If you spend time with a group of people discussing paranormal subjects, perhaps talking about ghosts or UFOs or discussing a recent Bigfoot sighting, you many wonder why some people believe in the paranormal and how they came to their beliefs. Those believers have already heard plenty of insulting comments about their positions – perhaps they’d like to know why it’s easier for them to believe in the paranormal as well. A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE delved into this subject and came to an interesting – and non-insulting – conclusion about how paranormal believers think.
“The term “paranormal” typically refers to phenomena, such as psychokinesis, hauntings, and clairvoyance, which contradict the basic limiting principles of current scientific understanding. Surveys consistently indicate paranormal beliefs are prevalent within the general population.”
Lead author Charlotte E. Dean from the University of Hertfordshire, U.K., explains in a press release that she and her team found it was at least 30 years since a review on paranormal studies of potential links between cognitive functioning and belief in paranormal phenomena, such as psychokinesis, hauntings, and clairvoyance … and time for a new one. Numerous polls have shown that paranormal beliefs are widespread but vary even among people with similar backgrounds. For example, among people in the academic disciplines, those engaged in sciences, medicine, and psychology showing significantly lower paranormal beliefs than those in education, theology, or artistic disciplines.
The researchers identified 70 published studies and one unpublished doctoral thesis from between 1980 and 2020 which explored a range of cognitive functions, such as reasoning ability, thinking style, and memory. For Dean, one key function was problem-solving.
“Skeptics tend to be characterized by an analytical thinking style. If you give them an abstract problem, they think of all the different ways to solve it and pick the one most likely to work. Believers are characterized by an intuitive thinking style, and go with their instinct. So if you come across an unexplained phenomenon that could be expressed as novel or abstract, they come to different conclusions whether it was paranormal or not.”
So, it appears that believing in something paranormal has little or nothing to do with it being paranormal – the path a person chooses is dependent more on their cognitive process. The thirty years of research studies were divided by cognitive domains: perceptual and cognitive biases, reasoning, intelligence, critical thinking, and academic performance, thinking style, executive function, and other cognitive functions. The result was a surprise – across all of the domains, there was a strong connection between paranormal belief and an intuitive thinking style … trusting one’s ‘gut’ feelings about a subject.
“The cognitive deficits hypothesis is apparent in most papers (55/71), and a simple vote count shows that two-in-three studies (46/71) document that paranormal beliefs are associated with poorer cognitive performance.”
Unfortunately, those hoping to wave the study in the faces of family and friends spewing insults about their paranormal beliefs will be disappointed in one aspect – it refers to choosing intuitive thinking over analytical thinking as a “cognitive deficit.” That just means less thinking and more intuition, not no thinking at all. Good luck explaining that to those with a superior analytical thinking complex.
"Four decades of research suggests that belief in the paranormal is linked to our degree of cognitive flexibility and fluid intelligence.”
While the authors stand by their conclusion, the study is not the end of discussions about the thought processes of paranormal believers versus skeptics … just the beginning. The authors admit that this is a review of 30 years of study results which is dependent on the quality of those studies. While most of the 71 studies used good methodologies, many were found lacking in the quality of participants – the volunteers were often undergraduate students rather than random samplings from the general population.
Are you a paranormal believer or a skeptic? Do you believe in all paranormal subjects or just some? Do you see yourself as an intuitive thinker or a cognitive one?
Let’s hope the next study gives an intuitive way to convince your skeptical friends and family.