Belief in the
Can you believe what you see?
PSI's Dave Wood looks into the effect of paranormal belief on
accounts of ghost sightings, and reports on a field experiment conducted
at PSI’s recent investigation of Bristol’s Fire HQ.
frequent question asked by paranormal researchers is “do believers
experience more paranormal phenomena and if so, why?”. There certainly
seems to be a lot of evidence suggesting that they do, any numerous
explanations offered as to why. The issue of eyewitness testimony during
paranormal investigations was discussed at length in a recent PSI
journal article, this article will briefly cover some of the arguments
and report the results of PSI’s own field experiment.
Much research into the effects of paranormal belief seems to revolve
around the ideas of ‘false attributions’ and ‘poor probabilistic
reasoning’. This basically means that ‘sheep’ (or those with high
paranormal belief) are more likely to mistake normal activity for
paranormal activity, and are more likely to see meaning in coincidence.
Taking a couple of examples common to paranormal investigating: someone
might perceive a temperature drop or report an ‘unusual feeling’. The
believer may be likely to think that these feelings are the result of a
ghostly presence, whilst a sceptic may put them down to draughts or
natural bodily functions. A common scene in a séance is an investigator
asking for a ‘sign’ of the presence of a spirit. Any resulting ‘knocks’
might be thought to be ‘spirit contact’ by believers, but are they trying to
make ‘signs’ fit the circumstances? Would a natural ‘knock’ have
happened anyway? Would they have noticed it if they were not looking for
In the 1990s, Richard Wiseman performed experiments into the ‘science of
the séance’ and conclusions were drawn that believers perceived a light
and a table ‘moving’ where no movement took place. This could suggest
simple misperception of the environment where paranormal activity is
In 2001, Gianotti found that believers were more adept at making sense
of random patterns, but also saw meaning in gibberish. Conversely,
sceptics knew when a pattern was meaningless, but were less likely to
identify meaningful patterns where present. Are believers, therefore,
more able to ‘pick up’ unusual activity where sceptics close themselves
off to it?
During a recent PSI investigation, unknowing investigators were split
into two groups: one of relative ‘believers’ and one of relative
‘sceptics’ based on responses on a paranormal belief scale
questionnaire. The locations and experiences of both groups were, as far
as possible, standardised across the night to reduce possible errors.
The ‘sceptic’ group reported 17 potentially paranormal experiences
throughout the night, whereas the ‘believer’ group reported 72
experiences over the same time frame.
Whilst we could not control the objective level of activity each group
may have experienced, the difference seemed pronounced – the believers
reported four times more activity than the sceptics.
Did the believers really perceive more activity, or did they just think
they did? Did the sceptics close themselves off to activity? Did the
believers perceive more because the rest of their group was? Did the
sceptics expect less because the rest of their group was experiencing
little? The search for answers continues.
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