When a scientific explanation isn’t yet available, humans often turn to a paranormal explanation. Paranormal psychology accepts that there are more phenomena than we can currently explain with scientific knowledge.
Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, spoke with Larry Martinez, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Portland State University, about paranormal psychology.
Paranormal researchers draw upon psychology and sociology to understand the cultural purpose of supernatural stories and why some people believe what others think is fantasy.
Let’s dive into this discussion of witches, aliens, mind reading, and the afterlife. What is unexplainable today might become explainable tomorrow.
Defining Paranormal Psychology
Paranormal psychology refers to anything that’s unexplainable with current scientific knowledge and methods. What we call paranormal can change because our understanding of the world is always expanding and improving. Paranormal psychology is a discipline rooted in science because its goal is to explain the world better.
Larry said he has always been interested in why people believe what they believe and how belief changes across time and culture. Our expectations influence our perceptions and beliefs. “People have scripts and schemas. They have mental representations for how they think that something should go,” he pointed out. Two people observing the same event can interpret very different outcomes.
Telekinesis and Telepathy
Scientific and military purposes have driven researchers to study telekinesis and telepathy. Early research into telepathy was conducted by physical and natural scientists, not psychologists. Those researchers concluded that some people were psychic and could read people’s minds or do other astonishing mental feats.
Where they went wrong was overlooking the human factor. “Humans are much, much more difficult to measure than things like gravity. Measuring a human one day doesn’t mean that you’ll get the same result on another day,” Larry said.
Psychologists began to debunk findings about psychics by using the scientific method to eliminate contamination—like seeing the reflection of a playing card in a pair of glasses during a guessing game, for example. This devotion to science and data transparency is widely held by paranormal researchers and academic journals for paranormal psychology.
Those who conduct research about paranormal phenomena typically take pains to provide error-free data because they often have additional skepticism to overcome about their findings. For instance, two opposing research teams disagreed about the results of a meta-analysis of experiments about the ganzfeld effect, which is a methodology for measuring telepathy. Eventually, they cowrote a handbook for how ganzfeld experiments should be conducted to set rigorous standards for protocols and controls.
The Afterlife and Extraterrestrial Life
Paranormal research often draws on different aspects of psychology and social science, which Larry feels makes the field eclectic and fun.
The broad topic of the afterlife is influenced by how people experience grief and cope with loss. Associated paranormal phenomena, such as seances, are also heavily influenced by the mental schemas that people bring into those situations. Early instances of seances played on people’s senses by asking people to stay in a dark room, close their eyes, hold hands, and concentrate for a long time. Under these circumstances, sensory perceptions are skewed even without the practical effects often employed by deceptive mediums.
Regarding alien abduction experiences, the scientific consensus is that they typically can be explained by a combination of societal expectations and scripts for what an alien abduction should be like. They also correspond to the medical condition of sleep paralysis. “That’s the best explanation that we have right now,” Larry said. “That doesn’t mean that alien abductions aren’t happening, but we have a ready explanation for the types of things that people are reporting when they say that they’ve been abducted by aliens.”
Belief in Full Moons, Witches, and Monsters
Some people are more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena based on their personalities and life experiences. Fantasy proneness is the propensity to believe in things without objective proof. Childhood trauma is a major predictor of fantasy proneness because trauma survivors are more likely to use the adaptive coping mechanism of dissociation. Research shows that people who believe in paranormal phenomena and conspiracy theories tend to score higher on measures of fantasy proneness than those who disbelieve in paranormal events.
Belief in full moons, bad luck, and similar phenomena can be explained with illusory correlation. This is the perceived relationship between events when no relationship exists. Humans are good at making predictions based on patterns, but sometimes we imagine patterns that don’t exist. Higher crime rates during a full moon or broken mirrors leading to bad luck tend not to be verifiable by correlational data. Some things really are coincidental, even though they may not seem to be.
Discrimination, stigmatization, and prejudice can also drive belief in paranormal phenomena. Historically, women who didn’t align with cultural ideas of gender norms were often targeted as witches. “They tended to live on the outskirts, they were poor, or they had something ‘wrong’ with them,” Larry said. “They were stigmatized in society before they were accused of being witches, not the other way around.” From a psychological perspective, witch hunting was a way of policing femininity.
“There are definitely things that we don’t understand now that we will be able to explain much more scientifically in the future,” Larry said.
Meanwhile, human societies have invented stories of monsters because they serve a psychological purpose to help us reconcile collective guilt or anxiety:
- Stories about curses on ancient artifacts (King Tut) help us confront colonialism and genocide.
- Stories about supernatural monsters (King Kong) help us confront climate change and our impact on the environment.
- Stories about monsters we create (Frankenstein’s creature) help us confront a god complex or parenthood.
- Stories about monsters that dwell inside of us (werewolves or zombies) help us confront our innate desires and taboos.
“In the absence of a physical scientific explanation, the paranormal one becomes intuitively appealing,” Larry said. The more we investigate, the more we will learn.
Listen to this conversation in full on episode 62 of The Science of Personality. Hear our previous conversation with Larry about diversity, equity, and inclusion on episode 52. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!