Issues Magazine

The True Believers

By Krissy Wilson

Are we pre-programmed to believe in weird and wonderful things that lack any significant scientific basis, and are some of us more likely to believe than others?

Unwavering belief in phenomena that contradict known scientific laws and principles is a common feature of all western societies, and there is little evidence to suggest that widespread paranormal beliefs are on the wane. While there remains little, if any, evidence to suggest that any of these claims support known, provable phenomena, recent opinion polls suggest that such commonly held beliefs are on the increase.

In America, for example, polls typically report increases in popular beliefs such as ghosts, witches, psychic healing and telepathy. A similar pattern emerges when examining the results of a recent Reader’s Digest nationwide survey, which revealed that 52% of the respondents claim to have seen a ghost while 68% claim to be able to “sense” that someone is looking at them.

Yet, mainstream psychology has largely neglected the area of human belief until relatively recently. Parapsychology, on the other hand, has spent the past 100 years or so, somewhat unsuccessfully, attempting to prove that psychic forces exist.

With newly emerging interest in the field of anomalistic psychology, however, researchers are exploring a more skeptical approach. Not primarily interested in proving or disproving the existence of these phenomena, anomalistic psychology is concerned with psychological and in some cases physiological reasons for why so many of us believe in weird and wonderful things that lack any significant scientific basis.

It is clear that our continued fascination for such topics is not the result of critical reflection, carefully weighing up the evidence, but based upon a proposition or view that is believed to be true despite inconclusive evidence. But where does that belief come from? Are we somehow pre-programmed to believe? Are some of us more likely to believe than others? And do we see the same patterns of belief here in Australia?

The Biology of Belief
In extreme cases, such as those with psychotic delusions, biology is clearly a major factor. Antipsychotic drugs have been helping those with delusions, particularly schizophrenic-like symptoms, since the 1950s. The exact mechanism by which the drugs work is not entirely understood, but they clearly affect the brain’s chemistry. Accelerated or increased levels of serotonin and dopamine are the likely cause.

But we are not merely talking about schizophrenics or the clinically deluded. Alien abductees are not delusional psychotics, and psychics or housewives who believe that they can see “dead people” are not suffering from personality disorders.

On the contrary, there is nothing “abnormal” about belief. For other clues we can correlate personality types with paranormal beliefs. Could there be a belief personality, whereby some people are particularly susceptible to paranormal and related beliefs?

The general pattern of results is fairly mixed, but some tentative conclusions can be drawn from the research findings to date. Researchers have typically looked at the relationship of factors such as dissociation, fantasy-proneness and suggestibility to belief in the paranormal.

Dissociativity describes a tendency to drift in and out of conscious awareness. In extreme cases, patients may develop severe schizotypical symptoms and are, as a result, unable to function normally.

But in most cases dissociation is a common occurrence of a brief disconnection from full self-awareness, of time and of external circumstances, and correlates with belief in the paranormal in a number of studies. Furthermore, dissociation has also been correlated with suggestibility.

A similar pattern emerges when looking at fantasy-proneness. Like dissociation, fantasy-proneness exists on a continuum from mild examples to clinical cases where patients have an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. They may report vivid childhood memories, show elevated levels of hypnotic suggestibility, and claim to have psychic abilities.

While much of the research into qualitative and quantitative differences between believers and non-believers is inherently negative in its conclusions about belief, a new line of exploration is questioning that view and taking the approach that belief, in various forms, might be beneficial.

For example, we have recently examined the relationship between emotional intelligence, self-esteem and belief in the paranormal. One hundred and fifty-one students from the University of Tasmania between 18 and 49 years of age took part in the study. Each participant completed a battery of self-report questionnaires to assess paranormal belief, self-esteem and the ability to understand, regulate and reason with emotion. We found that paranormal belief correlated moderately with emotional intelligence, which in turn correlated with self-esteem.

Although this line of enquiry is in its early stages, preliminary findings suggest that belief may act as a coping mechanism enabling modern humanity to deal with the rigours of life. Support for such a theory might lead to the contention that belief is an innate human property whereby we are pre-programmed to believe in order to feel stronger and safer, and thus aid our survival.

A second strand of research has examined the relationship between paranormal and religious belief, primarily since both belief systems view science as an inadequate guide to the universe. Generally the findings present a mixed picture, with some researchers suggesting that the two belief constructs are directly related. However, a sizeable amount of further investigation has produced quite different results, with some evidence suggesting a negative relationship between religious and paranormal belief.

Two studies at the University of Tasmania examined this possible relationship further through questionnaires distributed to more than 500 individuals. In addition to instruments measuring paranormal belief and self-esteem, the Religious Orientation Scale measured intrinsic (spirituality) and extrinsic (overt behaviours such as church-going) dimensions of religious belief. We found moderate but significant correlations between spirituality and paranormal beliefs. Interestingly, spirituality was more highly correlated with paranormal belief among those who had no religious affiliation. These results imply that belief in the paranormal might act as a substitute for belief in more traditional forms of religion for people who do not have a religious affiliation.

Cognitive Factors
With the cognitive revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, the notion emerged that the human brain functions like a modern computer. Unfortunately this analogy has led to a mistaken understanding of certain cognitive abilities, especially in the way that we view memory.

Memory does not function like a computer program that reliably and accurately replays the same memory over again with perfect clarity. Indeed, few of us realise that our cognitive abilities consistently let us down. We see what we have not seen, hear what we have not heard, and even recall events that never even took place.

Research over the past 20 years has explored the role of cognitive biases in paranormal beliefs and the reporting of ostensibly paranormal events. Once again, the picture that emerges is somewhat mixed.

Attempts to define believers as gullible, foolish or unable to think critically have proved unsuccessful. We are all susceptible to faulty thinking, poor reasoning ability and memory distortions.

Christopher French of the University of London examined factors related to cognitive distortions that might potentially lead some people to misinterpret an odd experience as being paranormal when in fact a more conventional explanation would be more appropriate. For example, believers in the paranormal tend to be poorer at syllogistic reasoning tasks (e.g. all A is C; all B is A; therefore all B is C), have a more distorted concept of randomness that leads them to see meaning where none exists, and are more suggestible.

Cultural Influence
Unfortunately, the media love the paranormal and any story related to it. Typically, claims of the paranormal and reports of all manner of anomalous events and experiences are treated largely uncritically in the popular media.

On any given evening on television in the UK, America and Australia there is likely to be a program or film devoted to a psychic phenomenon. In films, psychics are portrayed in a very sympathetic light, often as innocent victims who are ridiculed and misunderstood by narrow-minded skeptics whose “gift” is ultimately proven to be real. This uncritical view is likely to have an impact, particularly as it’s fun to believe in this stuff. We believe because we want to.

Clearly there are a number of reasons why we believe. Biology, cognition and popular culture are all factors that increase our susceptibility to belief and to allow us to misinterpret events as being paranormal.

However, I wonder if we are not approaching this issue from the wrong perspective. Belief may not be the enemy but may indeed have beneficial properties that help us cope with the awful possibility that life is brutal, meaningless and, worse, short.

Skeptics such as Richard Dawkins are leading an almost political crusade against the perils of unfounded beliefs, in particular religious beliefs. But in my view, belief is universal. We seem to be pre-programmed to believe, and are aided and abetted by our faulty cognitive abilities.

This tends to suggest that belief is a powerful symptom of the human condition. Whether we like it or not, we all believe in something.

This is an edited version of an article published in Australasian Science.