Following my recent post and discussion on the issue of psychics, I read three very different books on the subject, all shedding different perspectives. The first of these was the memoir In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist (1996) by Susan Blackmore that I reviewed two weeks ago. The second of these was the book Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief & Experience (2014) by Christopher C. French and Anna Stone who are both academic researchers, the former at the University of London and the latter at the University of East London.
What is anomalistic psychology? It is described as the “attempts to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known (or knowable) psychological and physical factors. It is directed at understanding bizarre experiences that many people have, without assuming that there is anything paranormal involved.” (p. 1,2) The authors say that anomalistic psychologists “typically assume as a working hypothesis that paranormal forces do not exist and attempt to explain ostensibly paranormal experiences in non-paranormal terms.” (p. 17) But they do not rule out a priori that the paranormal exists. In other words, they are methodological naturalists and not philosophical naturalists.
This book is a scholarly look at the literature on all the forms of paranormal behavior that have been proposed to exist and studied. They look at claims for ghosts, alien visitations, near-death experiences (NDEs), out-of-body experiences (OBEs), telepathy, clairvoyance, pre-cognition, psychokinesis, life after death, and reincarnation. But after exhaustively evaluating the literature, they come to the conclusion that no definitive evidence has been found to date for any of the paranormal phenomena listed above, similar to the conclusions of Blackmore in her more personal search.
There does seem to be an interesting gender difference in the kinds of things that people believe.
[T]here is substantial evidence that women believe more strongly than men in spiritualism and life after death, psi abilities, witchcraft, precognition, astrology, psychic healing, reincarnation, and is superstitions and omens of luck. Men believe more strongly than women in UFOs (unidentified flying objects), alien visitations, and extraordinary life forms (e.g., Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster). (p. 26)
This ties in with the fact that mediums (people who read palms, crystal ball, Tarot cards, and the like) and the clients who seek their services both tend to be women.
Interestingly, the above lists of things that men tend to believe in, while bizarre, do not obviously violate known laws of science while the things that women tend to believe in, do. Why the difference? The authors point to a 1933 study that found that “parents and schools put more effort into correcting the false superstitious beliefs of boys than of girls” (p. 82) This may be explained if parents and teachers expect boys to go into science-related careers and thus correcting their false beliefs were more important. It would be interesting to see a repeat of that old study today to see if those corrective differences still exist.
The reasons for the gender difference in paranormal beliefs are not clear though various hypotheses have different degrees of support. One is that being able to tap into paranormal may give those who are more powerless a sense of greater control in their lives and since women tend to have less power, they are drawn to these alternative sources of it. (p. 26) But while feeling that one is in contact with the supernatural world may give one a greater sense of power, the paranormal phenomena themselves are harder to control. Hence if men seek control more than women they may be more likely to reject the paranormal because those phenomena are hard to control. (p. 90)
Another proposed explanation is the ‘social marginality hypothesis’. The authors quote a 2007 study that said:
[P]eople most susceptible to paranormal beliefs are members of social marginal groups, that is, groups such as the poorly educated or the unemployed that possess characteristics or roles that rank low among dominant social values. The deprivation and alienation associated with marginal status in society is held to encourage such people to appeal to magical and religious beliefs, presumably because these beliefs bring various compensations to the lives of their adherents. (p. 36)
French and Stone suggest that a corollary to this hypothesis is that skepticism would be more associated with men than women and point to the well-known fact that skeptical organizations tend to be dominated by men as providing some support for this idea.
A 1976 study of 1000 people in San Francisco showed some support for the social marginality hypothesis, at least when it comes to beliefs in astrology. It showed that “it was the more poorly educated, the unemployed, non-whites, females, the unmarried, the overweight, the ill, and the lonely, who were most taken with astrology”. (p. 36)
Another reason for the gender difference that has been proposed is that women generally have a higher need for a sense of interconnectedness and community, and this is one of the major functions of religions, and that this need to feel connected with others may dispose people towards paranormal beliefs that satisfy that need, such as spiritualism, clairvoyance, telepathy, and even witchcraft. (p. 41)
But while the evidence for the existence of a gender differences is strong, the evidence for each of these explanatory hypotheses is weaker, which may suggest that gender differences are caused by a multiplicity of factors that each make a small contribution but add up.
I was also interested that some hospitals are involved in studying out-of-body (OBE) and near-death experiences (NDE) which often occur when people are unconscious in hospital due to anesthesia prior to surgery or after heart attacks and strokes or in a coma. These institutions place concealed target pictures that can only be viewed from above from a position near the ceiling. Although people who say they have had NDEs usually say they can view their own bodies from a position up high, so far no one has correctly identified a target picture. (p. 258)
All in all, this was an excellent book and a valuable resource for anyone interested in looking at studies of paranormal effects.