Empirical research of paranormal phenomena in terms of significant influencing variables

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 3603


The paranormal refers to phenomena, which if genuine, would defy the fundamental laws of science (Tobacyk, 1988). Belief in the paranormal has promoted many debates that have broadened through the years. However, concerns have focused on the vulnerability of these phenomena to empirical scrutiny, and they have generally be considered to be superstition (Scheibe, 1965). The anecdotal approach (Fort, 1920) to empirical scrutiny considers the vast number of phenomena that have been compiled from personal experiences and eye-witness testimony. However, due to the lack of objectivity surrounding these early publications, contemporary research has attempted to develop a more comprehensive assessment of paranormal topics that can be supplemented by scientific methodology. This is evident in experiments on extrasensory perception carried out under laboratory conditions supervised by Rhine (1975) that have contributed to the foundations of parapsychology.

By using objective methodology, paranormal research has transcended the concept that paranormal phenomena are merely simple superstition to develop cognitively specific theories such as psychokinesis and precognition (Irwin, 1993). Taking into account that there are many phenomena, an individual’s belief can be expressed within single dimensions, which provide the collective attitude to the paranormal in its entirety (Newport, 1991). Therefore, studying the population’s belief in the paranormal is dependent on the operationalised facets used. However in order to measure belief in such a diverse domain, it is important to identify its areas. In a similar way to which intelligence was regarded (Randall, 1980) early conceptions of the paranormal were rather generalised. However, the parapsychological approach has emphasised a multidimensional understanding as evident from the variety of case studies and eye-witness testimonies compiled by Fort (1922), rediscovered during the renaissance.

Parapsychologists have utilised psychometrics and factor analyses to identify and measure constructed beliefs (Scheidt, 1973). The Paranormal Belief Scale (PBS) (Tobacyk, 1988) established 26 scale items for seven paranormal dimensions: extraordinary life forms, precognition, psi abilities, spiritualism, superstition, traditional religious beliefs, and witchcraft. This multifaceted approach allows self-reported beliefs in the paranormal to be quantitatively assessed, with a tested inter-item Cronbach alpha correlation of 0.7 (Nagot & Miller, 1987). Although construct and cross-cultural validity has been improved by the revised PBS (R-PBS) in response to semantic ambiguities (Lawrence et al., 1997), other questionnaires have adopted the seven multifaceted design. Gallup (1996), for example, conducted a survey on a general American representative sample and found 70 per cent of respondents believed in at least one of the seven paranormal dimensions. Because this shows considerable changes, it is important to offer a brief chronological overview of Gallup’s statistics.

In a questionnaire conducted in 1997, it was found that 72 per cent of an American sample believed in the existence of angels and demons, 45 per cent in unidentified flying objects (UFOs), and 48 per cent in extrasensory perception abilities (ESP) (Gallup, 1997). The number of ESP believers among Americans later increased by two per cent among other phenomena: 38 per cent believed in spirits/ghosts, 42 per cent in haunted houses, 41 per cent in demonic possession, and 28 per cent in astrology (Gallup (2001). Gallup’s results also indicate that the percentage of Americans who believed in at least one of the seven paranormal constructs had increased by seven percent since 1997. However, there was also a decrease in belief in other paranormal constructs, such as a six per cent decline in the belief in witches, and nine per cent in demonic possession (Gallup, 2005).

Although these are just a few of the seven constructs that have shown attrition, polarisation of common paranormal beliefs has taken place over time. This is evident from the fact that 45 per cent believe in ghosts/spirits, and 51 per cent of the general American population believe in UFOs (Moore, 2005). These statistics raise the question as to why there is so much variation and change in beliefs within the same population, thereby drawing attention to possible influencers, such as demographic variables.

This study aims to investigate the significant influencers of paranormal belief by exploring differences among public views diluted across populations. The remaining body of this introduction will first discuss possible social and cultural independent variables, and secondly, individual factors that can have an effect on beliefs. Research findings from questionnaires utilising constructs from the R-PBS, will be evaluated in terms of social and societal trends that govern selected samples. Implications for individuality and belief structure models will be the primary theoretical framework of this study.

The epistemology of paranormal belief raises questions about what societal domains individuals are accustomed to and how they, in part, influence how such phenomena are perceived. It can be argued that society’s mass media portrayals of paranormal material have control over the way normative deviant concepts are digested (Randi, 1992). Research conducted by Gallup has shown a definite change in paranormal belief among the general American population which could be attributed to the increase in material exposed by tabloids (Sanghera, 2002). An analysis of the 1997 Gallup questionnaire found that of the American respondents who believed in UFOs, 71 per cent believed the government was withholding information about UFOs. This has been a popular topic of debate in the media throughout the U.S since the Roswell, New Mexico incident in 1947, when an extraterrestrial spacecraft was reported to have crashed. Tabloids and published articles about this incident escalated interest in this phenomenon in the public, driving it to a popular ongoing discussion among both sceptics and believers. It can be argued the many Americans who believe in the ‘cover-up’ of the Roswell incident were influenced by the contradictory explanations published in the tabloids from the early 1950s (Miller, 2005).

With regard to results obtained from Gallup’s 2001 questionnaire, the increase in Americans who believe in clairvoyance such as psychokinesis may be attributed to extensive publicity of Uri Gellar’s psychic performances in the 1970s. Without this publicity, there would have been significantly less familiarity with the phenomenon (Sanghera, 2002). However, although support of and belief in this topic have declined, public belief in spirits and UFO phenomena have persisted due to increasing media popularity and interest (Moore, 2005). Furthermore, it can be argued that the dissemination of paranormal ideas is confounded by the cultural and political trends of the governing society (McClenon, 2000). Correlation studies are needed to strengthen the hypothesis that the media can be used as an influential variable in acquired paranormal belief.

Sparks and Miller (2001), investigated the correlated relationship between the level of paranormal belief, measured by the R-PBS, and the tendency to watch television shows that frequently portray paranormal concepts. Correlation data was obtained from an American sample of 82 undergraduates across the U.S, and it was found that there was a significant correlation between those who had higher scores on the R-PBS, and the tendency to watch paranormal-related shows, such as the X-Files and Monster Quest. This correlation supports the two-tailed hypothesis that media, as a societal domain, has an influence on the endorsement of paranormal belief. However, Miller’s study did not identify which belief scores could be attributed to specific material exposed by the television programmes; the direct influence of the media was not isolated to which phenomena were promoted or conceded.

For this reason, it is important to investigate beliefs relative to the way the material is portrayed. One such study was carried out by manipulating a media message for an episode depicting paranormal material, and seeing how this affected endorsed or sceptical beliefs among three groups of participants (Sparks, 1996). Group one was given an opening programme message stating that reconstruction of depicted paranormal events was accurate; group two was told the events were false; group three was told that the paranormal events shown were false and violated scientific reality. The control group, which had no leading message, showed an increase in paranormal belief but this had not been maintained in a follow up after three weeks. The group briefed on the false and impossible nature of the events showed the most significant decline in paranormal belief. This study was pursued in response to earlier findings in which participants expressed greater belief in UFOs after watching a television episode exposing the UFO phenomenon, than those who watched an unrelated programme (Sparks, 1995). Although these correlation studies validate the media hypothesis as an influential variable, they also show consistency in Gallup’s ecological results. However, findings from these results are difficult to generalise to foreign populations, considering samples used were from the U.S. In response to this problem, Tobacyk and Pirttila-Backman (2003) used an African sample of 504 high school and university students, and found that while scores on the R-PBS showed a high prevalence for spiritualism, there were far fewer who believed in UFOs. This finding is inconsistent with previous studies using American samples (Pirttila-Backman, 2000). Some sociologists within the paranormal research community argue that depictions of paranormal topics are dominated by the biases of journalists relative to the cultural and political trends of the societies to which they belong (Sanghera, 2002). This raises the question of cross-cultural differences in belief as a potential significant variable.

1.1. Paranormal Beliefs and Religion

The cultural implications of the results discussed open up a more macro-centric understanding of paranormal belief. One major component of culture that will be discussed here, is the prominence of religion and how its powerful influence in forming intellectual reactions to paranormal concepts (Schriever, 2000). The logic behind religious speculation is that individuals who hold a belief structure comprising supernatural concepts are reluctant to integrate phenomena that coincide with their idea of what is acceptable. Therefore, the popularity of beliefs in the spirit/ghost phenomenon among Gallup’s American samples may be indicative of the Christian beliefs held by much of Western society and the Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit (Hillstrom, 2000).

It also needs to be considered that variance in belief scores could be attributed to other religious groups in Gallup’s samples. It is important to validate the assumption that religions share common paranormal beliefs to evaluate how significant it is as an influential variable. Correlation studies have found a variation of results in respect of specific paranormal constructs. Tobacyk and Milford (1983) used as a sample, members of different faiths. Scores from the PBS showed a positive correlation with polarised beliefs in precognition and witchcraft; however no relationship was found with constructs evident in Gallup’s samples, such as spiritualism. Positive correlations have also been found with traditional religious beliefs and beliefs in the psychic healing phenomenon (Clarke, 1991). To skew these results further, Hillstrom and Strachan (2000), found negative correlations with five paranormal constructs, including precognition and reincarnation. It is clear there are several contradictions in the influence of religion on belief scores, which can be attributed to various methodological problems. First, religiosity was measured by institutional attendance for both Tobacyk’s and Clarke’s correlation studies, which may have given invalid scores. Secondly, different Likert scales were used for measuring paranormal belief; aside from the PBS, the more general and shorter version used by Clarke’s study comprised only five rating points which affected the overall scores. Despite these methodological inconsistencies, it is clear that religion as a cultural domain is discriminative in its influence on what paranormal dimensions are conceded and which supported.

In light of the correlation findings between religion and paranormal belief, there are several theoretical implications that need to be discussed in order to continue the search for an influential variable. Religious influence on polarised beliefs may be indicative of existing schematic representations of semantically similar ideas. Taking into account schemas are networks of units representing distinct information and conceptions, new stimuli and ideas that share meaningful properties can be integrated. This component – ellaborated by Piaget (1950) in the field of cognitive development – may account for the proactive interference of paranormal concepts with religious laws that have evolved during the course of cultural nurturing (Sharps & Asten, 2006). Therefore, Hillstrom’s Christian interpretation of Gallup’s results showing unified belief in spirits and ghosts, can be explained by the process of assimilation with existing schemas on spirituality. The strength of this cognitive explanation has shown consistency in Buddhists integrating haunted houses and ghosts into belief, which has religious associations with existing knowledge in spiritualism, and the life cycle of the soul (Mathews, 2006). Considering existing belief structures influence paranormal endorsement on a cognitive level, this has further theoretical implications on the formulation of belief itself. According to Ajzen and Fishbein (1975), the three constructs of attitudes are cognitive (mental representation of the object, i.e belief), affective (emotional appraisal), and behavioural (action towards the object, i.e paranormal). However, these three constructs have been debated in the distinction between attitude and belief, and now contemporary conceptions of beliefs are formulated by their affective and behavioural values too, as Reber (1995) states:

“Belief is an emotional acceptance of some proposition, statement or doctrine”.

This multi-construct view of belief opens a deeper understanding of why individuals endorse certain paranormal phenomena, especially when correlated with religious teachings such as spiritualism, which may have personal values. It can also be argued that the cognitive component of belief is influenced by existing representations (schemas) that are inter-correlated, thus providing a psychological foundation for how religious beliefs influence paranormal endorsements. Taking into account stored knowledge and ideas enables the integration of associated concepts which sparks an interest in the educational background of individuals. This may serve as a significant influential variable. For this reason, it is important to elaborate on the schematic influence of assimilated beliefs by moving away from religion and concentrating on correlations with other knowledge bases.

1.2. Paranormal Beliefs and Educational Background

In order to test the hypothesis that education has an influence on acquiring paranormal belief, it is necessary to explore several studies using samples of different academic levels. Otis and Alcock (1982) tested the assumption that individuals who have had little scientific education are prone to have paranormal beliefs and the absence of sceptical inquiry that requires empirical support. They found higher paranormal belief scores from the PBS for those students who had enrolled in humanities and art courses, than those who pursued the sciences. However, this hypothesis has been rejected by other findings from different student samples using the same methodology (Otis, 1983). The hypothesis that students with minimal scientific education tend to endorse paranormal beliefs can be criticised for implying that empirical enquiry is associated with intellectual competence. This method of empirical reasoning can be rather tedious when applied to all domains of humanity; for example, it demands that every dialogic statement or claim made in literature must be scrutinised for scientific or factual credibility, rather than considering personal experiential value.

Similarly, the cognitive deficit theory contends that paranormal belief is a characteristic of illogical reasoning which may be caused by abnormally high levels of dopamine. This is commonly found in individuals with schizophrenia who show symptoms such as delusional beliefs (Alcock, 1981). Tobacyk and Miller (1984) tested this theory by using a sample of young adolescents with poor educational attainment and a diagnosis of dyslexia, and found significantly higher scores on the PBS than a control group of high academic achievers.

Although these results show that academic levels are strong influencers of paranormal belief, a majority of similar studies have produced mixed results that do not support the cognitive deficit theory (Emmons & Sobal, 1981).

Another theory proposed in an attempt to explain educational influence on beliefs is the social marginality hypothesis which argues that individuals who are susceptible to paranormal concepts are people with low socioeconomic status, disadvantaged social groups, and those have little education (Wuthow, 1976). The philosophical view of the paranormal is understood as a normatively acclaimed term, which claims ignorance of the social marginality hypothesis (Zusne & Jones, 1982). This irony is that believers are being judged as having little education or a low socioeconomic status, where the argument can be offered that it is society that lacks the knowledge of and experience with the concerned phenomena.

The social marginality and cognitive deficit hypotheses are reminiscent of the old perception of paranormal ideas as being manifestations of an ‘ill mind’, Today sociology research taking a more contemporary perspective (Irwin, 2001). Therefore, referring back to education as an influential variable, one of the aims of this study is to eliminate the condescending views of paranormal belief being a product of weak critical thought and a lack of scientific reasoning. It is therefore necessary to use a sample of students who are involved in a science-based field, where the implications of their R-PBS scores on these hypotheses can be discussed. It is not so much the lack of education than the type and field of education that has an influence on paranormal belief. As there little research to have tested this educational hypothesis, this study will compare the beliefs of students of a science such as psychology with those who study non-science disciplines.

1.3. Paranormal Beliefs and Personality

The influential variables discussed so far have revealed diverse differences in paranormal belief, while remaining insensitive to the cultural and societal domains to which individuals belong. This can be attributed to individual differences in cognition and personality. It is therefore important to move away from the macro-centric areas, and focus more on the intrinsic processes that govern how susceptible belief formulation is to variables that have been discussed.

Personality can be described as a set of stable internal factors that influence an individual’s cognition and behaviour and that are unique. They are different from other individuals in comparable situations (Allport, 1958). Taking this into account, it can be suggested that personality traits have an enduring influence on how some paranormal phenomena are perceived and judged, taking into account education and culture. However, in order to assess personality’s causal link to paranormal belief, it is necessary to identify what personality dimensions there are. Eysenck (1985) identified three factor traits of personality: first, psychoticism refers to emotional rigidity and stubbornness; secondly, extraversion refers to thrill seeking tendencies; and thirdly, neuroticism refers to emotional stability. The three-factor model has been criticised as being too simplistic. Contemporary theories have broadened the trait approach to five dimensions to account for the complexity of affective and cognitive behaviour (McCrae, 1996). Based on a lexical method of selected adjectives that best describe personality, Costa and McCrae (1992), introduced the Five Factor Model of Personality (FFM), and used a nomothetic approach for standardised psychometric scoring (Genotypic, NEO-PIR, Costa & McCrae, 1992). Each of the five dimensions have two polarised expressions: openness to experience reveals curiosity and caution, appreciation of art and adventure, while conscientiousness reveals organisation and discipline. Extraversion refers to adventurous tendencies; agreeableness refers to compassion and the level of suspicion while neuroticism refers to emotional stability. Conscientiousness and agreeableness provide a two-dimensional domain for Eysenck’s psychoticism trait (Digman, 1997).

Considering each dimension has its own characteristic expression (Phenotypic Big-Five markers, Goldberg, 1995), recent studies have attempted to find possible trait tendencies for R-PBS scores. Using the expressive Big-Five markers of personality, positive correlations have been found between neuroticism and polarised beliefs in spiritualism, precognition, and traditional religion (R-PBS, Thalbourne & Delin, 1995).

The correlation of the polarised beliefs found in traditional religion and spiritualism with neurotic scores is consistent with with Reber’s (1995) theory of the affective emotional component in paranormal belief. Supporting this finding, anxiety as an expression of neuroticism has been shown to have a significant relationship with high R-PBS scores (Okebukola, 1986). This study used an abbreviated phenotypic personality inventory called mini markers, which consists of 40 adjectives, each scored on five rating scales. It showed a surprisingly high inter-item correlation of a Cronbach alpha 0.7 (Saucier, 1994). Openness to experience is another personality trait that has been positively correlated with scores of several paranormal beliefs, including cryptozoology and extraordinary life forms (Lester & Monaghan, 1995).

This correlation provides convergent validity for openness to experience scales from Goldberg’s mini markers; it endorses deviant ideas and moves away from the idea that conventional values are a natural extension of the traits’ characteristic (McCrae, 1996). It needs to be pointed out that there is insufficient evidence to support the openness to experience relationship, especially for generalisability. With regard to extraversion, psychometric tests on an American high school sample yielded a positive correlation with demonic possession, haunted houses, and cryptozoology, measured using the NEO PI-R and R-PBS (Thalbourne & Haraldsson, 1980). The remaining two personality dimensions, agreeableness and conscientiousness, have received little correlated research for their influence on acquired paranormal belief. Given the inconclusive results that have been found in this young area of personality correlation, an aim of this study is to provide a thorough analysis of the FFM of personality and its precise relationship with the seven paranormal constructs.

The raison d’être of this study is to therefore identify which of the four significant variables identified in previous research has the most influence on, and prediction of paranormal belief. This study will be the first to compare the influence of educational background on paranormal belief between other independent variables.


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