Category: Parapsychology

Parapsychology has been unfairly sidelined, claims a new review of the field

GettyImages-488839452.jpgBy Alex Fradera

A number of notable figures from psychology’s past held an interest in parapsychology or psi (the study of mental phenomena that defy current scientific understanding), including William James, Alexander Luria, Binet, Freud, and Fechner. But today the field is cordoned off; and when it encroaches into mainstream publications, as with the “Feeling the Future” experiments conducted by Daryl Bem in 2012, furore typically follows. To sceptics, the fact that these experiments produced positive results is ipso facto proof that psychology’s methods must be broken.

However, it’s only logical to take this view if you have already ruled out the existence of psychic phenomena and, at least among the US public, the majority haven’t. Even in the chronically suspicious British culture, one quarter of people have consulted a psychic. I too am personally quite open to the existence of such phenomena, so I’ve been eager for an accessible overview of the field of parapsychology as it currently stands. This is what parapsychology researcher Etzel Cardeña, Director of the Centre for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology at Lund University, attempts to provide in his new review in American Psychologist. 

Continue reading “Parapsychology has been unfairly sidelined, claims a new review of the field”

Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world

Satellite view of planet Earth
By Alex Fradera

The number of people who claim to have “No religious belief” is fast-growing in America and Europe, but the number expressing religious belief is growing faster. What’s more, the irreligious category includes fans of astrology, tarot reading or the paranormal. The tenacity of supernatural belief has prompted scientists to try understand its basis, and so far their answers have mostly implied a defect in believers: the religious have a bias in their visual attention; people with supernatural belief fall for bullshit statements. Now, in a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, comes the suggestion that believers struggle to understand the physical world. Continue reading “Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world”

Why do so many people believe in psychic powers?

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

*Answer: star
**Answer: ape

further reading
Do sceptics have more inhibitory brain control than supernatural believers?
Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren’t really there
Why do sceptics always report negative results?
How to evaluate an argument like a scientist
Dramatic study shows participants are affected by psychological phenomena from the future

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Do sceptics have more inhibitory brain control than supernatural believers?

Imagine your partner has just been arrested for drink driving. You’re walking down the street not long after and suddenly you see a large poster of a brick wall. Is it a sign? A new study suggests your interpretation of that poster depends on the levels of inhibitory activity in a part of your brain. Marjaana Lindeman and her colleagues propose that it’s human nature to read meaning into arbitrary symbols, but that sceptically minded people are able to ignore or suppress this instinct whereas supernatural believers are not.

Twenty-three volunteers had their brains scanned while they imagined a series of various scenarios and viewed a picture after each one. In all cases they were to imagine they were walking down the street after the scenario had unfolded and the picture was seen on a poster. Another example was wondering if they were going to get a pay rise and then seeing a poster of a pair of jeans. For each picture, the participants stated whether, in the hypothetical context, they would consider that it contained a sign or a message.

The participants had been pre-screened so that half of them were supernatural believers (they agreed with statements like “some psychics can accurately predict the future”) and half were sceptics. As you’d expect, the supernatural believers saw meaning in the images twice as often as the sceptics. Another key difference was that sceptics exhibited more activity in their right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) when viewing the images – this is a region of the brain that past research has suggested is involved in cognitive inhibition.

We need to be cautious before assuming that the IFG played an inhibitory role in this study. However, such an interpretation is consistent with past research showing that sceptics outperform believers on tests of inhibitory control. Moreover, across both groups in the current study, more IFG activity was associated with reduced belief that the pictures contained signs.

“Cognitive inhibition, that is, suppressing or overriding spontaneously occurring mental processes, may thus be the mechanism that, when working efficiently, controls our natural intuitions and explains why supernatural interpretations seem so natural for some and yet others find them quite strange,” the researchers concluded.

This brain research is consistent with past evidence supporting the idea that supernatural beliefs are instinctual and take effort to be overcome. For example, a 2012 study found that physics professors endorse quasi-religious explanations for natural phenomena when they’re put under time pressure.

A weakness of the current research, acknowledged by the authors, is that the sceptics and believers may have differed on other relevant factors. For instance, perhaps the believers were more creative and it’s this trait that was associated with their ratings of the pictures and their brain activity.


Marjaana Lindeman, Annika M. Svedholm, Tapani Riekki, Tuukka Raij, and Riitta Hari (2013). Is it just a brick wall or a sign from the universe? An fMRI study of supernatural believers and skeptics. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience DOI: 10.1093/scan/nss096

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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.

Dramatic study shows participants are affected by psychological phenomena from the future

Perhaps there’s something in the drinking water at Cornell University. A new study involving hundreds of Cornell undergrads has provided a dramatic demonstration of numerous ‘retroactive’ psi effects – that is, phenomena that are inexplicable according to current scientific knowledge (pdf).

Rather than having the students read each others’ minds or wear sliced ping-pong balls over their eyes, Daryl Bem has taken the unusual, yet elegantly simple, approach of testing a raft of classic psychological phenomena, backwards.

Take priming – the effect whereby a subliminal (i.e. too fast for conscious detection) presentation of a word or concept speeds subsequent reaction times for recognition of a related stimulus. Bem turned this around by having participants categorise pictures as negative or positive and then presenting them subliminally with a negative or positive word. That is, the primes came afterwards. Students were quicker, by an average of 16.5ms, to categorise negative pictures as negative when they were followed by a negative subliminal word (e.g. ‘threatening’), almost as if that word were acting as a prime working backwards in time.

If psi abilities have really evolved, it makes sense that they should confer survival advantages by helping us find mates and avoid danger. In another experiment Bem had dozens of undergrads guess which set of curtains in a pair on a computer screen was concealing an erotic picture. Participants were accurate on 53.1 per cent of trials, compared with the 50 per cent accuracy you’d expect if they were simply guessing. This accuracy was increased to 57 per cent among students who scored higher on a measure of thrill-seeking. By contrast, no such psi effects were observed for neutral stimuli.

In another experiment participants looked at successive pairs of neutral mirror images and chose their favourite – the left or right. After each pair, an unpleasant picture was flashed subliminally on one side or the other. You guessed it, participants tended to favour the mirror image on the side of the screen opposite to where an unpleasant picture was about to appear.

The examples keep coming. The mere exposure effect is when subliminal presentation of a particular object, word or symbol causes us to favour that target afterwards. Bem turned this backwards so that participants chose between pairs of negative pictures, and then just one of them was flashed subliminally several times. Female participants tended to favour the negative images that went on to be flashed subliminally, as if the mere exposure effect were working backwards through time.

This backward mere exposure effect didn’t work for male undergrads, perhaps because the images weren’t arousing enough, so Bem replicated the experiment using more extreme negative images and erotic images. This time a ‘backwards’ mere exposure effect was found with men for unpleasant images. For positive imagery, mere exposure traditionally has a negative effect, as the stimuli are made to become more boring. Bem showed this effect could also happen from the future. Presented with pairs of erotic images, male undergrads showed less favour for the images that went on to be flashed subliminally multiple times. It’s as if the participants knew which images were going to become boring before they had.

Finally, we all know that practice improves learning. Bem tested students’ memory for word lists and then had them engage in extensive practice (e.g. typing out) for some of the words but not others. His finding? That memory performance was superior for words that the students went on to practice afterwards – a kind of reverse learning effect whereby your memory is improved now based on study you do later.

These reverse effects seem bizarre but they are backed up by some rigorous methodology. For example, Bem used two types of randomisation for the stimuli – one that’s based on computer algorithms, which produce a kind of pseudo-randomisation in the sense that a given distribution of stimuli is decided in advance. And another form of randomisation based on hardware that produces true randomisation that unfolds over time as an experiment plays out. Also throughout his paper, Bem uses multiple forms of simple statistical test and he reports results for each, thus demonstrating that he hasn’t simply cherry picked the approach that produces the right result. Across all nine experiments the mean effect size for the psi effects was 0.22 – this is small, but noteworthy given the nature of the results.

So what’s going on? Bem doesn’t proffer too many answers although he argues that his psi phenomena vary with subject variables, just like mainstream psychological effects do. For example, the phenomena were nearly always exaggerated in the more extravert, thrill-seeking participants. From a physics perspective, he believes the explanations may lie in quantum effects. ‘Those who follow contemporary developments in modern physics … will be aware that several features of quantum phenomena are themselves incompatible with our everyday conception of physical reality,’ Bem argues. ‘Many psi researchers see sufficiently compelling parallels between these phenomena and characteristics of psi to warrant considering them as potential candidates for theories of psi.’

Daryl Bem (2010). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In Press PDF.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

UPDATE, plucked from the comments:
Failures to replicate this study: 1, 2, 3
A successful replication.
A criticism of the stats methods used.
A flaw in the methodology.
A registry of replication attempts.

Lucky number plates go up in value when times are bad

The basis for many superstitious beliefs may be little more than fantasy but their economic effects are all too real. According to Travis Ng and colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, casual estimates suggest that between $800 and $900 million is wiped off the value of US businesses every Friday the Thirteenth! Now Ng’s team has explored the economic cost of superstition by comparing the value of Hong Kong car number plates purchased through auction from 1997 to 2009.

The new research focuses particularly on the presence of 4s and 8s in Hong Kong plates. There’s a consensus in Hong Kong that ‘8’, which rhymes in Cantonese with ‘prosper’ or ‘prosperity’, is a lucky number, whereas ‘4’, which rhymes with ‘die’ or ‘death’, is an unlucky number.

Controlling for visual factors that affect price (for example, plates with fewer digits are more sought-after) Ng’s team found that an ordinary 4-digit plate with one extra lucky ‘8’ was sold 63.5 per cent higher on average. An extra unlucky ‘4’ by contrast diminished the average 4-digit plate value by 11 per cent. These effects aren’t trivial. Replacing the ‘7’ in a standard 4-digit plate with an ‘8’ would boost its value by roughly $400.

As well charting the monetary value of superstitious beliefs, Ng’s study was also able to record how the economic influence of superstition varies according to ongoing macroeconomic circumstances. For instance, the presence of a ‘4’ in a plate always drops its value, but during bad economic times, the diminution in value is greater. On a day that the stock market had dropped by 1 per cent, the ‘cost’ of having a ‘4’ in a standard 4-digit plate was increased by 19.9 per cent. ‘A “4” is bad,’ the researchers wrote, ‘but it is even worse in bad times.’

Curiously, the effect of ongoing market conditions on the impact of 4s and 8s wasn’t equal. Changes to the stock market index exaggerated the ‘cost’ associated with an extra ‘4’ on both 3-digit and 4-digit plates, but it only affected the premium associated with having an extra lucky ‘8’ on 3-digit plates. ‘We are not able to come up with a good explanation for the asymmetric effects,’ the researchers said.

‘We have shown that the value of superstitions can be economically significant,’ the researchers concluded. ‘We have also shown that some results are consistent with the view that people tend to be more superstitious in bad times.’

ResearchBlogging.orgNg, T., Chong, T., & Du, X. (2010). The value of superstitions. Journal of Economic Psychology, 31 (3), 293-309 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2009.12.002

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

How experimenters influenced participants in the ganzfeld parapsychology experiment

An analysis of conversations that took place during ganzfeld parapsychology experiments has revealed researchers may have exerted an influence on their participants.

Ganzfeld experiments involve a ‘sender’ trying to project images from a video clip to a ‘receiver’ who is incubated, blindfolded, in a sound-proof room. The ‘receiver’ reports the images they believe they are receiving to a researcher who notes them down. Crucially, the next stage involves the researcher reviewing these images with the ‘receiver’, before the ‘receiver’ attempts to identify the video clip seen by the ‘sender’ from among three decoys.

Robin Wooffitt analysed recordings taken from ganzfeld experiments held at the famous Koestler Parapsychology Unit in Edinburgh during the mid 1990s. He found that as the researchers reviewed the images reported by the ‘receivers’, they tended to respond in two distinct ways.

After a clarification by the ‘receiver’, researchers sometimes said “okay” and moved decisively onto the next item. Other times, however, they said “mm hm” with an inquiring tone. After hearing this, ‘receivers’ typically tried to expand on their description, and as they did so, often ended up casting doubt on the clarity of their own imagery.

Wooffitt said that a researcher’s choice to respond with “okay” or “mm hm” might seem inconsequential, but in fact the latter utterance clearly had an effect on the ‘receivers” confidence in their imagery. Consequently, he said, “it is at least possible that they [the ‘receivers’] will have less confidence in relying on their imagery to identify significant events or themes in the video clips.”

If the researchers did influence participants in this way, could it help explain why sceptical researchers have tended to report more negative results than believers? Wooffitt told the Digest: “I think it has much more to do with the nature of one’s interactional style, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with either sceptical or ‘pro-paranormal’ beliefs.”

Wooffitt added that by furthering our “understanding of the impact of the social dynamics in psychology experiments more generally”, his observations have implications beyond parapsychology research.

Wooffitt, R. (2007). Communication and laboratory performance in parapsychology experiments: Demand characteristics and the social organisation of interaction. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 477-498.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Why do sceptics always report negative results?

Most people have experienced the sensation that someone is staring at them, only to turn around and find that indeed, someone’s gaze is burning a hole in the back of their head. The phenomenon has led some to believe that people must have a sixth sense that allows them to know they are being stared at. However, when experimenters have investigated whether the phenomenon is a real one, the results seem to depend on who is doing the research. For example, the sceptic Richard Wiseman always reports negative results whereas the believer in psychic ability Marilyn Schlitz always reports positive results. So Wiseman and Schlitz decided to do some research together to find out what was going on.

The pair conducted research that involved recording the skin conductance (a measure of emotional arousal) of people who were sometimes stared at, via a live video feed, by an experimenter sat in another room. In earlier work, they found that if Marilyn Shlitz, the psychic believer, did the greeting of participants and did the staring, then participants tended to show more emotional arousal when they were being stared at. However, when Richard Wiseman, the sceptic, did the greeting and staring, evidence for the ‘sense of being stared at’ was not found.

In the current experiment at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in America, where Schlitz is based, the two researchers broke things down still further to isolate the source of their earlier inconsistent findings. This time, Wiseman sometimes did the greeting while Schlitz did the staring, and vice versa. However, none of these manipulations made any difference – participants didn’t show more emotional arousal when they were being stared at regardless of who did the greeting or staring. Schlitz’s rapport with participants and expectations of success, which were also measured, also had no association with the outcome.

The researchers concluded that the latest findings have failed to explain their earlier inconsistent results, but they said “this series of experiments demonstrates that it is possible to conduct fruitful collaborative research involving both sceptics and proponents and it offers the potential of a more productive route than more traditional forms of sceptic-proponent debate”.

They added “It is hoped that the studies described here will encourage researchers working in other controversial areas (e.g. the role of trance in hypnosis, false memory syndrome, unorthodox forms of psychotherapy and complimentary and alternative medicine) to engage in similar joint projects and that such work will help advance our understanding of the phenomena underlying these controversies”.
Schiltz, M., Wiseman, R., Watt, C. & Radin, D. (2006). Of two minds: Sceptic-proponent collaboration within parapsychology. British Journal of Psychology. In Press, DOI:1348/000712605X80704.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.