This paper is one in a series of blogs around investigations into paranormal research. In the last blog, I discussed the difference between private and independent evidence. The blog builds on this to demonstrate how beliefs can alter our interpretation of the world, and to focus on eye witness testimony.
Beliefs are a set of principles/thoughts that a person holds, which aren’t verified or contains no right or wrong answers, i.e., I think Accrington Stanley are the best football team in the World. There is no validity to this statement; it is just a piece of information a person holds.
One of the major topics researched by parapsychology are the beliefs into the paranormal. Do people believe in paranormal? Research has demonstrated that a lot of people believe in at least one kind of paranormal phenomena and peoples beliefs into the paranormal are more complicated than Yes or No. For example, a person might believe in being contacted by a deceased relative but not believe in ghosts. Therefore, we shouldn’t be fooled by research that is just distinguishing between those that believe or those that don’t believe in paranormal. There is a wide range of beliefs in the spectrum of paranormal topics.
One way beliefs shape our thoughts is the interpretation of non-attributional events. For example, you’re on a ghost hunting tour (in the dark as they usually are), a sudden loud noise is heard in an empty room. There are two investigators, one a skeptic and the other a firm believer in ghosts. You can imagine in our example, they have two very different interpretations. The skeptic, we didn’t see what caused the noise, so it can’t attribute it to the paranormal. The believer, there is nothing in the room that would cause the sound, so it’s paranormal. As with many paranormal events, the cause isn’t attributional.
In our everyday ghost haunting example, the beliefs of the user will impact on the people’s interpretation of the situation. It is also being found in academic research where the researcher’s beliefs influence the experiment. Researchers who believe in a concept are more likely to produce positive results compared to peers who don’t share the belief in the concept (despite using the same protocols etc.). However, beliefs influencing our decision-making process aren’t just confined to paranormal, they are a normal part of everyday life.
Beliefs work in the same way, whether it is paranormal or any other topic. If a person believes something is right, we will likely to encode information to the event as correct. An additional step is required to tag information as false. In our example, the believer will automatically tag the non-attributional event to a paranormal explanation, and vice-versa for the skeptic. Naturally, people will confirm their own beliefs first, and it takes extra time to process information to recode one ’s beliefs.
There is a third category of paranormal investigator who understands the influence of their own beliefs on their decision making. In our example, they would correctly identify the noise can’t be attributed to anything. Therefore, they can describe they heard an unexplained sound but couldn’t assign a cause. They are leaving it open to be a paranormal or natural explanation.
The second influence of people’s decision-making process is how people are asked to describe the event. The research around this is called eye witness testimony, which was initially designed to examine witness testimonies in court to determine how accurate they are. In the classic experiment by Loftus and Zanni (1975) they asked participants two types of questions about a recorded car crash where no attribution could be made about the question asked. In one group participants was asked a definitive question while the other group was asked an indefinite question. Not surprisingly, the definitive question produced a fewer don’t know responses.
Going back to paranormal research, we will see people will be influenced by their own beliefs and how the question is asked. It has implications for research into the paranormal. Firstly, for someone to claim they have witnessed a paranormal event, they need to interpret it as a paranormal event. Naturally, believers into the paranormal are more likely to report these incidents. However, we can see from our example, the believers are more likely to commit an error to say paranormal phenomena instead of the correct unattributed source. We can’t see for definitive in our example whether it is paranormal or not. Also if the believer is asked a question in a definitive way they will produce fewer don’t know responses.
The blog briefly describes how beliefs and how the question is asked, will shape the perception of the event. Therefore, one thing that paranormal investigators should always look for is collaborative evidence to support the event. In our example, it could be a noise recorder, video footage within the room. Consider, the difference to the investigation if they had a video camera in the room. It will change the nature of the inquiry considerably, and possibly give a definitive answer. Any researcher needs to consider how their own beliefs shape perception and if you are asking questions you need to consider eye witness testimony evidence.
I will be presenting a series of blogs around the paranormal: The next topic is “ Is there evidence for human’s causing poltergeist activity?”
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Thanks for reading, Ian