Psychologists have been studying people’s paranormal beliefs and paranormal experiences since the 1800’s. Two primary areas of study have emerged since this time: parapsychology and anomalistic psychology (the area of anomalistic psychology has been studied since the 1800’s but the term was not coined until 1989). Both areas of research are extremely small in the field of psychology. So small that many individuals who study psychology, do not even know both of these areas exist. Although both fields are focused on the study of paranormal experiences and beliefs, there are some important differences (listed in the table below).
I’ve been studying these two fields for quite a while and have become disenchanted with both of them. I feel as if parapsychologists spend too much time trying to prove to the world that psi exists. They seem to ignore another anomalistic experiences and the research studies often lack scientific rigor. Other recognized fields of science throw out research questions which are not supported with evidence. But parapsychologists have been studying paranormal phenomena for a long time and still have not managed to gain enough evidence to claim a respectable seat within the field of social sciences. Most social sciences have passed the point of showing that a psychological construct exists and have moved on to studying more interesting questions about the nature of the construct.
But I am also disappointed with anomalistic psychology. This field has scientific rigor. Researchers study the cognitive and perceptual factors which influence the perception of paranormal events. The field integrates well with other areas of psychology. However, anomalistic psychologists spend too much of their time trying to demonstrate that belief in the paranormal is based on cognitive mistakes and fallacies. They spend too much effort trying to show the world how stupid and uneducated people are who believe in the paranormal. Which means that they ignore those studies which demonstrate that the belief in the paranormal is NOT correlated with intelligence. This means that people who believe in paranormal events are not stupid, poor problem solvers, or bad at critical thinking. In my own personal experience, I’ve had scientists tell me ghost stories and other stories of events they could not explain.
Belief in the paranormal is not isolated to the weird guy who sits in his basement wearing the tinfoil helmet but is extremely common. GALLUP conducted a telephone survey with 1,002 participants in 2005, asking about their beliefs in the paranormal. They found that 75% of Americans have at least one anomalistic belief. Nearly everyone has a ghost story, checks their horoscope, or has a weird superstition they keep to themselves.
What is missing from the research is a true study of WHY people believe and why people NEED ghost stories, folklore, mystery creatures, superstitions, and predictions about the future. I am interested in where these beliefs come from. I’m interested in how belief in the paranormal, and the stories of the paranormal, are weaved into the fabric of our culture. I’m interested in why when someone experiences something unexplained; they often turn to a paranormal explanation. I’m interested in what makes someone skeptical or refuse to be skeptical because they are holding on to a belief. This has become my primary research question: Why do we need the paranormal?