; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Friday, June 20, 2014

Make Them Believe...

OK...you say that you have psychic abilities. Your friends and associates snicker behind your back and call you crazy when you tell them about your gift. Maybe you witnessed a UFO or some other unexplained event and you need to let others know of your encounter...though you know that you'll be subjected to ridicule. But never fear....there may be a rhetorical solution to your telepathic despair. The science of psychology may have finally figured out how to increase the probability of persuading others of supernatural events.

I recently read a new Journal of Language and Social Psychology study authored by University of East London researcher Anna Stone. You can download the free PDF from the website. The study suggests that people are more likely to believe what you’re saying is actually attributable to the paranormal if you don’t sound like a 'true believer' at the beginning of the tale. “The declaration of initial scepticism suggests that the narrator behaves rationally in basing his or her beliefs on empirical evidence and so counters potential accusations of foolishness and gullibility or being swayed by too little evidence,” Stone explains in the paper. “The presentation of the evidence that converted the narrator within the account itself offers the audience an invitation to go on the same journey from scepticism to belief along with the narrator.”

In other words, starting a narrative with an admission of your total belief in the supernatural doesn’t increase credibility.

Stone designed a simple experiment to prove what had previously only been a vague qualitative assertion. Subjects read a description of either a precognitive dream (the narrator predicted and prevented a car accident) or a telepathic experience (the narrator thought of an 'old friend Sally' and then learned about her hospitalization 30 minutes later) in three different conditions. In one, the narrator claimed to be skeptical of the paranormal before describing the event; in the second, the narrator said he or she didn’t have any interest at all; and in the third, the narrator admitted to being a vehement prior believer. Then, the subjects were asked a series of questions about whether they thought the event described really was paranormal, just a coincidence, or the product of narrator gullibility.

To gauge pre-existing beliefs about the paranormal, subjects also took the standard Australian Sheep Goat Scale (sheep are believers, goats are doubters). The undergraduate subject group, on average, was skeptical (the final results were statistically adjusted to incorporate this finding).

The skeptical condition significantly increased the likelihood that subjects would characterize the event as causally paranormal, even though the majority of the subjects rightly attributed it to coincidence.

So...according to this study, in order to increase your audience's positive regard for your psychic ability or strange encounter, it's best to begin the story stating that your a skeptic.

Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal

An Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience

The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher's Handbook

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