Believe it or not: subscribing to the paranormal

Matthew Brophy

A psychic told me Monday that my moon sign is in the House of Leo. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but she seemed to know. For 20 minutes, we stared at stones, cards and charts as she tried to divine my life.

Some of her statements were accurate, some were false, others were either neutral or unsubstantiated (for instance, I’m an old soul – which I hear is all the rage this season). Despite my skepticism, I felt myself naturally inclined to believe her. As she scrutinized the stones and tarot cards set before us, I felt anxiety when her clairvoyant brow furrowed as if she were about to deliver something foreboding, relief when she smiled and told me something assuring.

Yet at some point, I realized we were just staring at stones and cards, trying to divine some sense from the chaos, some comprehensible pattern from a pile of rocks and scattered paper. In one way, I envied her; she was comforted by the belief there was method to the madness, some order to the disorder, some perfect meaning to it all. As for me, I left the table no more enlightened from consulting the cards, stars and stones than before.

Even though I was skeptical of my psychic consultation, I felt myself trying to interpret even the inaccurate statements so they fit me. Of course, most of the comments were so general, they apply to virtually anyone. (e.g., “You don’t like losing.” and “You value friendships.”) But I found myself at least wanting to believe it was more than pseudoscientific nonsense.

As psychological research has shown, people are all too willing to believe astrology. To show this, professional skeptic James Randi visited a college classroom posing as an expert astrologer. He told the class he had prepared detailed, individual horoscopes for each student’s birthplace and birthdate. After distributing these individualized horoscopes, the students were then asked to rate their accuracy on a scale of 1-5, 5 being “extremely accurate.” All of the students were amazed at the accuracy of the astrological profile, all but one giving their horoscope a 5 (one student rated it a 4). Then they were asked to exchange horoscopes only to be outraged that all the “individualized” horoscopes were identical! This psychological experiment has been repeated several times, yielding similar results.

According to recent polls, as many as one-third of Americans believe in astrology. Yet credulity extends to other beliefs in the paranormal. Around half of Americans believe in extra-sensory perception. Between one-third and a half of Americans believe in UFOs. One-fifth to one-half of those surveyed believe in haunted houses and ghosts, faith healing and communication with the dead. Some surveys that are updated periodically even show belief in the paranormal increasing. Interestingly, women more than men believe in the paranormal, including extra-sensory perception, astrology, hauntings and psychic healing. Men, however, are more apt to believe in UFOs and fantastical life forms.

So why do we believe in such things? Why do we cling to bizarre and unsubstantiated beliefs?

Sociologists claim we hold certain beliefs because environmental stimuli inculcated them in us. Studies show that belief is socially contagious – a person is far more likely to believe in the paranormal if those beliefs are subscribed to by his or her family or social group. Our beliefs are even influenced by television. A Purdue University study showed that watching a TV program such as “The X-files,” which expressed a credulous viewpoint toward UFOs, increased the viewer’s belief in such phenomena, while a more balanced program decreased it.

However, credulity is not just socially transmitted but genetically heritable as well. The University study of identical and fraternal twins – separated at birth and reared in different environments – indicates that if one twin is religious, the other is far more likely than the control group to be religious. So it seems there’s a correlation between credulity and genes; in this case, there’s a genetic predisposition of human beings to be religious (the heritable factor is estimated to be 50 percent.) Could it be that “faith” is biological?

Evolutionary biologists agree that our propensity to believe is a prevalent biological trait because it contributed to our ancestors’ fitness. We are simply animals who seek patterns; that’s what has fostered our survival as a species. It’s an accidental maladaptation of this evolutionary trait that we are prone to search for and see patterns when they simply are not there (e.g., a face on Mars, the face of the Virgin Mary on a tortilla chip, etc.)

Finding patterns is not only evolutionarily motivated, but also is psychologically motivated. Psychologists posit we believe incredible things in order to relieve our anxiety. Freud postulated that our belief in the supernatural was to assuage the angst in discovering our parents were not all-knowing and powerful. As human beings, we are desperate to have something out there to shepherd over us, else we are lost children in a looming and chaotic department store. We cannot just accept that life might have no ultimate purpose, that there is no grand plan – that the universe is just brute and oblivious.

This desperate need for comfort is exemplified in the acceptance of new-fangled psychics. The hottest paranormal fad right now is speaking to the dead. Spiritual mediums, such as John Edward of the TV show “Crossing Over” and best-selling author James Van Praagh have appeared on such shows as “Larry King Live” and “Oprah,” claiming to communicate with the deceased.

Mediums of this ilk are certainly skilled practitioners of their art; however, they’re no psychics. In fact, their abilities can be effectively emulated by their skeptical critics. These pseudo-psychics employ certain techniques that, when coupled with human psychology, can fool the hopeful into believing. They throw out barrages of questions, some general and some specific, hoping to get what’s called a “hit.” Most of the time, they’re wrong. However, just as in astrology, the subject wants to believe and wants the psychic to be right – and typically helps out the psychic by reinterpreting the question. A psychic only needs the occasional hit to convince his observers that he has supersensory abilities. Observers most often ignore the misses and the psychic tends to distract them from it.

Perhaps the best evidence against these psychics and other paranormal posers is economic. For several years now, the James Randi Educational Foundation has offered $1 million “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” So far, no one has passed even preliminary tests.

Another comforting yet unsubstantiated belief is far more common – the belief in the power of prayer. Of course, we want to believe that if we send positive thoughts, implore God for help and devoutly pray, we can benefit our loved ones. We don’t want to believe we’re helpless and hopeless. However, according to scientific research, prayer is inert. For instance, a recent study by the Mayo Clinic indicates the effect of prayer on patient recovery is negligible. The study found no difference in death rates, the number of heart attacks or strokes in patients who were the subjects of prayers versus people who did not receive prayers. I imagine this will come as especially bad news for Christian Scientists.

Though subscribing to certain beliefs might be comforting to us, it’s irrational to believe on this basis. Extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence. Yet we don’t realize how irrational we are. Ever hopeful, we only cling to anecdotal evidence against a storm of counter-evidence. We pay heed only to coincidences and not their absence. We downplay critical thinking as cynical and dogmatic. Beliefs need reasons. We can’t base our beliefs just to make us feel good.

I understand wanting to find comfort in belief of the supernatural. Even though I know it’s not rational, I’d like to believe that everything happens for a reason, that my deceased grandparents are watching over me and that my prayers and thoughts can actually have a positive effect on the world. Even if it’s not true, isn’t it pretty to think so?

Matthew Brophy’s biweekly column appears alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]