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Dissociation and Paranormal Beliefs: Toward a Taxonomy of Belief in the Unreal

In a normal population, dissociative tendencies contribute to many types of paranormal thinking. Psychological dissociation, even at a subclinical level, is an important factor in the cognitive processing that leads to belief in the unreal.

Virtually all known human cultures possess beliefs in the paranormal. This may at first seem maladaptive—how could belief in the unreal be sufficiently advantageous that it would have survived the rigors of human evolution in the all-too-real world of past ages?

Such beliefs may have yielded evolutionary advantages. Although the interaction of culture and human evolution is complex, it is certainly possible that shared paranormal beliefs within any given culture, such as shared veneration of ancestral spirits or god-kings, might have yielded a coalescent group loyalty that would be useful, physically and politically, in dealings with other competing cultures. This might very well have resulted in a selective bias toward dissociative processes, leading to success in those cultures that indulge in such beliefs.

But even if this is the case, a significant psychological question arises—one especially true for the modern world, in which access to scientific information is effectively unparalleled historically— How are such beliefs maintained in the minds of individuals, within any given culture? Why do individual people harbor bizarre beliefs?

Experimental Psychology and the Paranormal

Previous laboratory research has demonstrated the importance of psychological characteristics that predispose individuals to paranormal thinking. In earlier research (Sharps et al. 2006; 2010), we showed that subclinical levels of depression were important for belief in ghosts and extraterrestrial aliens. This is presumably because the depressed would prefer to be in an environment where things might be better; and things might be better in the afterlife represented by ghosts, or perhaps on another, nicer planet where extraterrestrials might live.

Subclinical tendencies toward attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) predisposed people to belief in extraterrestrial aliens and cryptids such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Why? Aliens and monsters are cool, and finding them in the woods and bodies of water takes us away from the mundane reality that those with ADHD tendencies frequently find excruciatingly dull.

However, in these studies, the most important of the characteristics predisposing us to paranormal thinking was dissociation. Not only did subclinical levels of dissociation predispose people to beliefs in everything paranormal (whether UFOs, aliens, cryptids, or ghosts), but it also predisposed them to see these things. In a study in which we used Internet pictures of “paranormal” creatures and objects (Sharps 2012), the dissociated tended to see them as real. Where everybody else saw a teenager in a Halloween gorilla suit with extra monkey hair, those with subclinical dissociation saw Bigfoot. Odd lights in the sky (a helicopter with a broken landing light, for example) readily became UFOs for the dissociated. In short, those with subclinical dissociation tended to see the prosaic as real evidence of the paranormal.

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About Skeptical Inquirer

Creators of the Paranormal: A handful of twentieth-century figures “created” the modern concept of the paranormal and its leading topics, transporting fantasy, myth, or speculation into a kind of believable “reality.” Most proved to be a chimera. CRISPR-Cas9: Not Just Another Scientific Revolution Dissociation and Paranormal Beliefs Scientific Reasoning at the USAF Academy: An Examination into Titanium-Treated Necklaces Stick It In Your Ear! How Not To Do Science A Testament of Belief Masquerading as Science and much more...
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