A study from the journal Psychological Reports explored the reactions of college students to a supposed psychic event — a performer making contact with the deceased. About 65% of students believed they had witnessed a genuine psychic experience, and those who believed this were more likely to describe the event as emotionally stirring.
Paranormal belief includes supernatural belief (e.g., belief in ghosts or other non-physical entities), superstition, spiritual belief, and religious belief. Not surprisingly, such beliefs are particularly common during childhood, as children frequently intertwine fantasy with reality. And yet, it is apparent that paranormal beliefs are also common among adults.
Study authors Lise Lesaffre and her team devised an experimental study to explore why paranormal beliefs seem to endure and continually develop into adulthood. Building on a previous study led by Lesaffre, the researchers invited a sample of 419 college students from Switzerland to watch a psychic performance.
The students first completed a measure of paranormal belief that included seven subscales: Traditional Religious Beliefs, Witchcraft, Superstition, Spiritualism, Extraordinary Life Forms, Psi (e.g., moving objects with one’s mind), and Precognition (e.g., foreseeing the future through horoscopes). The group of students then witnessed an event where a performer seemingly makes contact with the deceased loved one of an audience member.
The performer revealed details about the deceased person’s life and the audience member was seen growing very emotional. Unbeknownst to the participants of the study, the performer was a semi-professional magician and the audience member was a confederate.
After witnessing the performance, the students rated the extent that they felt the event was the result of supernatural powers, magic trickery, or religious miracles. They then answered an open-ended question concerning their feelings and opinions of the event and again completed the seven subscales assessing their paranormal belief.
As expected, students with greater scores on the paranormal belief questionnaire were more likely to endorse a psychic explanation for the event and less likely to endorse a magic trickery explanation. Notably, after watching the event, subjects’ scores on the spiritualism subscale increased.
Based on the students’ ratings, 65% of the sample gave a psychic explanation for the event, about 10% believed they witnessed magic trickery, and about 25% said they witnessed neither. The researchers then coded the students’ open-ended responses and found that many of them were conflicted about the experience. About half of the students expressed doubts about what they had seen, and about one-third expressed emotions that were both positive and negative.
The researchers also found that students who made no mention of their emotions in their responses were less likely to endorse the psychic explanation. This suggests that the emotional aspect of the experience may have contributed to the students’ endorsement of the psychic event.
Lesaffre and colleagues note that their sample consisted of a preselected group of college students and that the results may have looked somewhat different among the general population. As one avenue of future research, the authors suggest exploring the possibility that the emotionally intense nature of the performance contributed to the students’ paranormal belief. This could be done by comparing reactions to this type of performance to reactions to a less affective, pseudo-psychological event like mind reading.
The study, “Talking to the Dead in the Classroom: How a Supposedly Psychic Event Impacts Beliefs and Feelings”, was authored by Lise Lesaffre, Gustav Kuhn, Daniela S. Jopp, Gregory Mantzouranis, Cécile Ndéyane Diouf, Déborah Rochat, and Christine Mohr.