Parapsychology/Cognitive Function

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There is conflicting information concerning cognitive function and paranormal belief:

A 2003 poll showed that about fifty percent of the United States population believe in the paranormal. Robert L. Park says a lot of people believe in it because they "want it to be so".[1] However, a 2005 Gallup poll reported that 3/4 of Americans believe in the paranormal.[2]

Gender differences in surveys on paranormal belief have reported women scoring higher than men overall and men having greater belief in UFOs and extraterrestrials.[3][4] Surveys have also investigated the relationship between ethnicity and paranormal belief. In a sample of American university students (Tobacyk et al. 1988) it was found that blacks have a higher level of belief in superstitions and witchcraft whilst belief in extraterrestrial life forms was stronger amongst whites.[5] Otis and Kuo (1984) surveyed Singapore university students and found Chinese, Indian and Malay students to differ in their paranormal beliefs, with the Chinese students showing greater skepticism.[6] According to American surveys analysed by (Bader et al. 2011) African Americans have the highest belief in the paranormal and whilst the findings are not uniform the "general trend is for whites to show lesser belief in most paranormal subjects".[7]

Some research has associated paranormal belief with low cognitive ability, low IQ and a lack of science education.[8][9] Some surveys have shown Intelligent and highly educated participants have less paranormal belief.[10][11][12] Tobacyk (1984) and Messer and Griggs (1989) argued that college students with better grades have less belief in the paranormal.[13][14] Bainbridge (1978) and Wuthnow (1976) argued that the most susceptible people to paranormal belief are those who are poorly educated, unemployed or have roles that rank low amongst social values. The alienation of these people due to their status in society is said to encourage them to appeal to paranormal or magical beliefs.[15][16]

Some have argued that a correlation exists between paranormal belief and irrational thinking.[17][18] In an experiment Wierzbicki (1985) reported a significant correlation between paranormal belief and the number of errors made on a syllogistic reasoning task, suggesting that believers in the paranormal have lower cognitive ability.[19]

However, a national survey showed that those reporting mystical experiences tend to score higher on psychological well being scales than nonexperiencers, and those reporting psychic experiences show no signs of greater mental instability or deprivation than those reporting no such experiences.[20] Additional national survey data indicate that belief in ESP tends to be reported more frequently by those with greater education and wealth than by those in more marginal social positions.[21] A Gallup poll in the late 1970s showed that whereas half of average citizens believe in ESP, two-thirds of those with college backgrounds express belief.[22]

A 2006 NBC News story - "Does education fuel paranormal beliefs?", stated "Believe it or not, higher education is linked to a greater tendency to believe in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, according to a new study."[23]

Lukey and Barušs noted:

Jewkes and Barušs had found a number of personality correlates of transcendent beliefs including a tendency toward curiosity and a rational approach to the world [1]. These previous results prompted the present study in which 39 undergraduate psychology students at a liberal arts college were given a measure of beliefs about consciousness and reality, a comprehensive intelligence test, and a personality subtest. Correlations were found among various facets of intelligence, aspects of beliefs, and intellectual curiosity. The results indicate that greater intelligence is associated with transcendent beliefs.[24]

Some studies have found a link between personality and psychopathology variables correlating with paranormal belief.[25][26][27] Some studies have also shown that fantasy proneness correlates positively with paranormal belief.[28]

Findings have shown in specific cases that paranormal belief acts as a psychodynamic coping function and serves as a mechanism for coping with stress.[29] Survivors from childhood sexual abuse, violent and unsettled home environments have reported to have higher levels of paranormal belief.[30][31] A study of a random sample of 502 adults revealed paranormal experiences were common in the population which were linked to a history of childhood trauma and dissociative symptoms.[32] Research has also suggested that people who perceive themselves as having little control over their lives may develop paranormal beliefs to help provide an enhanced sense of control.[33][34] In a case study (Gow, 2004) involving 167 participants the findings revealed that psychological absorption and dissociation were higher for believers in the paranormal.[35] Another study involving 100 students had revealed a positive correlation between paranormal belief and proneness to dissociation.[36] Research has shown that people reporting contact with aliens have higher levels of absorption, dissociativity, fantasy proneness and tendency to hallucinate.[37]

However, a 1997 study of paranormal beliefs by the German psychologist Uwe Wolfradt, which focused on the role of dissociative experiences and anxiety in paranormal beliefs, found that high belief in superstitions was associated with dissociative behavior, but no such association was observed for belief in psi. High belief in psi was associated with characteristics like absorption. Further analyses suggested that belief in superstition reflected a feeling of loss of control about one's life, but belief in psi was associated with the opposite. According to this study, belief in psi is not due to dissociative tendencies, or to fantasy-proneness, or to the feeling of being out of control.

A study (Williams et al. 2007) discovered that "neuroticism is fundamental to individual differences in paranormal belief, while paranormal belief is independent of extraversion and psychoticism".[38] However, a 2014 study claimed to the contrary, that schizophrenic patients have more belief in the paranormal than non-psychotic adults.[39] A relationship between narcissistic personality and paranormal belief was discovered in a study involving the Australian Sheep-Goat Scale.[40]

A psychological study involving 174 members of the Society for Psychical Research completed a delusional ideation questionnaire and a deductive reasoning task. As predicted, the study showed that "individuals who reported a strong belief in the paranormal made more errors and displayed more delusional ideation than skeptical individuals". There was also a reasoning bias which was limited to people who reported a belief in, rather than experience of, paranormal phenomena. The results suggested that reasoning abnormalities may have a causal role in the formation of paranormal belief.[41]

Some scientists have investigated possible neurocognitive processes underlying the formation of paranormal beliefs. In a study (Pizzagalli et al. 2000) data demonstrated that "subjects differing in their declared belief in and experience with paranormal phenomena as well as in their schizotypal ideation, as determined by a standardized instrument, displayed differential brain electric activity during resting periods."[42] Another study (Schulter and Papousek, 2008) wrote that paranormal belief can be explained by patterns of functional hemispheric asymmetry that may be related to perturbations during fetal development.[43] It was also found that people with higher dopamine levels have the ability to find patterns and meanings when in reality there isn't. Thus some scientists have connected high dopamine levels with paranormal belief.[44]

Mogi (2014) considered paranormal belief to be illusory, but correlated it with belief in free will, which he also felt to be illusory, and suggested that both had adaptive advantages.[45]

De Boer and Bierman wrote:

In his article ‘Creative or Defective’ Radin (2005) asserts that many academics explain the belief in the paranormal by using one the three following hypotheses: Ignorance, deprivation or deficiency. ‘The ignorance hypothesis asserts that people believe in the paranormal because they’re uneducated or stupid. The deprivation hypothesis proposes that these beliefs exist to provide a way to cope in the face of psychological uncertainties and physical stressors. The deficiency hypothesis asserts that such beliefs arise because people are mentally defective in some way, ranging from low intelligence or poor critical thinking ability to a full-blown psychosis’ (Radin). The deficiency hypothesis gets some support from the fact that the belief in the paranormal is an aspect of a schizotypical personality (Pizzagalli, Lehman and Brugger, 2001).[46]

However, according to Smith, Foster, and Stovin:

Many researchers have examined psychological differences between people who believe in the paranormal and people who do not believe in the paranormal (see, e.g., French, 1992; Irwin, 1993). For example, such beliefs have been found to be positively correlated with creativity and sensation seeking (Davis, Peterson, & Farley, 1974), hypnotic susceptibility (Wagner & Ratzeburg, 1987), neuroticism (Windholtz & Diamant, 1974), fantasy proneness (Irwin, 1991a), and ostensible psi ability (Lawrence, 1993).

One focus of this research has been to assess whether those who believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena are cognitively inferior to those who disbelieve such phenomena. For example, Alcock and Otis (1980) asked participants to complete Watson and Glaser's (1964) Critical Thinking Appraisal Scale and found that paranormal believers demonstrated a significantly lower level of critical thinking than disbelievers. In addition, Wierzbicki (1985) found that believers made more errors on a test of syllogistic reasoning than did disbelievers. However, other studies cast doubt on these findings. For example, Irwin (1991b) found no correlation between paranormal belief scores and reasoning skills, Thalbourne & Nofi (1997) found no evidence of a correlation between belief and performance on an IQ test, while Jones, Russell, and Nickel (1977) reported a positive relationship between paranormal belief and intelligence.

One possible reason for the disparity in these empirical findings concerns the context in which the studies were conducted. Some evidence suggests that the degree to which individuals express belief in the paranormal may be to some extent dependent on the social and intellectual context in which it is measured. For example, Fishbein and Raven (1967) found that belief in ESP could be influenced by prior exposure to positive or negative information about ESP. They found that participants' expressed beliefs were increased after reading an article that promoted such phenomena, while participants presented with an article that stressed the methodological weaknesses of ESP experiments showed lower belief scores. In addition, Layton and Turnbull (1975) and Crandall (1985) found that participants tested by an experimenter who displayed a personal belief in ESP and a positive evaluation of ESP research expressed higher belief than did participants tested by an experimenter who showed a negative opinion of ESP. These studies suggest that individuals' paranormal belief is participant to demand characteristics of the test situation. Irwin (1985, 1991b, 1993) has proposed that such interventions do not necessarily change participants' views; rather, they affect participants' willingness to express that belief. If so, this may have considerable implications regarding the validity of purported correlates of paranormal belief.

Irwin (1991b) has speculated that context effects may explain why he did not find a difference in reasoning skills between believers and disbelievers as reported by earlier researchers. He argued that all of the earlier studies had been conducted by publicly professed skeptics whose implicit objective was to show that paranormal believers were credulous, uncritical, and foolish people. Given this as the case, Irwin (1991b) suggests that this is likely to be an important factor in the outcome of such research:

Specifically, it is suggested that critically minded participants in previous studies were aware of the investigators' skeptical attitude toward the paranormal and may well have taken this as a cue to be reticent about their own paranormal beliefs. Participants who perform highly on a test of critical thinking may thus present with relatively low paranormal belief merely because they are more alert to the experimenter's own skepticism. (p. 289)

The result of such a context effect would be a spurious negative correlation between reasoning ability and paranormal belief due to believers with high reasoning ability presenting lower belief scores.[47]

Within academic psychology, some have argued that a ‘skeptical’ position on the paranormal actually amounts to a belief position.[48]

Regarding paranormal experience:

Andrew Greeley, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, was interested in the results of surveys consistently indicating that the majority of the population believed in ESP. In a 1978 survey asking American adults whether they had ever experienced psychic phenomena such as ESP, 58% said yes; a 1979 survey of college and university professors showed that about two-thirds accepted ESP; a 1982 survey of elite scientists showed that more than 25% believed in ESP; and a 1987 survey showed that 67% of American adults reported psychic experiences. The same surveys showed, according to Greeley, that

"People who've tasted the paranormal, whether they accept it intellectually or not, are anything but religious nuts or psychiatric cases. They are, for the most part, ordinary Americans, somewhat above the norm in education and intelligence and somewhat less than average in religious involvement."

Because Greeley was surprised about this outcome, he explored it more closely by testing people who had reported profound mystical experiences such as being "bathed in light." He used the "Affect Balance Scale" of psychological well-being, a standard psychological test used to measure healthy personality. People reporting mystical experiences achieved top scores. Greeley reported that "The University of Chicago psychologist who developed the scale said no other factor has ever been found to correlate so highly" as reports of mystical experience.

Greeley then investigated whether prior beliefs in the paranormal or the mystical caused the experiences, or whether the experiences themselves caused the belief. He found that many widows who reported contact by their dead husbands had not previously believed in life after death. This suggests that they were not unconsciously creating hallucinations to confirm their prior beliefs. He also studied whether people who had lost a child or parent reported contact with the dead more often than people whose siblings had died. The assumption was that people who had lost family members closer to them might have had a stronger need to communicate, and hence a greater frequency of reported contacts.

According to Greeley, "We were surprised: People who'd lost a child or parent were less likely to report contact with the dead than those who'd lost siblings." Such findings are incompatible with the skeptics' hypothesis that reports of paranormal experiences are due solely to hallucination, self-delusion, wish-fulfillment, or other forms of mental aberrations.

FWH Myers, the classicist and philosophical psychologist who coined the term "telepathy" and was one of William James's leading influences, and his colleagues in the Society for Psychical Research of which he was a leading member, conducted extensive case collection and analysis related to paranormal experience. They endured attacks for this work, and some of them even received posthumous character assassination, though rebuttals to these attacks have been written.

One major area of research they embarked upon related to case collections of apparitional experiences collectively and reciprocally perceived, spontaneous case of telepathy, and hallucinations in the sane.

Genius, high creativity, and madness have been linked as if on a spectrum, though arguments have been made that the aforementioned states involving higher functioning represent an integration of subliminal and supraliminal conscious processes, whereas madness represents deterioration and being overwhelmed by the subliminal.[49][50] All of these, however, involve subliminal processes, and it is this that Myers argued was inextricably linked with paranormal experience. As for the differences, Myers wrote:


As for schizotypy, the social construction of such "disorders" is conceded in the literature. In the article Behavior Analysis of Psychotic Disorders: Scientific Dead End or Casualty of the Mental Health Political Economy? by Stephen E Wong 2006[51], we find under relevant subheadings: PSYCHIATRIC DIAGNOSES (Pg. 157) "Psychiatric diagnoses are a cornerstone in psychiatry’s network of ideological, political, and economic control over mental health services. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) holds the copyright on and publishes the official diagnostic system, now in its sixth iteration as the DSM-IV-TR (APA, 2000). DSM diagnoses affect clients’ relationship with major social institutions by determining their legal status, eligibility for services, disability benefits, and supposedly appropriate treatments. For professional classifications that hold such great social and institutional significance, DSM diagnoses are peculiar in that the reliability and validity of many of its categories are unverified." Validity (Pg. 158) "In addition to problems of reliability, the validity of DSM diagnoses is questionable because there is no “gold standard” of mental disorders to which DSM diagnoses can be compared and validated. DSM diagnoses are not based on any known pathophysiology or etiology, but rather are syndromes defined by the presence or absence of an arbitrary set of symptoms (Andreasen, Flaum, & Arndt, 1992). As described earlier, groups of experts, consisting mainly of psychiatrists, determine what constellation of symptoms constitutes a syndrome. The rapidly increasing number of diagnoses in successive versions of the DSM (Blashfield & Fuller, 1996) is one reflection of how these syndromes are socially constructed."

Walter Franklin Prince, in Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurences, made an extensive documentation of the occurrence of strong psychic experiences among members of the highest echelons of the intellectual and cultural elite of society.

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