Personality factors that underlie belief in the paranormal

23 Mar 2015

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Although the term ''paranormal'' refers to ''hypothesized processes that in principle are ''physically impossible'' or outside the realm of human capabilities'' (Thalbourne, 1982; as cited in Irwin, 1993, p. 1), belief in the paranormal seem to be surprisingly common in this modern, technologically sophisticated world. The influence of paranormal phenomena can be observed in the entertaining media as well as in the news, in sports, in business and in peoples' everyday lives (Goode, 2000). But why people believe in the paranormal phenomena or what persuade them to do so? Skeptics as well as non-skeptics have interests in investigating the nature of belief in the paranormal, albeit with somewhat different objectives in mind. The majority of previous research examining paranormal belief and personality correlates has taken a skeptical view, which suggests that paranormal believers are psychologically dysfunctional, for example, psychotic, neurotic and depressive. Non-skeptics however, at the same time have tried to challenge this hypothesis.

The purpose of this study is to support skeptical point of view; firstly, personality factors that may underlie belief in the paranormal phenomena will be described and evaluated. Secondly, the impact of culture and subjective experience on belief in paranormal phenomena will be evaluated.

According to Irwin (1993) ''paranormal beliefs are held because they serve significant psychodynamic needs of the individual'' and in general this statement is called psychodynamic functions hypothesis (p. 21). According to this hypothesis, skeptics very often consider paranormal believers as psychologically deviant and relate their behaviour with psychopathology. Not without a reason, however. The vast majority of evidence (i.e. Irwin & Green, 1998; Hergovich et al., 2008) indicates that people who believe in paranormal phenomena expose schizotypal tendencies. The findings of Irwin and Green (1998) suggest that people who have schizotypal tendencies (schizotypal personality disorder is a condition that resembles a less severe version of schizophrenia, Vyse, 1997) in the cognitive-perceptual area are likely to confirm beliefs in Spiritualism and Precognition as well as in Extraordinary Life Forms and Witchcraft. Hergovich's et al. (2008) findings give a support to the hypothesis that schizotypy is heavily associated with paranormal belief and approve that belief in Precognition, Psi, Witchcraft and Spiritualism can also be predicted very well by schizotypy.

Moreover, previous studies (i.e. Sica et al., 2002) also confirm that a high involvement in superstition seems to play a role in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although non-skeptics argue that paranormal beliefs and obsessive-complusive disorder or schizotypal personality disorder remain unrelated (Vyse, 1997), evidence suggests that disorders mentioned above do seem to be associated with belief in paranormal phenomena. Additionally, from the objective and scientific point of view, people who endorse beliefs in paranormal phenomena are irrational, even though the irrationality of most believers is mild compared to psychopathological behaviour. And although, such individuals are not disturbed by their experiences and stay psychologically healthy (notion of the ''happy schizotype'', Lawrence & Peters, 2004), they are, however similar to people diagnosed with schizophrenia on a number of correlates as well as are at higher risk to experience more severe psychotic-like experiences and to develop psychotic disorders (Clardige, 1994).

Thus, scientific evidence in this case seems to be pervasive; less pervasive however seem to be evidence relating to extraversion, a measure of the individuals' sociability.

According to Maltby et al. (2007) individuals who score highly on extraversion are very sociable, energetic, optimistic, friendly and assertive and are labelled extraverts. However, individuals with low scores are labelled introverts, often described as reserved and independent. Some of the evidence does not support a relationship between extraversion and paranormal belief (i.e. Williams et al., 2007); however, a number of studies have found a correlation between extraversion and ESP performance (i.e. Lawrence, 2001). The reason why extraversion is not as obvious predictor of belief in paranormal phenomena may be limited reliability of this psychological trait (Tam & Shiah, 2004). Meanwhile, the association of extraversion with belief in paranormal phenomena remain to some extent uncertain; therefore more scientific research has to be conducted.

According to Williams et al. (2007), neuroticism is fundamental to individual differences in paranormal belief. Moreover, Thalbourne et al. (1995) has found neuroticism to be significantly correlated with an overall Paranormal Belief Scale score, Traditional Religious Belief, Psi, Witchcraft, as well as with the Australian Sheep-Goat Scale, which addresses belief in and personal experience of ESP, Telepathy, Precognition, and Life After Death. Neuroticism, can be described as the tendency to experience negative emotions, especially anxiety, depression, anger. Therefore neurotic individuals can be characterized as emotionally unstable, irrational personalities with often low self-esteem (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2007). Wiseman & Watt (2004) indicate that people who are anxious are more superstitious than those who are not. However, non-skeptics argue that even though a person is more likely to engage in superstitious behaviour while experiencing certain emotions, specifically fear and anxiety, belief in paranormal is not usually the cause of emotional difficulties (Vyse, 1997).

Thus, according to non-skeptical point of view, claiming that superstitious people are more anxious than those who are not superstitious is overlapping. However, the vast majority of scientific evidence suggests this personality dimension to positively correlate with belief in paranormal phenomena. In addition, an association between paranormal belief and a depressive attributional style when using the Attributional Style Questionnaire as an indicator of depression has also been found (Dudley & Whisnand, 2000). The results of this study demonstrate significantly higher depressive attributional styles among college students with high scores on paranormal phenomena than college students with low scores. Thus, the vast majority of evidence indicating relationship between belief in paranormal phenomena and neuroticism seem to be more pervasive than non-scientific evidence demonstrated by non-skeptics.

Psychoticism has also been found to be associated with belief in paranormal phenomena (Francis et al., 2010). It is claimed that those who score high on the psychoticism scale can be characterised as cold, aggressive, tough-minded, antisocial and impersonal. Francis et al. (2010) study aimed to investigate personality dimensions associated with conventional Christian belief and unconventional paranormal belief. It has been found that conventional Christian belief is associated with lower psychoticism scores, whereas unconventional paranormal belief is associated with higher psychoticism scores. Thus, it may be concluded that paranormal believers' behaviour may be more aggressive and antisocial than paranormal non-believers' behaviour.

According to Irwin and Watt (2007) people who believe in paranormal may be little concerned about the needs or attitudes of other people, may be socially alienated, may display low social interest and have a grandiose sense of their own importance and uniqueness. This description indicates on narcissism, another personality dimension associated with belief in paranormal phenomena. Positive correlation between narcissism dimension and belief in Psi, Precognition, Witchcraft and Spiritualism has been reported, which means that believers in paranormal may be preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited power and success (as cited in Irwin & Watt, 2007). Recent studies therefore seem to confirm Tobacyk and Mitchell's (1987) findings, where although a small, but significant correlation between narcissism and the paranormal beliefs of Psi and Precognition has been found. Thus, having found correlation between narcissism and belief in paranormal may indicate problems associated with psychological adjustment amongst people who believe in paranormal phenomena (Irwin & Watt, 2007).

There is also a general trend for paranormal belief to be associated with the locus of control. ''Locus of control refers to a dimension of personality and to do with whether or not a person perceives their behaviour to be related to outcomes, such as rewards and punishments'' (Pennington, 2003, p. 253). Individuals who believe personal outcomes are contingent largely on their own behaviour and attributes are said to have an internal locus of. However, people with external locus of control see personal outcomes as chance or luck (Pennington, 2003).

It is claimed that people who believe in paranormal phenomena are inclined to maintain that they are especially vulnerable to external forces beyond their control; thus posses external locus of control (Irwin & Watt, 2007). This relationship has been well documented, especially in regard to ESP, Witchcraft, Precognition, Spiritualism and Extraordinary Life Forms (as cited in Irwin & Watt, 2007).

Groth-Mamat and Pegden (1998) also have found external locus of control to be associated with greater overall paranormal belief, although this was not quite significant. This study has provided some support to the claim that those who believe that their life is dependent on external factors are more likely to believe in the paranormal. However, a more external locus of control was significantly related to greater belief in Spirituality and Precognition. Presumably, belief in Spirituality is associated to external locus of control due to a belief that spiritual forces have an impact on peoples' lives. Peoples' beliefs in Precognition can also be associated with an external locus of control because their lives might be perceived somewhat pre-determined. However, greater belief in superstition was related to a more internal locus of control. The results of this study suggest ''rather than there being a direct association between paranormal belief in general and an external locus of control, it may be that those who believe in Precognition and Spirituality are more likely to have an external locus of control while those who believe in Superstition are more likely to have an internal locus of control'' (p. 293). Thus, this study demonstrates that paranormal belief is not only related to external locus of control but the association between internal locus of control and paranormal belief (Superstition in this case) has also been found.

Paranormal belief seem to also be correlated positively with measures of creativity, sensation seeking and hypnotic susceptibility what suggest a linkage to a cognitive style of fantasizing (as cited in Irwin & Watt, 2007). It is claimed that personality factor of fantasy proneness correlates positively with nearly all dimensions of paranormal belief, such as global paranormal belief, Precognition, Psi, Witchcraft, Extraordinary Life Forms and Spiritualism (Irwin, 1993). It has been established that fantasy prone people fantasize a lot and while fantasizing they are deeply absorbed in or fully experience what is being fantasized. This cognitive style has interested many scientists wanting to investigate the origins of paranormal belief. It has been found that one of the major factors related with the development of this personality dimension may be a history of physical abuse or other trauma during childhood; this may be an important factor in explaining individual's openness to paranormal. Rabeyron and Watt (2010), for example, found a strong significant correlation between paranormal experiences and traumas. Nevertheless, further research on correlation between paranormal belief and trauma is needed, especially because there are other factors that might need to be taken into account. According to Lynn and Rhue (1988) children's fantasy proneness can be fostered by parental encouragement, and the development of paranormal belief therefore should be investigated also in relation to these more positive aspects of the family setting than just the level of physical abuse. Nevertheless, the vast majority of evidence indicates fantasy proneness to be strongly correlated with belief in paranormal phenomena. This claim seem to be also accepted by non-skeptics (Vyse, 1997).

Recapitulating, it is important to mention that despite of the dispute between skeptics and non-skeptics, personality dimensions seem to have a considerable impact on peoples' belief in paranormal phenomena. Some researchers claim that there are other factors that have an impact on peoples' belief in paranormal phenomena, such as culture, media, social influence or subjective experience.

According to Irwin (1993) the level of paranormal belief in an individual is in part a function of that person's cultural environment. However, it should not be argued that the origin of paranormal beliefs lies in the individual's culture. It is more acceptable to claim that culture is responsible not for paranormal belief, but rather for the specific forms of the beliefs. For instance, people may be members of various cultural groups, whereas this membership will rule the characteristics of paranormal beliefs accepted by the individual. In summary, paranormal beliefs may be modelled on examples provided by parents, friends or other persuasive people. Ridolfo et al. (2010) for example found relatively strong evidence that individuals are more likely to accept paranormal claims as true when they believe such claims have popular support. However, the exact relationship between paranormal beliefs and social-group influences remains uncertain (Markovsky & Thye, 2001).

Furthermore, even a little exposure to paranormal concepts through the media and social interaction may incline individual to unintentionally interpret personal encounters with anomalous events as paranormal phenomena. Thus, it is assumed that ''some correlates of individual dimensions of paranormal belief may reflect the operation of cultural and sub-cultural factors'' (Irwin, 1993, p. 26). However, individual must be intrinsically vulnerable for these cultural impacts to be effective. Therefore, even though paranormal beliefs might have cultural basis, the basis of vulnerability to the beliefs must be investigated in the psychodynamic domain (Schumaker, 1990; as cited in Irwin, 1993).

It is also worth noting that the most common reason given for believing in paranormal phenomena is personal experience (Blackmore 1984, as cited in Blackmore, 1997) and strength of paranormal belief is positively correlated with number of subjective paranormal experiences (Glicksohn, 1990). However, Blackmore (1997) indicates that people who believe in the paranormal are more likely to interpret normal events as paranormal as well as are more likely to misinterpret normal events as paranormal what encourages their belief.

As mentioned before the term ''paranormal'' refers to ''hypothesized processes that in principle are ''physically impossible'' or outside the realm of human capabilities'' (Thalbourne, 1982; as cited in Irwin, 1993, p. 1). Although scientists very often disagree about the meaning of empirical tests, data, empiricism is a highly valued source of knowledge. There is clearly still much empirical work yet to be done to investigate personality correlates with paranormal beliefs. The popularity of paranormal beliefs in the society and the evident influence of these beliefs on people's life call for further investigation and verification for providing a better understanding of the functions and origins of paranormal belief. And even though, there is still a lot of uncertainty about which personality factors have an impact on individual's belief in the paranormal phenomena, skeptical point of view, considered as more scientific, seem to be more persuasive than non-skeptical.

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