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Paranormal beliefs then and now.

A perusal of current television listings, movie offerings, and internet content suggests that there is no shortage of interest in paranormal phenomena. Based on data from a variety of sources, Smith (2010) concludes that between 73 and 76 percent of people have at least one paranormal belief that is not based in traditional religious belief.

The questions behind the current research are these: Should we be concerned with how many people believe, and how strongly they believe, in various paranormal phenomena, and whether levels of belief are rising or falling? We believe the answer to these questions is a resounding "yes."

The task of investigating paranormal phenomena, and belief in them, has been taken up by psychology. During the late 1800s, the eminent Harvard psychologist, William James, conducted investigations into paranormal phenomena and was influential in the early activities of the American Society for Psychical Research (Irwin & Watt, 2006). Notable also is the work of J. B. Rhine, who joined the psychology faculty of Duke University in 1928 and established a laboratory there to study paranormal phenomena. Although Rhine failed to provide convincing empirical support for the phenomena he investigated, his pioneering work in applying the scientific method and statistical analysis to the investigation of such phenomena is regarded as a step forward. At about the same time that Rhine's negative findings were providing fuel for skeptics, a master magician named Harry Houdini was working to expose spiritualist mediums who used sleight of hand and magicians' tricks to extract money from those desperate to contact their deceased loved ones. There are many modern day skeptics, including many psychologists. Master magician, paranormal debunker, and author James Randi is perhaps the most outspoken modern day skeptic, maintaining a standing offer of $1,000,000 for anyone who can demonstrate paranormal ability under controlled laboratory conditions (James Randi Educational Foundation, 2010). The prize remains unclaimed.

Skeptics maintain that there is a costly and sometimes dangerous side to belief in the paranormal. Modern day psychics, like the early spiritualists Houdini so despised, extract large sums of money from grief-stricken individuals desperate to make contact with their departed loved ones (Hines, 2003, Smith 2010). Charismatic faith healers and psychic surgeons, claim the ability to heal the chronically or terminally ill when traditional medicine has failed (Hines, 2003, Randi, 1982). Seriously ill people may be convinced by these healers to throw away their medications, leading to a worsening of symptoms and perhaps even death (Hines, 2003). Psychic surgery and other types of medical quackery have their basis in paranormal belief. Pepper (cited in Hines, 2003) estimated the cost of such treatments to the American public to be $10 billion annually. This figure might be much higher today.

There is a place for serious scientific inquiry, but skeptics take issue with research which may be unwarranted, poorly executed, and/or excessively costly. In 1972, the CIA, perhaps in response to reports that the Soviet Union was involved in similar research, contracted first with the prestigious Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and later with another agency to investigate the military potential of "remote viewing," seeing in one's mind, objects at a great distance. Much of the remote viewing work at SRI was carried out by parapsychological/paranormal researchers Targ and Puthoff (Randi, 1982). Smith (2010) reported that the price tag for this remote viewing research, known as Project Stargate, eventually reached $20 million before it was abandoned. In a recent move that surprised, and perhaps dismayed, many in the psychological community, the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an article by noted social psychologist, Daryl Bem, in which he claims to have found empirical support for the existence of precognitive ability (Bem, 2011). Bem's study has already received criticism from James Alcock (Skeptical Inquirer, 2011). The work of Targ and Puthoff, and perhaps the work of Bem, provide good examples of a basic difficulty with research into paranormal phenomena. Believers tend to find support for the phenomena they study (Kennedy, 2005).

The types of critical thinking skills that would enable people to effectively evaluate paranormal claims can, to a great extent, be learned in the classroom. With a population that is increasingly better educated (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008) we might reasonably assume that levels of paranormal belief would be declining. Fitzpatrick and Shook (1994) did observe lower levels of paranormal belief among college seniors than among first year college students. In the present research, we addressed two primary questions: (1) Are levels of paranormal belief among young adults declining? and (2) are some beliefs more persistent than others? Specifically, we compared levels of belief across a range of paranormal phenomena in a recent (2010) sample of university students with levels observed in a similar sample 27 years earlier by Tobacyk and Milford (1983). Tobacyk and Milford developed one of the few available questionnaires for assessing paranormal beliefs, the Paranormal Belief Scale (PBS), and provided normative data for university students in 1983.



Our recent (2010) sample consisted of 160 undergraduates attending a state university in the Southeastern US. Mean age of the sample was 22.5 years (SD = 3.94 yrs.). Eighty three percent were female, 17 percent male. Ethnic distribution was as follows: 54 percent Caucasian, 34 percent African American, and 12 percent other. Recent sample students picked up questionnaire packets which contained an informed consent form, the PBS questionnaire, and a personality questionnaire, from a designated location. The personality questionnaire was not part of the present study. After completion, students returned the questionnaire packets to the same location. Course credit was given for participation.

Tobacyk and Milford's 1983 sample (hereafter referred to as the T&M sample) consisted of 424 university undergraduates. Estimated mean age of the sample was 22.5 years (SD = 3.3). Actual mean age of the T&M 1983 comparison sample (N = 424) was not provided. Consequently, we estimated the mean age of this sample based on age data Tobacyk and Milford did report for the smaller (N = 391) questionnaire development sample (reported in the same article). Forty six percent of the T&M sample were female, 54 percent male. Ethnicity data were not reported by Tobacyk and Milford.


All participants completed the Paranormal Belief Scale (PBS; Tobacyk & Milford, 1983), a self-report assessment of belief in a variety of paranormal phenomena. The questionnaire is comprised of 25 items and utilizes a five-point Likert scale format. The questionnaire provides scores on seven factors as well as a total score. It should be noted that whereas the PBS total score reflects the sum of the 25 Likert items making up the questionnaire, the seven factor scores are not computed as the sum of the questions that comprise each scale. Factor scores reflect the average Likert response (one to five scale) for the questions making up each scale. Sample questionnaire items can be seen in Table 1.

Tobacyk and Milford reported four-week test-retest reliability of the PBS total score at .89. Reliabilities for the seven factor scores ranged from .60 to .87. It should also be noted that although Tobacyk and Milford arrived at a seven factor structure for the questionnaire, other researchers have suggested that the questionnaire in its current form may not be capable of supporting seven factors. Lawrence (1995a), Lawrence, Roe, and Williams (1997), and Hartman (1999) have suggested models with fewer factors.


Between groups t tests for PBS total score and for the seven PBS factors were calculated using means and standard deviations because we did not have access to raw data for the T&M sample. Test results can be seen in Table 2. PBS total score means and means for the seven factor scores were lower for the current sample than for the T&M sample. These differences were statistically significant with the exceptions of subscale 1 (traditional religious belief) and subscale 7 (precognition). Recall that factor subscale means are reported in terms of average Likert response (one to five) for the questions comprising each scale.

To compare magnitude of group differences (effect sizes) for PBS total score and factor scores, Cohen's d values were computed (Cohen, 1988). Effect sizes were large (i.e., > .5) for PBS total score (.74) as well as for life forms (1.29), Psi (.91), and superstition (.61). It is interesting to note that within the two samples, levels of belief across the paranormal domains were similar. For example, superstition showed the lowest level of belief for both samples whereas traditional religious belief showed the highest level of belief for both samples.

As we worked on this project, we became aware of a debate in the paranormal literature relating to the extent to which paranormal belief and traditional religious belief are overlapping and related (Tobacyk, 1995a, 1995b), or independent of each other (Randall & Desrosiers, 1980; Rice, 2003). Realizing that our data allowed us to make an additional contribution to this literature, intercorrelations among PBS subscales for the recent sample were computed and can be seen in Table 3.

Notable is the absence of any significant correlations between the PBS traditional religious beliefs scale and any of the other PBS scales.


Our results do suggest that paranormal belief among university students has decreased over the past quarter century. Recent sample means were lower than T&M sample means on all eight of the PBS scales with six of these differences reaching statistical significance. The two scales lacking significant differences were traditional religious belief and precognition, with means for the two samples being nearly identical. In addition to being persistent (non-changing), these two factors also had the highest level of belief among the PBS scales. The persistence of precognition (clairvoyance beliefs) likely has to do with the fact that many more persons experience prophetic dreams (dreams that seem to predict the future and come true) than they do other paranormal phenomena such as telepathy or an encounter with Bigfoot. Hines (2003) provides a rather mundane explanation for precognitive dreams in the "law of large numbers," which states that if a given occurrence is provided enough opportunities to happen, it probably will. Hines suggests that with approximately 280 million people in the U. S. experiencing multiple dream themes nightly, by sheer numbers alone some people will experience dreams that seem to come true. Royalty (1995) did find a positive relationship between self-reported history of paranormal experience and level of paranormal belief.

With regard to traditional religious belief, we were not surprised to observe little or no decrease, as belief in a supreme being or deity of some type has been a human constant through the ages and across cultures. Additionally, belief in some form of existence beyond death as we know it may be a comforting, and therefore accepted, concept for many. This idea is consistent with the relatively high persistence of spirituality, a belief in existence beyond death that we observed.

There has been debate in the paranormal literature regarding whether or not traditional religious belief and paranormal belief are related and/or similar in nature. Tobacyk (1995a, 1995b), sees these two areas of belief as similar and related because religious phenomena such as resurrections and other miracles are, by definition, paranormal. However, Randall and Desrosiers (1980) found that scores on their Supernatural Beliefs Questionnaire did not correlate positively with traditional religious beliefs. Rice (2003) also found no consistent relationship between self-reported religious belief and self-reported paranormal belief. Our correlational data were very interesting in that the PBS traditional religious beliefs subscale did not correlate significantly with any of the other PBS factor scales. In contrast, all other PBS subscales showed significant correlations with each other. This suggests to us that paranormal belief and traditional religious belief are less similar and less related than Tobacyk (1995a, 1995b) suggests, consistent with the findings of Randall and Desrosiers (1980) and Rice (2003).

Overall, it does appear from our findings that paranormal belief has decreased over the past quarter century among university students. Unfortunately, belief in potentially harmful phenomena such as psychic readings and faith healing are not likely to completely disappear. This is because there are a variety of personality and other factors that predispose some individuals to paranormal belief. These include having an external locus of control (Groth-Marnat & Pegden, 1998; Randall & Desrosiers, 1980; Tobacyk & Milford, 1983) high openness and sensation seeking (Smith, Johnson, & Hathaway, 2009), high fantasy proneness (Irwin, 1990), and high instability/neuroticism (Lindeman & Aarnio, 2006). Irwin and Watt (2006) have suggested that social factors such as a sense of disenfranchisement or being socially marginal (e.g., being of low SES, a member of a minority group, or being aged) may predispose some to paranormal beliefs. However, findings reported by Rice (2003) do not support this hypothesis. A number of researchers have investigated cognitive variables such as high intuitive (vs. logical) thinking (Lindeman, & Aarnio, 2006), low reasoning ability (Roberts, & Seager, 1999), and low cognitive ability (Musch, & Ehrenberg, 2002; Smith, Foster, & Stovin, 1998). Findings from these studies are mixed. Readers interested in a detailed discussion of these variables should consult Irwin (1993) and Irwin and Watt (2006). One direction future research might take involves the development of more comprehensive theoretical frameworks within which formation and maintenance of paranormal beliefs can be investigated. The Worldview Hypothesis (Zusne & Jones, 1982) provides an example. As explained by Irwin and Watt (2006) this hypothesis suggests that paranormal belief is "simply one facet of a broader world view, a view that is characterized by a highly subjective and esoteric perspective on humanity, life, and the world at large" (pp. 227).

A number of limitations of the present research and implications for future research should be noted. There is little doubt that the demographic makeup of university populations has changed during the interval from 1983 to 2010 (U. S. Census Bureau, 2008). If the demographic makeup of the current sample differed from the T&M sample in a way that favored lower levels of belief, then the lowering of belief we observed could be attributed to those differences. Both samples were drawn from schools in the Deep South (Louisiana and Georgia). This helped reduce the potential of geographic confounds in our research. However, this does also limit our ability to generalize these findings to other geographic areas where levels and patterns of belief may differ. As with all research utilizing university students as participants, generalization of our findings should be limited to that population.

It is clear that females have much greater representation in our current sample (83%) than in the 1983 T&M sample (54%). If males typically scored higher in paranormal belief, then the drop in belief we observed might be attributed to the gender difference between the two samples. However, consistent but small gender differences, with females reporting overall higher levels of belief than males, are common in the paranormal beliefs literature (e.g. Irwin & Watt, 2006; Lindeman & Aarnio, 2006; Randall and Desrosiers, 1980) and we are unaware of any study reporting overall higher levels of belief among males. The recent sample PBS total score mean was higher for females than for males, as the cited literature would predict, though this difference did not reach statistical significance. Thus, the case for sample differences in gender representation being primary in accounting for the drop in levels of belief we observed does not appear to be a strong one. Another variable that warrants attention is ethnic makeup of the two samples. Though Tobacyk and Milford did not report ethnicity data for their sample, we believe it highly likely that our current sample was much more ethnically diverse than the 1983 T&M sample, particularly with regard to African American representation (34% of the current sample). If it were the case that non-Caucasian groups typically scored lower in paranormal belief than Caucasians, then the drop in belief we observed might be attributable to the greater ethnic diversity of our current sample. The pattern of ethnic differences reported in the literature is somewhat more complex than for gender differences. African Americans have been shown to report higher levels of belief in spiritualism, superstition, and witchcraft (Tobacyk, Miller, Murphy, & Mitchell, 1988). However, Emmons and Sobal (1981) reported ESP and life forms belief to be higher among Caucasians. In our sample, the PBS total score mean for Caucasians was significantly lower than for African Americans and for the other ethnic groups represented in the sample. Thus, as with gender, the case for sample differences in ethnic representation being primary in accounting for the drop in levels of belief we observed does not appear to be a strong one. Nevertheless, while we believe the two populations under study to be similar, we cannot be certain that gender, ethnic, or other unknown sample differences did not contribute to the results we observed. Lastly, there may be a need for an improved instrument for assessing paranormal belief, as suggested by Tobacyk (1995a).

How can we help decrease belief in potentially harmful paranormal phenomena such as psychic readings, faith healing, and psychic surgery? Education, and in particular, courses that teach critical and logical thinking skills should be helpful. As noted previously, Fitzpatrick and Shook (1994) observed lower levels of paranormal belief among college seniors than among first year college students. Fitzpatrick and Shook cited Tobacyk, Miller, and Jones (1984), who reported an inverse relationship between paranormal belief scores and number of science courses completed among high school students. Richman and Quartarone (2009) found that PBS scores at semester's end were significantly lower than at the beginning of the semester for psychology majors enrolled in a critical thinking course, entitled "Pseudopsychologies and the Paranormal." Hopefully, more schools will make critical thinking courses a part of their curriculum and contribute to the trend of decreasing acceptance of potentially harmful paranormal beliefs.


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Harvey Richman & Courtney Bell

Columbus State University

Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Harvey Richman, Department of Psychology, Columbus State University, Columbus, GA 31907. E-mail
TABLE 1 Tobacyk and Milford Questionnaire (Factors & Sample Items)

Factor 1: Traditional Religious Belief

1. The soul continues to exist though the body may die. Factor 2:
Psi (ESP like phenomena)

2. Some individuals are able to levitate (life) objects through
mental forces. Factor 3: Witchcraft

3. Black magic really exists. Factor 4: Superstition

4. Black cats can bring bad luck. Factor 5: Spiritualism

5. Your mind or soul can leave your body and travel (astral
projection). Factor 6: Extraordinary Life Forms

6. The abominable snowman of Tibet exists. Factor 7: Precognition

7. Dreams can provide information about the future.

Note: Strongly Disagree = 1, Strongly Agree = 5, for all items

TABLE 2 T&M Sample vs. Recent Sample Between Samples t tests for
PBS Total Score and Factor Scores

                       Means and Standard

    Scale         T&M (n=424)       Current

Total Score      76.87 (12.0)    66.27 (16.5)
Trad Religious    4.24 (0.9)      4.20 (1.0)
Psi               3.19 (0.8)      2.36 (1.0)
Witchcraft        2.77 (0.9)      2.45 (1.2)
Superstition      2.08 (0.8)      1.57 (0.9)
Spiritualism      2.64 (0.8)      2.46 (1.1)
Life Forms        2.82 (0.8)      1.70 (0.9)
Precognition      3.52 (0.8)      3.51 (1.0)

    Scale           t          p          d

Total Score        8.56      <.0001       .74
Trad Religious     0.46       .6446       .04
Psi               10.90      <.0001       .91
Witchcraft         3.61       .0003       .31
Superstition       6.63      <.0001       .61
Spiritualism       2.20       .0277       .19
Life Forms        14.20      <.0001      1.29
Precognition       0.12       .9030       .01

Note: df for all tests = 582

TABLE 3 Current Sample Intercorrelations Among the PBS Scales

Scale           Relig.      Psi       Witch.     Super.    Spirit.

PBS Total      .34 **     .76 **     79 **      .48 **     .82 **
Trad. Relig.              .02        .15        .05        .04
Psi                                  .51 **     .36 **     .63 **
Witchcraft                                      .21 **     .61 **
Superstition                                               .27 **
Life Forms

Scale            Form     Precog.

PBS Total      .58 **     .67
Trad. Relig.   .01        .12
Psi            .42 **     .47 **
Witchcraft     .34 **     .51 **
Superstition   .38 **     .19 *
Spiritualism   .43 **     .58 **
Life Forms                .23 **

* p < .01, ** p < .001 (n = 160)
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Author:Richman, Harvey; Bell, Courtney
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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