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The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher's Handbook

The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher's Handbook

by Harvey J. Irwin

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With a thorough and systematic review of investigations into the bases of belief in paranormal phenomena, this discussion explores the four main theoretical approaches relating to the nature of such beliefs. Objective and well-researched, this account addresses different points of view on the topic—while some commentators depict paranormal believers as foolish


With a thorough and systematic review of investigations into the bases of belief in paranormal phenomena, this discussion explores the four main theoretical approaches relating to the nature of such beliefs. Objective and well-researched, this account addresses different points of view on the topic—while some commentators depict paranormal believers as foolish, others propose that paranormal beliefs must be understood as necessities that serve certain psychodynamic needs. The foundations and shortcomings of each approach are also documented, and a new comprehensive theory attempts to explain the development of scientifically unsubstantiated beliefs.

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"Fills the gap because it is up to date, formally written, and wide in scope . . . a particularly useful resource for students and teachers alike . . . as a textbook, Irwin's book is the best of its kind."  —Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research on An Introduction to Parapsychology

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University of Hertfordshire Press
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The Psychology of Paranormal Belief

A Researcher's Handbook

By Harvey J. Irwin

University of Hertfordshire Press

Copyright © 2009 Harvey J. Irwin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-902806-93-8



The fundamental purpose of this monograph is to examine paranormal belief from a psychological perspective. More specifically, the objective here is to explore the origins and psychological functions of paranormal beliefs. Chapter 1 sets the scene by considering what the term 'paranormal belief' may signify and by identifying the psychological and cultural significance of scientific research into these beliefs.

The definition of paranormal belief

It would perhaps be an overstatement to describe paranormal beliefs as ubiquitous, but they certainly are shared by many people. Rigorously solicited poll data suggest that a majority of the American population embraces at least one paranormal belief. A 2001 Gallup poll (Newport and Strausberg, 2001) reported the following levels of endorsement.

per cent

Psychic or spiritual healing 54
Extrasensory perception (ESP) 50
Haunted houses 42
Ghosts 38
Telepathy 36
Visits to Earth by extraterrestrial beings 33
Clairvoyance 32
Astrology 28
Spirit communication 28
Witchcraft 26
Reincarnation 25
Spirit possession 15

In addition, an earlier Gallup poll (Gallup, 1997) indexed support for some other paranormal beliefs: psychokinesis ('mind-over-matter' effects): 17 per cent; the existence of the devil: 56 per cent; diabolic possession: 42 per cent; UFOs (unidentified flying objects, or 'flying saucers'): 48 per cent; and being at least 'somewhat superstitious': 25 per cent.

By way of independent confirmation, a Southern Focus poll conducted in 1998 (Institute for Research in Social Science, 1998) also identified substantial endorsement of selected paranormal beliefs:

per cent

God answers prayers 86
God 84
Life after death 73
Heaven or hell 68
Biblical account of creation 62
ESP 60
Diabolic possession 55
Psychic or spiritual healing 55
Ghosts 41
UFOs 39
Extraterrestrial beings' visits to Earth 34
Astrology 33
Being at least somewhat superstitious 25
Reincarnation 25

Some account here should also be taken of the degree of conviction, because the rejection of even the less widely endorsed paranormal beliefs may be unequivocal in only a minority of the population. For example, Hamilton (2001) found that while there was considerable scepticism toward astrology, only 25 per cent of her sample said they had 'no belief at all' in astrology. In short, some degree of conviction in paranormal beliefs is very common in the general population.

Apart from documenting the frequency of paranormal beliefs in contemporary America, the above data also serve to instantiate some specific paranormal beliefs. A few readers may be surprised by some of the categories included in these polls. This surprise is not due merely to some trivial conceptual fuzziness in the notion of 'the paranormal'. Rather, we have the curious situation that in the sense in which the term is used both by many professional researchers and the general public, 'paranormal belief' in fact encompasses rather more than belief in paranormal phenomena. Strictly speaking, paranormal phenomena are scientifically impossible events or, as Broad (1949) argued, they are phenomena that violate the 'basic limiting principles' of current scientific understanding. Not all of the above beliefs relate to paranormal phenomena as thus defined; it may reasonably be argued that in a strict sense the existence of UFOs or the existence of God, for example, is not 'scientifically impossible'.

There is a fundamental dilemma here that requires at least tentative resolution. One option would be to implement from the outset a definition of paranormal belief as belief in scientifically impossible phenomena and henceforth to exclude discussion of any belief (e.g., the existence of UFOs or God) that does not meet this criterion. Although this option is logically defensible, at this point of the exposition it would be tactically injudicious. There is a substantial quantity of research on these 'paranormal' beliefs that do not pertain to scientifically impossible phenomena and it would be premature to discard this knowledge without examining its potential implications for paranormal belief as more widely conceived. If belief in scientifically impossible phenomena were to be found to differ from the other beliefs that researchers have classified as paranormal, there will be ample opportunity in the final chapter of the monograph for some conceptual house-cleaning in relation to the 'paranormality' criterion.

Thus I now aim to construct a working definition of 'paranormal belief' that accommodates the common broad usage of this term by most researchers and lay people. Under this approach paranormal belief cannot viably be defined simply as belief in scientifically impossible phenomena and, indeed, even a minor modification of Broad's (1949) definition of paranormality would not suffice for this purpose. As will become evident, the formulation of a working definition is not a straightforward task, but the following critical scrutiny of various definitional issues may help to clarify the nature of the concept of paranormal belief as it is popularly applied.

Instances of paranormal belief

In discussing the definition of paranormal belief a useful starting point is to provide a contextual background, namely, a list of some broad categories of belief that might generally be recognised as 'paranormal'. Unless otherwise indicated, there is a reasonable consensus among researchers that each of the following categories does qualify as a paranormal belief; such consensus would be signified, for example, by the inclusion of the belief category in measures of paranormal belief that have been designed for research purposes (see Chapter 3).

Superstitions. The majority of questionnaires surveying paranormal beliefs include some items relating to superstitions. Indeed, superstitious belief was the first context in which paranormal belief was scientifically studied (Dresslar, 1907; Minot, 1887; see also Ch. 3). Traditional superstitions commonly relate to omens of unspecified good or bad luck (e.g., breaking a mirror, finding a horseshoe). Other superstitions convey more specific predictions (e.g., 'If your right hand itches, you will receive money'), information about distant events ('If your ears burn, someone is talking about you'), or counsel on actions that will be advantageous ('Cross your fingers when you make a wish').

Some superstitious practices are now little else than a social custom (Knowlson, 1930/1998), their original purpose having long been forgotten; examples include giving decorated eggs at Easter and hanging mistletoe at Christmas. Indeed, many superstitions are thought to be very ancient (Knowlson, 1930/1998), although others do have a recent origin. The belief that Friday the 13th is in some way fateful, for example, arose in the twentieth century (Hirschfelder, 2001), as did the belief that carrying a rabbit's foot brings luck (Ellis, 2002). Thus it seems new superstitions are still springing up (e.g., superstitious attributions about computer crashes). Even today superstitious behaviours reportedly play an important role in various professional and collegiate sports (Bleak and Frederick, 1998; Burger and Lynn, 2005; McClearn, 2004; Todd and Brown, 2003; Womack, 1992). Some traditional superstitions incorporate elements of other paranormal beliefs (e.g., divination), but if these are eliminated the core element of superstitions appears to be a belief in (good and bad) luck (Irwin, 2007).

Psi processes. Experimental parapsychologists apply the scientific method to the investigation of fundamental paranormal processes designated collectively as psi (see Irwin, 1999a). Nominated psi processes include various forms of extrasensory perception (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition or ESP of future events and retrocognition or ESP of events in the distant past) and psychokinesis (PK, or the direct influence of mind over matter). As these hypothetical processes are posited to underlie psychic and other paranormal phenomena, belief in psi is a particularly basic form of paranormal belief. Current global measures of paranormal belief typically include items on psi belief and focused measures of psi belief have also been constructed; several of these measures are reviewed in Chapter 3 and some are included in the Appendices to this monograph.

Divinatory arts. Endorsement of various prophetic practices is generally regarded as a type of paranormal belief. Divinatory practices include the reading of Tarot cards, astrology, numerology, palmistry, other forms of fortune-telling (e.g., reading tea leaves) and diverse esoteric rituals of divination (e.g., hieromancy, or prophesying the future from the entrails of a sacrificed animal). In shamanistic or other traditional settings these divinatory arts are embedded in an extensive magico-religious framework (Frazer, 1911; Seligman, 1948/1975), but this epistemological context may not always be so profound in the contemporary fortune-telling rituals used in Western countries; some of the latter rituals, for example, are constructed simply as a psychic process.

Esoteric systems of magic. Divination is only one facet of esoteric systems of magic; other rites are designed to intervene more directly in human affairs. Thus, some of the magical rituals of witchcraft (including neo-pagan Wicca), sorcery, Vodoun (voodoo) and shamanism are designed to achieve a change in the physical or social world that is desired by the specially gifted exponent of the ritual or by the person whose wishes are represented by the practitioner (Hutton, 2000, 2007; Maxwell-Stuart, 2001). Paranormal beliefs encompassed by this category include belief in the effectiveness of magical spells, potions and talismans (charms).

New Age therapies. The New Age movement encompasses a diffuse set of groups variously in pursuit of human transcendence, world peace and environmentalist objectives. The philosophical outlook of these groups may loosely be described as eclectically 'holistic' (Houtman and Mascini, 2002) and as advocating the person's obligation to assume the fundamental responsibility of plotting his or her own destiny (Redden, 2002). Some of the activities of the New Age movement reflect beliefs that researchers may construe as paranormal. Under this category there falls a variety of alternative health practices and therapies such as aromatherapy, aura drainage, crystal power, homeopathy, iridology, naturopathy, psychic healing, 'pyramid power', reflexology and Reiki.

Spiritism. Another domain of paranormal belief encompasses beliefs in the world of spirits, the intervention of spirits in the mundane world and the existence of the spirit in living persons. Spiritism includes belief in mediumistic communication with spirits of the dead and in other phenomena of the séance room; belief in ghosts, haunted houses and poltergeists; and belief in astral travel or out-of-body experiences as an instance in which the spirit of a living person is temporarily released from the physical body. In the broadest use of the term spiritism is not confined to the tenets of the formalised religious movement known as Spiritualism, although certainly the general philosophy of Spiritualism is consistent with spiritism.

Eastern mystico-religious beliefs. Certain elements of Eastern mysticism and religions are recognised by most commentators as types of paranormal belief. The most notable example would be the belief in reincarnation but others include belief in the law of Karma and the endorsement of such practices as the I Ching and Feng Shui. Some of these beliefs, of course, can be endorsed outside the context of Eastern mysticism (Walker, 2000; Walter and Waterhouse, 1999) and may even be modified to suit the cultural setting (Edwards, 1996; Lang and Ragvald, 1998).

Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. Perhaps the most contentious category of paranormal belief is religious belief. This category encompasses such metaphysical tenets as the existence of God, the devil, heaven, hell and angels; belief in the power of prayer; and more extreme views such as creationism (the belief that at a single point in time God created the Earth and its inhabitants), the literal truth of the Bible and other religious texts, the divine status of certain prophets, the Virgin birth and other elements of Judeo-Christian and non-Christian fundamentalism (Almond et al., 2003; Brasher, 2001). Broadly speaking, these beliefs are traditional in Western societies and at least in this respect they may be differentiated from Eastern mystico-religious beliefs. Thus, this facet of paranormal belief is termed 'traditional religious belief' by Tobacyk and Milford (1983).

As might be expected, many sceptical commentators (Alcock, 1981; Goode, 2000a; Tobacyk and Milford, 1983) see no need to distinguish traditional religious beliefs from nonreligious instances of paranormal belief. On the other hand, some writers (Fitzpatrick and Shook, 1994; Hergovich et al., 2008; Kristensen, 1999; Lawrence, 1995; Sullivan, 1982; Williams et al., 1989) have disputed the classification of religious tenets as paranormal beliefs either on philosophical or on tentative empirical grounds. Religious beliefs are included here for two principalreasons. First, the supernaturalism implied by some of these beliefs (e.g., the existence of angels, the occurrence of miracles) appears at least superficially to be cognate with that of other paranormal beliefs (the existence of ghosts and the effectiveness of magical rituals, respectively). Second, at this relatively early stage of scientific research into paranormal belief it is advisable not to exclude precipitately a category of belief that still is regarded as paranormal by many commentators, even if others may hold a different view. This is not to say that religious beliefs will necessarily exhibit the same properties as other paranormal beliefs; this certainly remains a matter for empirical resolution. In the meantime, however, it is appropriate to look for a definition of paranormal belief that will include the category of traditional religious belief.

Extraterrestrial aliens. Recent space probes have provided clear evidence of the existence of primitive life forms (e.g., algae) on other planets and it is at least feasible that more complex forms of life may exist in other galaxies. On the other hand, a conviction in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial aliens living in a sophisticated civilisation on a distant planet is regarded by the general public and by some commentators as a paranormal belief. Although some researchers (e.g., Thalbourne and French, 1997) explicitly discount the notion that a belief in extraterrestrial aliens is a form of paranormal belief, items about UFOs appear sufficiently often in measures of paranormal belief (see Chapter 3) for the category to be provisionally included here.

Despite being unified by the theme of extraterrestrial life this paranormal belief may be relatively heterogeneous (Saunders, 1968; Simón, 1979); the category includes belief in UFOs as alien spacecraft, visits to Earth by extraterrestrial aliens, abduction of people by aliens and that some seemingly inexplicable phenomena (ranging from the construction of the Egyptian pyramids to crop circles) are evidence of alien visitations.


Excerpted from The Psychology of Paranormal Belief by Harvey J. Irwin. Copyright © 2009 Harvey J. Irwin. Excerpted by permission of University of Hertfordshire Press.
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Meet the Author

Harvey J. Irwin is an honorary research fellow in the school of psychology at the University of New England and the author of An Introduction to Parapsychology.

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