|Researchers say belief in psychic powers is not related to general IQ, memory bias or education, but to a lack of analytical skills|
A large proportion of the public – over a quarter according to a Gallup survey in the US – believe that humans have psychic abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance, even though mainstream science says there is no evidence that these powers exist. It might be tempting for sceptics to put this down to a lack of general intelligence or education on the part of the believers, but in fact past research has failed to support this interpretation.
Now a paper in Memory and Cognition has looked for differences between believers and sceptics in specific mental abilities, rather than in overall intelligence or education. Across three studies – this was one of the most comprehensive investigations of its kind – the researchers at the University of Chicago found that believers in psychic powers had memory abilities equal to the sceptics, but they underperformed on tests of their analytical thinking skills.
Stephen Gray and David Gallo surveyed the psychic beliefs, “need for cognition” (how much people enjoy mental effort) and life satisfaction of over two thousand people online. For example, regarding psychic beliefs, one survey item asked participants whether they agreed or disagreed that “it is possible to gain information about the future before it happens, in ways that do not depend on rational prediction or normal sensory channels”. The strongest psychic believers and sceptics matched for years in education or academic performance (around 50 people in each group, in each of the three studies; aged 18 to 35) were then invited to complete a range of tests of their memory and analytical skills, either online or in person at the psych lab.
For example, one of the memory tests involved listening to lists of related words and then trying to recall as many of them as possible, without mistakenly recalling a “lure” – a word related in meaning to those on the list, but which actually wasn’t in the list. Another memory task involved the researchers quizzing the participants about whether they’d had various childhood experiences, then asking them to imagine having had those experiences, and finally, one week later, asking them again whether they’d truly had the experiences. The idea was to test the vulnerability of participants’ memories to suggestion and distortion. On these measures and others, including a basic test of working memory ability, the psychic believers matched the performance of the sceptics.
However, it was a different story when it came to the tests of analytical thinking, which included: evaluating arguments, a survey of belief in conspiracy theories, the remote associates test (e.g. which one word is related to all of the following?: falling, actor, dust*), and a test of logic (e.g. fill in the blank spaces: “escape, scape, cape, _ _ _**). On all these tests, the sceptics outperformed the believers (statistically speaking, the effect sizes varied from small to large across the different measures). This was despite the fact that the believers scored as highly as the sceptics on “need for cognition” suggesting their poorer analytical performance wasn’t due to low motivation.
The results don’t prove that relatively poor analytical thinking skills cause people to become believers in psychic phenomena, but they are certainly consistent with the idea that a lack of these skills may leave people more prone to developing such beliefs, for example by undermining their ability to scrutinise whether last night’s dream really did predict today’s events (unlike a sceptic, a believer might not take into account all their dreams that didn’t appear to foretell the future, nor realise that the dream was influenced by the same past events that also shaped the future). A lack of analytical skills might be especially pertinent for people who are in regular contact with others who endorse the idea of psychic phenomena. Indeed, 70 per cent of believers said their beliefs were in line with those held by their friends and family.
Intriguingly, across all the two thousand-plus people who completed the initial survey, belief in psychic powers correlated with scoring higher on life satisfaction. This makes sense – after all, if you’re gullible/ open-minded enough to believe in psychic phenomena, it’s not such a leap to believe that super heroes walk the earth, which must be a fun outlook to have.
Gray, S., & Gallo, D. (2016). Paranormal psychic believers and skeptics: a large-scale test of the cognitive differences hypothesis Memory & Cognition, 44 (2), 242-261 DOI: 10.3758/s13421-015-0563-x
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