applied to clients with specific characteristics.
Cochrane, G., & Friesen, J. (1986). Hypnotherapy in weight loss treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1986, 54, No. 4, 489-492.
Hanley, F. W. (1967). The treatment of obesity by individual and group hypnosis. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, 12, 549-551.
Winkelstein, L. B. (1959). Hypnosis, diet and weight reduction. New York State Journal of Medicine, 59, 1751-1756.
Wollman, L. (1962). Hypnosis in weight control. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 4, 117-180.