Anomalistic psychology, Lesson One: Seeing is not believing

Anomalistic psychology, Lesson One: Seeing is not believing
September 9, 2009
Chris French

Having taught anomalistic psychology now for 15 years, I can vouch that it provides a fantastic way to teach critical thinking skills.

Most people, whether believers or sceptics, find paranormal and related claims fascinating. Such topics are often the focus of conversations at dinner parties and arguments in pubs, not to mention being a staple of tabloid newspapers and daytime TV. Starting from the inherent interest that students and the public have in such controversial claims, important questions can be raised regarding the most valid forms of evidence and arguments that could be put forward in support of them.

For example, most people assume that the most reliable evidence of all is that based upon personal experience. Even those sceptical of paranormal phenomena often fall into this trap. People often proclaim: "I won't believe in ghosts [or flying saucers, angels, etc.] until I see one with my own eyes." But accepting the evidence of your own eyes can be a mistake. As even brief exposure to the field of anomalistic psychology will reveal, personal experience is often a very poor guide to reality.

Both perception and memory are prone to errors. What we see and hear, especially under less than ideal observational conditions, can be heavily influenced by our prior beliefs and expectations.

Hallucinations are much more common than most people realise. Memory is also prone to errors: many of our recollections are not even distorted versions of events that we have witnessed but instead are complete fabrications. The evidence suggests that many reports of ostensibly paranormal experiences may well be based upon such false memories.

Anomalistic psychology investigates the imperfections of the human cognitive system that could lead us to conclude that we have experienced the paranormal when in fact we have not. The cognitive biases include not only those affecting perception and memory, but also those related to reasoning and judgement.

So if personal experience is not a reliable guide, is there a preferable approach? The kind of evidence that might convince me that paranormal forces really do exist is that produced by well-controlled scientific studies.

Because scientists are human beings and therefore susceptible to all of the cognitive biases referred to above, in practice the scientific method is not perfect. But it is the best approach we've got. It is the only approach to truth that I am aware of that at least acknowledges that such biases exist and attempts to control for them.

Furthermore, its reliance upon replicability, self-correction, critical evaluation by peers, and ultimately upon empirical data means that we can legitimately have a higher level of confidence in well-supported scientific theories than in other assertions about the ultimate nature of reality.

We should therefore welcome the increasing number of universities in the UK that offer anomalistic psychology as part of their BSc psychology programmes and the inclusion of anomalistic psychology as an option on the A2 psychology syllabus for A level students. Studying this branch of psychology is an excellent way to improve the nation's critical thinking skills.

However, there remain barriers to the full acceptance of anomalistic psychology as a respectable sub-discipline within psychology. One of these is simple intellectual snobbery. There are still some academics who seem to believe that any topic that is of interest to the tabloid press and to daytime TV cannot possibly be worthy of serious consideration by psychologists.

My advice to such people? Come down from your ivory towers! Psychology is about people, and most people believe in the paranormal, a sizeable minority claim to have had direct personal experience of it, and many live their lives in accordance with such beliefs.

Fortunately, this intellectual snobbery appears to be on the wane within the discipline.

There is a second barrier to the wider acceptance of anomalistic psychology. Most people do believe in the paranormal and, what is more, evidence suggests that such beliefs may, in certain contexts, provide psychological benefits.

One obvious example is the fact that people who believe in an afterlife, despite the lack of any convincing scientific evidence, will be less afraid of dying. Exposure to anomalistic psychology may not only lead people to question paranormal claims but also to question firmly held religious beliefs. One of the implicit messages of anomalistic psychology is, "Question everything – but use the appropriate critical thinking tools when doing so." For some people, this will be a challenge they prefer not to face.

For those who do accept the challenge, anomalistic psychology can be an extremely rewarding subject. The sheer range of topics covered is exceptional. At one extreme are highly entertaining accounts of the fraudulent techniques used by con artists to convince punters that they have genuine psychic powers, as well as consideration of the psychological processes that lead far more people to the mistaken but sincere belief that they themselves are psychic.

At the other extreme, some of the most profound questions that we face as human beings are addressed: Do we survive bodily death? What is the nature of consciousness? What is the solution to the mind-body problem? In between these two extremes, the nature of science and pseudoscience are considered, not to mention a wide range of fascinating topics such as alien abduction claims, psychic healing, hypnosis, ESP, psychokinesis and cryptozoology. What more could you ask for?
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