Book review: Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief & Experience (2014) by Christopher C. French and Anna Stone

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.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    That Out-of-body experience hospital study:
    AWARE—AWAreness during REsuscitation—A prospective study
    Sam Parnia, et al. Resuscitation, December 2014Volume 85, Issue 12, Pages 1799–1805

    The results are completely unimpressive. Precisely zero patients correctly reported the pictures placed high in emergency rooms, so in the study they concentrate on one patient who reported an OBE while not in an ER.

    The primary author, Parnia is in the news just recently with some related work:
    When you die you know you are dead: Major study shows mind still works after the body shows no signs of life
    Wow, a physician who considers himself competent to be investigating OBEs and NDEs has just discovered the distinction between heart death and brain death!

  2. Owlmirror says

    The latest from Chapman University’s Survey of American Fears shows that the trends noted in 1976 still appear to hold:

    The following are the personal characteristics that are significantly associated with higher levels of paranormal belief, ordered by the magnitude of the effect.
    People with the highest levels of paranormal belief tend to have/be:
      • Lower income
      • Report themselves as highly religious
      • Attend religious services infrequently
      • Female
      • Conservative
      • Either single or cohabitating
      • “Other race” -- not white, black or Hispanic
      • Living in a rural area
      • West coast resident

  3. Owlmirror says

    I’ve been reading Bruce Hood’s Supersense, and I was thinking about the above in that context.

    One point that I remember is that for some people, the term “supernatural” is disliked (I am not sure if there is a specific reason), but when asked, they clearly have beliefs (or tendencies to believe) in that direction (experiences with the dead; clairvoyance; moments of precognition, etc), but prefer the general term “mysterious” to refer to that sort of thing.

    Another point is that Hood references personal superstitions about luck among sportsmen and gamblers (wearing the same clothes for each game or event; having talismans; things like that). I find myself wondering if perhaps the self-report that men don’t believe in that sort of thing might be contrasted with questions about whether their actual behaviors demonstrate an implicit belief in good luck and bad luck, and the common things done to attract the former and avoid the latter. That is, I wonder if they claim to not believe because they are aware that there is stigma attached to such beliefs, but their actual behaviors demonstrate implicit beliefs in that direction. Or perhaps it’s just that the questions don’t cover the supernatural/paranormal beliefs that they do have and would admit to if the questions were phrased more appropriately.

  4. Mano Singham says


    The scope of the book did not cover the kinds of everyday superstitions that you mention. If examined closely, those undoubtedly require belief in forces that violate natural laws, but I suspect that for most people superstitions are adopted unthinkingly and not examined critically.

  5. Heidi Nemeth says

    I had a near death experience 30 odd years ago. I had a tubal pregnancy which had burst, causing me to lose a lot of blood. I was in the hospital for several hours before I was operated on. Shortly before operating, the obstetrician palpated my burst tube, which made made things worse. In the time required to prepare me and everything else for emergency surgery, I was briefly left alone in a hospital bed in an anteroom. Not only did I have cramps in my shoulders (a sign of internal bleeding), I had a near death experience. I reviewed my life. I felt light-bodied. The room, already white, seemed to lose features as it grew brighter. (Maybe it grew dimmer and lost features as happens during an eclipse. During the deepening partial phase of the eclipse it doesn’t seem dimmer.) I remember feeling like I was rising up into the corner of the room and looking down from up there. Then the nurses came back into the room. I was back in bed. I promptly lost consciousness, though I don’t remember if it was due to anesthesia or not.
    I am under the impression that the light, both visual an physically feeling light-bodied, are part of sensory deprivation / oxygen starvation and the way the brain shuts down. I can attest I was not my rational self at the time -- though I knew I wouldn’t and couldn’t fall out of bed (I was too weak to move AND the bed rails were up) I was terrified I would.

  6. says

    I’m currently reading the book. I’m about 30% of the way through but am skim reading a lot of it. I don’t really care about the psychological profiles of those who believe in anomalous phenomena any more than I care about the psychological profiles of skeptics. Both proponents and skeptics may have their divergent beliefs due to irrational means, but this says nothing about whether or not such anomalous phenomena exists.

    Anyway, I’m not on chapter 5, “Psychobiological
    Perspectives”, and it’s getting a bit more interesting. They say:

    ||In summary, the proposition that mystical experiences and the sense of presence are generated by activity in the temporal lobe has considerable support.||

    Nothing of what they say prior to this suggests this. If the word “generated” were replaced by “enabled”, this would be fine. But, as it stands, it’s a clear case of question begging.

    If one believes in psi, and certainly if one believes in an afterlife, then one would tend not to believe the brain generates *any* of our experiences. Anomalous experiences will be no exception.

    Of course, in order to experience other realities, or non-physical presences, presumably the brain has to be in a specific state in order to allow the self to sense such presences.

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