Belief in the paranormal: Perception or Probability?

Belief in the paranormal: Perception or Probability?,

The mystery has been solved, putting an end to beliefs in ghosts, telekinesis, horoscopes and deities. Science once again surprises the world and makes it less mysterious.

Debunking the Paranormal

The science behind supernatural phenomena

Despite scientific advances, there is still a portion of the population that believes in paranormal phenomena. Susan Blackmore, an expert on the subject, has compiled several studies that explain the reasons behind this belief in the nonexistent. According to these studies, it is common for us to underestimate the probability of events around us which can lead us to believe in paranormal events.

Belief in the paranormal

A matter of perception or probability?

Paradigmatic cases extend to all beliefs, including those of a religious nature and interpretations coinciding with predictions and divinations (such as tarot, runes, coffee grounds, crystal balls, among others).

Psychics” manage to present facts that seem to be related to the lives of their clients, who judge these facts as more accurate than a simple act of chance.

However, empirical evidence shows that this belief in the paranormal is underestimated in terms of probability which produces a growing circle of credibility by assuming that what is true for oneself is also true for others.

The Probability Misjudgement and Belief in the Paranormal error

The British Journal of Psychology published the study “Probability Misjudgement and Belief in the Paranormal” in 1997, coordinated by Blackmore, considered the definitive study in this matter.

This work was carried out as part of the British Science and Technology Week in 1994 and was presented through an article in the British newspaper Daily Telegraph.

The publication in question consists of two parts. The first presents ten statements related to British residents in the mid-1990s:

  • There is someone named Jack in my family.
  • I have an injury in my left knee.
  • Last night I dreamed about someone I haven’t seen in many years.
  • I usually travel in a white car.
  • I once broke an arm.
  • My back hurts right now.
  • I have two siblings.
  • I have a CD/cassette of Handel’s “Water Music.”
  • I have a cat.
  • Last year I was in France.

The second part of the Daily Telegraph article included two questions for readers:

  • How many true answers do you think you would get if you asked these ten questions to a stranger on the street?
  • Do you believe in extrasensory perception?

6238 responses were received, with an average rate of positive responses over 25%. Although this number may seem high, from a probabilistic perspective, it is an expected value. For example, what do you think was the percentage of positive responses to the question about the knee injury?

The truth behind coincidences

What do the numbers tell us?

Indeed, 34% of respondents answered affirmatively to the question about the knee injury which is equivalent to more than a third of participants. Additionally, 30% of them owned Handel’s “Water Music” in their homes, while 27% had visited France the previous year and 22% had a relative named Jack.

These results suggest that coincidences occur more frequently than commonly believed.

On the other hand, in response to the first question of the survey, participants estimated that true answers would be given in around 36% of cases. This indicates that people tend to overestimate their ability to discern truth in similar situations.

How vague statements influence the interpretation of study results

The study also yielded another interesting result: “believers” responded affirmatively in more cases than “non-believers.”

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain this, such as the idea that “believers” lead a different lifestyle, for example, that they are more likely to have a cat at home. However, the key seems to be in how each person interprets the statements.

According to the study, several questions were deliberately worded vaguely to resemble the unspecific statements made by psychics. “Believers” tend to use broader categories when answering these questions which may explain why more of them responded affirmatively to the question about having a relative named Jack, including distant relatives in the “family” category.

In summary, the study results suggest that people tend to interpret vague statements broadly and “believers” are more likely to do so than “non-believers.” Each person can draw their own conclusions about this.