What is the paranormal?
What exactly is the paranormal? Chris French is a professor of anomalistic psychology at Goldsmiths University in London, and he gave Izzie Clarke and Georgia Mills the lowdown.
Chris - A reasonable definition would be phenomena which could not be explained in terms of currently accepted conventional science. Parapsychologists typically limit their definition of the paranormal to extrasensory perception, telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition, and psychokinesis, and also evidence related to the possibility of life after death, but they draw the line there. The media, and anomalistic psychologists, and I think the general public just tend to use the term to mean anything weird and wonderful. So they would also include things like UFOs, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, astrology, all of those other things.
If we look at British populations or American, it’s more than half of the population would endorse at least one paranormal claim. If you look at individual beliefs then obviously you get a lot more variation but, surprisingly, about one in four people in the UK believe in reincarnation; about a third believe in psychokinesis; over half believe in life after death. The list goes on.
Georgia - That’s a huge amount of people. Are they onto something?
Chris - Well… who knows. I would call myself a sceptic, but a proper part of scepticism is always being open to the possibility that you might be wrong. I personally don’t believe that any of those things are real, but I’m happy to admit that I could be wrong and maybe new evidence will come along that will make me change my mind. But, at the moment, if I had to bet my house on it I would bet against.
Georgia - Why do you think so many people do believe in the paranormal?
Chris - Well, there are a huge number of factors. One of the things that we’re particularly interested in is the possibility that there are various cognitive biases that might lead people to interpret certain events, certain things that have happened to them in paranormal terms. Thinking that's the only kind of explanation when, in fact, maybe there are other plausible non-paranormal explanations.
Just to give you one example of that: we’re all really lousy intuitive statisticians. We’re not very good at dealing with probabilities and so one aspect of this is that if something happens that is actually just a coincidence. So, for example, you're thinking about someone you've not heard from for a long time and the phone rings, you pick it up and it’s that person. One possibility is some kind of spooky, psychic link between the two of you and another possibility is it was just a coincidence. You think about a lot of people during the day and the phone either doesn’t ring, or the phone rings and it’s somebody - that’s a non-event. It’s inevitable that sometimes you will be thinking about someone just as they ring you.
People often will reject coincidences as an explanation and feel there must be something more going on, so that one fact. There are lots of other cognitive biases that are potentially relevant. But also people do have weird experiences. One of the things that we’re particularly interested in is the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, which is very common in its most basic form. It’s when you’re kind of half awake, half asleep and you realise you can’t move and it typically lasts a few seconds and then you snap out of it. But, in a smaller percentage of people, they get associated symptoms: they might have hallucinations, they might hear voices, or footsteps, or mechanical sounds. Or they might see dark shadows or lights moving around the room, or even monstrous figures. So, it’s not surprising that some people will end up thinking they have actually had a ghostly encounter.
The single most pervasive cognitive bias is confirmation bias. We all find it much easier to accept the evidence for things we want to be true anyway. And I think we’re all rather perturbed at the thought of our own mortality, and even more so perhaps the idea that when our loved ones die that’s it, we’ll never be in contact with them again. We would like life after death to be true and so the evidence to support that idea doesn’t have to be that strong to convince us that it really is true.