Spooky Science: The Psychology of Paranormal Beliefs


Long-time readers of this blog will know that I can take the fun out of almost any holiday. For Thanksgiving, I’ve written about the advantages of being ungrateful and the inner lives of Turkeys. On Valentines day, I covered loneliness.

So, Happy Halloween! Let’s talk about ghosts.

Why do people believe in ghosts? There are two schools of thought on this.

One is that people believe in ghosts because ghosts are real, obviously. The other, and the one endorsed by psychology research, is that people believe in ghosts because they’re prone to certain cognitive biases in how they interpret the world around them.

Researchers have identified what some of these biases might be by looking at differences between people with high and low levels of paranormal beliefs. Some patterns they’ve noticed in those who put a lot of stock in the paranormal are:

  • Details interfering with the big picture: In one experiment, believers in the paranormal and skeptics were asked to look at pictures of small shapes within large shapes and focus on either the smaller shapes or the larger shapes. When the small shapes were different than the large shapes, believers in the paranormal found it harder to to classify the larger shapes. By contrast, skeptics showed the opposite pattern: the larger shapes interfered with their ability to classify the smaller shapes. This suggests that believers in the paranormal have a style of thinking in which local details interfere with their ability to see the big picture while skeptics have a style of thinking where the big picture overrides their ability to notice local details.
  • Psychotic-like experiences: Belief in the supernatural might be a taste of the type of thinking associated with psychosis. A 2012 study found that believers in the paranormal have more psychotic-like experiences. They’re more prone to delusions and to hallucinations.
  • Childhood trauma: A tendency to put faith in the supernatural might be a reflection of the very real ghosts of a traumatic childhood. Research has linked paranormal beliefs in adults to childhood trauma. It turns out that this link can be accounted for by the tendency of people who have experienced childhood trauma to be more fantasy-prone and to have a more avoidant way of coping with problems.
  • Seeing agency where there is none: It makes intuitive sense that people with paranormal beliefs would be more likely to detect the presence of human (or human-like!) agents in situations where no such agents exist. And research done at University of Amsterdam found that people with paranormal beliefs were indeed more prone to illusory agency detection.

As you venture out into the dark, spooky world this Halloween, you might wonder whether that rustling in the leaves is the presence of some invisible, malevolent entity. Don’t worry, though – according to psychology research, it’s probably just your attention to local details combined with an illusory agency effect. Probably.

Spooky Science: The Psychology of Paranormal Beliefs

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