Explanations of Paranormal Experiences

Different explanations of paranormal experiences in psychology.

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The Role of Coincidence

People deal with coincidence in different ways; a person's way of dealing with coincidence may make them more succeptible to anomalistic experiences.

A coincidence is when two events happen at the same time.

  • Illusion of causality - People may wrongly think that one event is causing the other. e.g. you think of your friend and they call you, you believe you influenced them.
  • Illusion of control - People feel in control of things that they have no control over. Research has found believers more likely to express illusions of control.
  • General cognitive ability - Inteliigence may be lower in believers so less able to accurately judge causal links. Research - believers significantly lower levels of academic performance.
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Evaluation of the Role of Coincidence

  • Biological support for making connections - Brugger et al                                     People with high levels of dopamine more likely to find significance in coincidence (find a causal link). Participants shown real/scrambled faces + real/made up words. Believers more likely to see a face or word when there was none. Participants then given L-Dopa to increase dopamine, non-believers acted more like believers, no effect on previous believers.
  • Adaptive significances - adaptive to see a tiger in grassland rather than miss it. May lead to type 1 errors in order to avoid type 2 errors.
  • Importance of creativity - researchers have found a link between creativiity and paranormal beliefs. Belivers more likely to be creative.
  • Support for illusion of control - Whitson and Galinsky asked participants to recall situations when they felt in control, other asked to recall the opposite. Those who felt reduced control detected more patterns and formed illusionary correlations.
  • General cognitive ability - amongst the scientific community (intelligent) belief is high. 67% believed in ESP or said it was highly probable. Believers and non-believers only differ in syllogistic reasoning rather than general cognitive ability.
  • Validity of research - depends on measures of belief and measures of target behaviours e.g. control. Some measuring scales may be broader so results can vary a lot.
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The Role of Probability Judgements

Probability refers to the likelihood of an event occuring. Paranormal experiences are a kind of cognitive illusion due to poor probability judgements.

Believers may underestimate probability; they reject coincidence and attribute causality.

Probability misjudgements has been measured in three main ways:

  • Repetition avoidance - paticipants asked to produce a string of random numbers and number of repetitions counted. Believers avoided repetitions - poor judgement.
  • Questions about probability - participants asked various questions including birthday paradox. More non-believers got this correct.
  • Conjunction fallacy - participants given 16 descriptions of co-occuring events and asked to juudge probability of the events co-occuring. Believers made more errors.
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Evaluation of the Role of Probability Judgements

  • Contradictory research - Susan Blackmore asked 6000+ participants to identify statements that were true for them e.g. 'There is someone called Jack in my family'. Then asked how many statements would be true for a random person. People tended to overestimate the number true for others. People who believed in ESP generally gave higher answers for themselves and others.
  • Correlation not cause - research suggests a link not causal relationship. May be intervening factor such as cognitive ability.
  • Cognitive ability - may explain link between probability misjudgement and paranormal beliefs. Poor judgements may be due to poor cognitive abilities so probability not main cause.
  • Not misjudgement, simply a different strategy - people use different strategies to solve problems, one of these is representativeness. Some people think throwing a coin 6 times will be representative of 50:50. Some believe if you get 3 consecutive heads you're likely to get a tail next.
  • Validity of research - depends on measures of belief and target behaviour e.g. probability judgements. Choice of scale impacts results e.g. in Blackmore's study one question used to measure belief in ESP.
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Explanations of Superstitious Behaviour

Superstitions are beliefs not based on reason or knowledge e.g. number 7 is lucky. Superstition may be a core cognition underlying paranormal beliefs. It's an example of irrational thinking where a causal relationship has been assumed.

  • Type 1 and 2 errors - superstitions arise from making unjustified causal links. This may be adaptive and it's better to make type 1 error than type 2 error. Superstitions are adaptive to avoid type 2 errors.
  • Behaviourist explanation - Skinner said superstitions develop via operant conditioning where accidental stimulus-response link learned. Superstition acquired by conditioning and negatively reinforced every time you repeat behaviour, anxiety is reduced e,g, dont walk under ladder.
  • Illusion of control - superstitions develop where people feel lack of control e.g sitting exams. Superstitions give a feeling of control.
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Evaluation of Superstitious Behaviours

  • Support for illusion of control - Whitson & Galinsky participants asked to recall time when they felt in control and others to recall opposite. Participants given superstitious scenarios and judge likely effect. Those who felt in less control said it had more effect.
  • Skinner's superstitious pigeons - hungry pigeons in cage. For a few mins each day food appeared at regular intervals. The birds seemed to learn ritualistic behaviour thinking it would make food appear. Behaviours were reinforced by appearance of food.
  • Skinner's study challenged - Staddon & Simmelhag repeated study and found behaviours weren't related to food, they were just random actions by the birds.
  • Support for behavioural explanations - Matute participants in library exposed to uncontrollable noises from computer. Participants would try to stop noises. When noises started again, participants would press buttons that they thought made it stop before.
  • Personal vs. cultural superstitions - explanations only account for personal superstitions. Also cultural superstitions e.g. number 7 lucky in the UK. Supersitions may be adopted by indirect learning.
  • Illusion of control - brings benefits, we actively confront unpredictable things. Activation of superstition led to enhanced performance on variety of tasks - increase self efficacy.
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Explanations of Magical Thinking

Magical thinking involves attaching meaning to objects or actions so that they gain special properties. It's another example of irrational thinking where causal relationship attributed. It may underlie paranormal beliefs.

  • Psychodynamic explanation - Freud said magical thinking is a form of childlike thought where inner feelings projected to outside e.g. thinking badly about someone may cause their death. In adults this may be a defence mechanism.
  • Dual processing theory - magical thinking is based on childlike thoughts. Thinking is intuitive, lacks logic. Adult thinking is logical however they can use both methods - dual.
  • Animism- Characteristic of pre-operational stage of childlike thoughts. Children ascribe feelings to physical objects.
  • Nominal realism- another pre-operational characteristic where children have difficulty separating names of things from the things themselves. e.g. Rozin poured sugar into two glasses named cyanide and sugar. People observed but still refused to taste cyanide glass.
  • Law of contagion - things having been in contact with one another continue to act on eachother. e.g avoid touching deceased person may bring bad luck. This is adaptive thinking i.e. if someone is diseased avoid touching them.
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Evaluation of Magical Thinking

  • Pronin et al voodoo dolls - evidence of magical thinking. Students to put pins in doll in order to make target victim get headache. Intended victims later acted like they had a headache. Half of students saw victim acting stupidly before, they pushed pins harder and afterwards reported more responsibility for victims headache.
  • Rosenthal & Jacobsen - childrens IQ scores increased just because teachers led to expect them to do better, would have acted more encouragingly.
  • Benefits of magical thinking - people deal more confidently with environment because they expect good things to happen due to their actions/beliefs. Magical thinking acts like placebo, self fulfilling prophecy - things turn out as we expect.
  • Lack of magical thinking- People who are depressed show less magical thinking - depression realism (cause or effect?). Accurate assessment of own abilities may not be good for you.
  • Costs of magical thinking - associated with number of mental disorders, possible characteristic of schizophrenia. Critical in OCD.
  • Real world application- Lives can be saved by organ donation. Donation rates remain low - may be explained by magical thinking - law of contagion says we link donation with our own dead body, may tempt fate. More emphasis should be placed on positive conotations.
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Personality Factors in Anomalous Experience

Eyseneck's Personality Factors

  • Neuroticism - the tendency to experience negative emotional states rather than positive. Paranormal beliefs create distance from reality - defence mechanism. Studies found relationship between neuroticism and paranormal beliefs. Williams - Welsh children correlation +0.32.
  • Extraversion - positive emotions, tendency to seek extra stimulation. It's linked with paranormal beliefs. Honorton meta analysis of 60 studies overall positive correlation.
  • Many other personality factors - e.g. locus of control, correlation between external and paranormal beliefs.

A More Imaginative Personality

  • Fantasy proneness- so deeply absorbed in fantasy it feels like reality. Link between imagination and paranormal belief. Becoming very absorbed = overlook facts.
  • Suggestibility- inclination to accept suggestions from others. These people are more easily hypnotised. Positive correlation between ability to be hypnotised and score on PBS.
  • Creative personality- Thalbourne meta analysis, correlation between creative personality and paranormal beliefs. More creative = make links, this may underlie paranormal beliefs.
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Evaluation of Personality Factors

  • Methods used to measure belief - correlations depend on how belief is measured. Many studies use the PBS which consists of attitudes to different sub-scales e.g. superstition, spiritualism, witchcraft. Different sub-scales give different correlations - reliable?
  • Neuroticism -Wiseman and Watt focused on superstition sub-scale, they found neuroticism only linked with bad luck superstitions. These could create negative emotional states (cause and effect?). However PBS only focused on negative superstitions, lack validity.
  • Psychoticism - Francis et al, 20,000 UK children, found high psychoticism did correlate with unconventional paranormal beliefs.
  • Locus of control - only some forms of psi correlate positively with external locus of control. Some studies find positive correlation with internal locus. Unreliability of results may be due to type of paranormal belief measured.
  • Susceptibility- Clancy, people who claimed to have experienced alien abduction were more susceptible to suggestions from others, in particular, false memories.
  • False memories- may occur due to strong imaginations and creativity. French and Wilson, 100 participants given questionnaire. 4/5 about real events, 1 was fiction. 36% claimed to have seen the fake one on the news for example. These people scored higher on PBS.
  • Are paranormal beliefs a sign of mental disorder? People who display schizotypy have greater tendency to have paranormal beliefs. Symptom = magical & superstitious beliefs. This may be reason for higher scores on scales.
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