How the brain processes information influences beliefs about psychic powers

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The results from recent research suggests that how we process information may play a role in the formation of paranormal psychic beliefs.

Two concepts were of particular interest in how paranormal beliefs may develop: memory accuracy and the link between psychic beliefs and critical thinking. Researchers David Gray and Stephen Gallo contend that memory accuracy, the susceptibility to memory error or distortions, plays a role in the development of paranormal beliefs due to bias in recalling memories that support psychic beliefs. What role does analytical/critical thinking play?  Here, it is thought that psychic beliefs are associated with less analytical thinking (as suggested by previous research).

In three different studies, Gray and Gallo sought to explain differences in paranormal beliefs between skeptics and believers. To measure paranormal psychic belief or skepticism, participants in each study took the Australian Sheep Goat Scale (ASGS); the instrument contains subscales measuring extrasensory perception (or ESP), psychokinesis, and telepathy. Those participants with the highest and lowest scores (believers and skeptics, respectively) were included in the study to best distinguish differences in beliefs. Each study also examined various aspects of memory and analytical/critical thinking.

Participants who qualified for the initial screening session of each of the three studies numbered 731, 807, and 1003, respectively; participant numbers were reduced in follow-up phases of each study to achieve matching on variables such as age and years of education.

In the follow-up phase of the study, specific to the first study, a battery of assessments to measure memory accuracy and distortion, analytical thinking, absorption (openness to experiences that captive attention), dissociative experiences, and need for cognition were given to 42 believers and 42 skeptics.  In addition to memory distortion and analytical thinking, in study two, working memory also was examined in 56 believers and 59 skeptics via two span tests, assessments to determine short-term memory.

In the third study, 47 believers and 48 skeptics took measurements to assess memory accuracy and distortion (with some slightly altered procedures), working memory, analytical thinking and dissociative experiences.  Additionally, questions about Darwin’s theory of evolution were asked (e.g., “a very strong belief in evolution necessarily leaves a person feeling empty or hopeless about the fate of humanity”).

Results indicated the two groups did not differ in basic memory abilities, but skeptics were more likely to successfully analyze and evaluate data and their own experiences when compared to believers. Specifically, in four critical thinking areas, skeptics outperformed believers in an assessment of logic, a remote associations task, a conspiracy questionnaire, and an argument evaluation test.

Given their results, Gray and Gallo propose that differences in critical thinking and conceptual knowledge may play a role in the creation of paranormal psychic beliefs. However, they caution that other factors, such as sociocultural and psychological factors, are likely involved in the existence of paranormal beliefs. For instance, nearly 70% of believers reported that psychic beliefs are consistent with those of close friends and family.

Another finding was the correlation between psychic belief and life satisfaction in the entire sample, “suggesting that holding paranormal psychic beliefs can have psychological benefits for some individuals.” Gray and Gallo note room for future research of sociocultural and psychological factors and how these may interplay with critical thinking as a function of paranormal psychic beliefs.

The study, “Paranormal psychic believers and skeptics: a large-scale test of the cognitive differences hypothesis” is published in the February issue of Memory & Cognition.