Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren’t really there

Our brains are so adept at detecting faces that we often see them in random patterns, such as clouds or the gnarled bark of a tree. Occasionally one of these illusory faces comes along that resembles a celebrity and the story ends up in the news – like when Michael Jackson’s face appeared on the surface of a piece of toast. A new study asks whether some people are more prone than others to perceiving these illusory faces.

Tapani Riekki and his team collected dozens of photos that judges in pilot work agreed did or did not have the appearance of faces in them (this included pictures of furniture, places, and natural scenes, such as a rock-face). The researchers then used two adverts to recruit their participants – they were identical except that one requested people who “view the paranormal positively or believe that there is an invisible spiritual world,” while the other requested people who are “sceptical about paranormal phenomena”.

Forty-seven people were eventually selected to take part, based on their being particularly paranormal-believing, religious, sceptical or atheist (there was a lot of overlap in membership between the first two and final two categories). The participants were shown the photos and had to indicate whether a “face-like area” was present, where it was in the image, and they had to say how face-like the image was, and how emotional.

The key finding is that people who scored high in paranormal belief or religiosity were more likely to see face-like areas in the pictures compared with the sceptics and atheists. They weren’t more sensitive to the illusory faces as such, because they also scored a lot of false alarms – saying there was a face when there wasn’t. However, when they spotted a face-like pattern correctly, they were more accurate than sceptics and atheists at saying where exactly in the pictures the illusory faces were located. Finally, the paranormal believers rated the illusory faces as more face-like and emotional than the sceptics.

The researchers said their findings are consistent with past research showing that belief in the paranormal tends to go hand-in-hand with a tendency to jump to conclusions based on inadequate evidence. They added that the results support the idea that religious people and paranormal believers have the habit of seeing human-like attributes, including mental states, in “inappropriate realms.”

“We may all be biased to perceive human characteristics where none exist,” Riekki and his team concluded, “but religious and paranormal believers perceive them even more than do others.”


Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., Aleneff, M., Halme, A., and Nuortimo, A. (2012). Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2874

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

15 thoughts on “Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren’t really there”

  1. Good post. Wait a minute though… British Psychological Society… The “oci” looks like a guy winking with his mouth open… this can't be a coincidence.

    1. In what realm of existence qualifies a person to be able to say whats appropriate or inappropriate? Why are Paranormal and Religious believers lumped together? Doing so skews and biasses your result. Paranormal ethusiasts are quite different from Religious believers. It’s a fun tool of Agnostics and Athiests to make people who are Religious into God freaks and nut cases. I’m highly educated, and a debit Christian. I don’t see the point of such a study. I do see this study as a waste of grant money. Money better spent on this Studies representatives suing whatever Institution’s their seeking their “credentials” or letters behind their name from.

  2. I'm an agnostic and also an artist. I often see faces in birch bark, clouds, trees and so on. However, I don't attribute my face-recognition apparatus to be attributable to paranormal or religious ideation. It's all a matter of our brain which is always looking for patterns and movement.

  3. Its equally true to say that paranormal & religious believers are better at pattern recognition than atheists. This is obviously not the conclusion the researchers would want us to draw…

  4. If there is really a link between autism and atheism per the Boston study, should the results of this be surprising in light of autistic /either or/ analysis?

  5. How do you know that something is not there just because you do not see it. You can't see an atom or a quark or dark energy but it does not mean they are not there. You may not see the solution to a maths problem right in front of you but some people can solve it in an instant. Those who see just happen to be smarter. Just because most people cannot see something is no proof that it is not there. Some people may just be more sensitive in certain ways than others. There is no proof there is no sixth sense just because most of us do not experience it. Some people may have heightened sense the way some people have heightened intuitiveness. Man is so limited in his understanding. There are more things we do not know than those we know. Be a bit more humble and acknowledge ignorance or skepticism rather than certainty.

  6. It could also be interpreted as saying that 'people who tend towards more pattern-seeking behaviour are more likely to be religious or paranormal believing'.

  7. I have no issue with believing in things that I can't personally perceive, but I do expect that those claiming such perceptions should be able to produce consistent and independently verifiable results.

  8. Who's to say that it's the religious / paranormal believers that are of interest here? As some commenters above state, all the results reveal (if anything) is that religious / paranormal believers are better at pattern recognition. After all, the authors deliberately selected photos that had the appearance of faces in them and participants were invited to identify if a face-like area appeared to be present. What's more interesting to me is the resistance atheists / non-paranormal believers had to these instructions.

  9. I don't necessarily disagree with the findings of this research, but I do think that there is a glaring problem with the methods used. It says here that the groups were recruited separately based on their “being particularly paranormal-believing, religious, sceptical or atheist” and that the two distinct adverts were phrased accordingly. It is entirely possible that these groups would find that their attitudes towards the task of looking for faces in the images were influenced by the knowledge that they were invited on the basis of such beliefs or attitudes. If I believed in supernatural or paranormal entities and I was invited to take part in research that I believed (from the advert) required such belief and was then asked to look for faces in a picture, I'd look harder for those faces. If I was an atheist who was asked to take part in research that required sceptics and I was asked to look for faces, deep down, I know I would be less likely to try so hard to see any. I'm not saying that the findings are wrong. It's quite possible that religious people are more likely to view the world in this way than sceptics. I just think the methods are a bit dodgy. It's not good scientific practice. IMO. Incidentally I am an atheist, brought up religious but haven't believed in these things for several decades. I am also an artist, like the person who commented above and I easily see faces in trees, clouds, patterns etc. I think, personally, that the difference really lies in how quickly you mind ascertains whether or not the 'face' you see is real, or significant in some way. Many of the religious people I know (I hasten to add – not ALL of them) are very quick to find some kind of spiritual significance to life's delightful, yet random, coincidences, and, given what they believe, this makes perfect sense.

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