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The Psychology of the Psychic, by David Marks

Why Do People Believe in the Paranormal?

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The Psychology of the Psychic, by David Marks

The Psychology of the Psychic, by David Marks

There is no simple explanation for why people believe parapsychological claims, but it's not because of experiments which purport to show something statistically significant — these research results only serve to bolster beliefs which already exist. People’s beliefs are instead based upon their own personal experiences.

Many involve dreams — a person dreams about some sort of event, usually an accident or tragedy, and then it mysteriously takes place shortly thereafter. According to their reports, the events which they experience simply could not have occurred by accident or by coincidence; therefore, lacking any clear scientific explanation, they conclude that the events were the result of some cosmic, spiritual or supernatural forces beyond our current understanding.

Part of the problem with this conclusion is that it is not clear that there is any basis to think that the event in question could not, indeed, have occurred by chance. In fact, some basic calculations can show that many odd coincidences are easily explainable by chance due merely to the fact we are dealing with huge numbers of people and events — with all of those possibilities, seemingly unusual coincidence must happen.

Marks calls such coincidences “oddmatches” — they are matches (say, between an event in a dream and an event in real life) which we have judged to be “odd” — so odd, in fact, that it sticks out in our minds. We keep returning to this memory and thinking about it, ignoring the fact that such matches never occurred most of the time. This is selective memory at work — we remember the unusual and forget the normal, leading us to misjudge just what really is normal and unusual.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know enough about statistics to realize what is going on. Even worse, studies have shown that believers in the paranormal are worse than the average person when it comes to estimating the statistical chances of certain events occurring. When someone cannot reliably evaluate the chances of an event happening, they are much more likely to attribute it to something other than chance — and, lacking any specific, scientific interpretation, their need to find some explanation will lead them to adopt a paranormal belief.

    It is a simple deduction from probability theory that an event that is very improbable in the short run of observations becomes, nevertheless, highly probable somewhere in a long run of observations.
    For example, if we flipped five coins at once, the probability of getting five heads is 1/32, or about .03. But if we repeated the flipping of five coins ten times, the probability of getting five heads somewhere in the ten tests is about .27. If we ran 100 tests, the probability of five heads rises to .96, which is highly probable indeed. [a probability of 1.0 is a certainty] But if we stopped anywhere in these 100 tests and asked what the probability would be of getting five heads on the very next trial, we are back to the starting probability of .03 because we have switched from a long-run question to a short-run question.

Once acquired, it is very difficult to get people to let go of these notions, even when clear evidence to the contrary is presented. Even though the strength with which a person holds a belief cannot be correlated positively with the accuracy of that belief (and, in fact, negative correlations between the two are often found when it comes to paranormal beliefs), people remain convinced that they must be right. Untenable and unsupported explanations which postulate ephemeral, but causal, connections between events seem to be more appealing than well-supported statistical explanations which do not provide comfort or feelings of connectedness.

The Psychology of the Psychic, by David Marks

The Psychology of the Psychic, by David Marks

Most of Marks’ book is taken up with detailed descriptions and critiques of the experiments and performances which are used by believers as support for the parapsychological claims. He examines the details of experiments, research controls, unprofessional conduct, obvious cheating and more. This is at once both a strength and a weakness of the book.

It is a strength because it provides the reader with a wealth of information about some of the most famous alleged psychics and parapsychological research experiments. It is also a weakness, though, in that there is so much information that a person who is new to the field could feel overwhelmed by it. Without a good starting context in which to place the information and from which the writing would be more understandable, much of the book could bore a beginner. The best book for beginners remains In Search of the Light by Susan Blackmore. However, once a person has established some basic knowledge and context for the field, then anyone interested in learning more should consider this as one of their top choices.

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