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Belief in the Paranormal: 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.  

A 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 it?

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 expected.

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.