Is there a future for paranormal beliefs?

31 October 2017

Interview with

Professor Chris Roe, University of Northampton

We heard earlier in the programme that more than half of people in the UK and the US would endorse at least one paranormal claim. But what effect do these beliefs have on our lives, and will there continue to be a need for them in our ever more technological world? Katie Haylor spoke to Chris Roe - a psychology professor from the University of Northampton who specialises in the aforementioned area of para-psychology.

Chris - One of the main theories about why people might have paranormal beliefs is, absolutely, that in some ways it helps us to make sense of the world. Many aspects of the world are chaotic and unpredictable, and good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, so there doesn’t seem to be any rule or order. But with certain kind of paranormal beliefs, we have this greater sense that maybe, in the end, everything is part of some kind of grand plan.

There does seem to be some evidence that suggests that people are more able to manage anxiety about unpredictable circumstances if they have paranormal beliefs, so that certainly could be a factor.

Katie - But what about people taking advantage of people with particular beliefs, for instance?

Chris - We see a lot of experiences when people are going through a bereavement process, for example, and where they may be quite desperate so find evidence of the continued survival of their loved one. But that could be an opportunity for people to be taken advantage of.

I don’t see the threat here being any greater than in other areas of life, though. And it’s really important to stress that, for example, the mediums that I’ve met tend to be quite earnest people who mainly give up their time for free and they seem to be quite kosher.

Katie - Is there a future for paranormal belief?

Chris - I think certainly as society becomes more technologically sophisticated it becomes progressively easier for people to kind of explode superstitions and myths. So I think certainly there will be shift and a change in the kind of things that people believe in. At the same time, people are still reporting a certain class of experiences: things like premonitions or apparitions and so on that are, maybe, a little more intractable but a little more difficult to explain away, and so I think we’ll have those for a little while yet in trying to understand what’s going on.

Katie - Is there a kind of comforting feeling in a world of what feels like ever-increasing information overload in some ways of there being a place for the unexplained, and that stays unexplained?

Chris - I think people do like the air of mystery about being a human being that comes with some of these paranormal beliefs and experiences. We do feel a little bit shortchanged when we’re reduced to just a biological machine, and neurological mass that’s making all our decisions for us. So I could see there’s a romantic aspect for people wanting to cling to certain kinds of beliefs, but I think what we can do is present that to people and let them see the bigger picture. So here are the factors, here are the possible causes of your beliefs and experiences, but leave the people themselves to make their own decisions.

Katie - This is our Halloween show so I’ve got to ask: have you ever seen any correlation between the time of year and these sorts of experiences?

Chris - One of the main causes of paranormal experiences is people trying to cultivate them. So, if people are out and about and they’re sitting in haunted houses and so on, I think it’s very likely that they’ll have more of those experiences now than at any other time of the year.

But the sobering thing to keep in mind is we run a trial with our own undergraduate students, where we have them come into our university departments one evening late in November to do a haunting investigation and, very often, phenomena occur. People see things, the building creaks, they get cold gusts of wind and things, but the exercise is all about introducing them to how the psychology changes in a familiar place under unusual circumstances. It’s to introduce them to the idea that the mind can play lots of tricks on us.

Katie - So is this the idea of your bedroom at night might seem much more scary compared to your bedroom in the day?

Chris - Definitely. If you actually care to monitor it, you’ll hear that there are as many weird creaks and sounds in the daytime as at nighttime. It’s just at nighttime, they take on this ominous character when, really, it’s just typically the building cooling down and the building just shifting slightly as a result. But, straightaway, that isn’t just a creak, it’s a tap or a wrap or it’s a footstep.

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