Anomalistic psychology, critical thinking and the paranormal

23rd March 2020. Reading Time: 10 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 2206 page views. 0 comments.

We talk about applying critical thinking to the way we investigate the paranormal, but sometimes it is easier said than done.  How does knowledge help us? Does anomalistic psychology help? What are the characteristics of a critical thinker and how can we apply this to the way we investigate the paranormal?

A lot of the articles I write on this blog have a relation to psychology and more specifically the way our brain can fail us when it comes to interpreting paranormal phenomena.  This is the basis of my book Stuff Paranormal Investigators Need To Know: What the eyes see and the ears hear the mind believes, however, there are many articles on this website that also cover this area:

Self fulfilling prophecy

Clustering illusion or synchronicity?

The anchoring effect & the paranormal

The observer effect & the paranormal

Classical conditioning & the paranormal

These are just a handful, with much more available throughout this blog.  Many of these are linked to a form of cognitive bias.  

A cognitive bias is an error in the way that we think.  It means we are not necessarily thinking with a 'clear mind'.  Our experiences, our beliefs, and our intentions all influence the way we think, the way we make decisions, and the way we interpret our surroundings.  Just the fact that we believe in the paranormal makes us biased.  It means we are more prone to self-fulfilling prophecies where our brain is likely to interpret certain things to be paranormal when they are not.  We go in looking for the paranormal and our 'brain' makes us find it even if it is not really there.  On the other end, a full sceptic is also biased and will tend to look for a rational explanation discounting any sort of ambiguous event without even looking into the possibility it could be something we don't quite understand.  No one is immune, however applying critical thinking and taking a moment to really think things through instead of reacting or responding rashly can make a huge difference. 

Image source:

Critical thinking studies

It has long been debated that critical thinking can help change the way a person perceives the paranormal.  There was a study conducted in 2005 to see how critical thinking affects people who believe in the paranormal and if their belief can be changed by critical thinking.

A study was conducted to assess the relationship between critical thinking and belief in the paranormal. 180 students from three departments (psychology, arts, computer science) completed one measure of reasoning, the Paranormal Belief Scale (Tobacyk & Milford, 1983), and a scale of paranormal experiences. Half of the subjects filled out the Cornell Critical Thinking Test (Ennis & Millmann, 1985) and the Watson–Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser, 2002), respectively. The results show no significant correlations between critical thinking and paranormal belief or experiences. Reasoning ability, however, had a significant effect on paranormal belief scores, but not on paranormal experiences. Subjects with lower reasoning ability scored higher on Traditional Paranormal Belief and New Age Philosophy than did subjects with higher reasoning abilities. Results suggest that those who have better reasoning abilities scrutinise to a greater extent whether their experiences are sufficient justification for belief in the reality of these phenomena.

Hergovich, Andreas & Arendasy, Martin. (2005). Critical thinking ability and belief in the paranormal. Personality and Individual Differences. 38. 1805-1812. 10.1016/j.paid.2004.11.008

The results themselves indicate that a person's reasoning abilities make a difference when it comes to changing a belief related to paranormal phenomena.  In a lot of ways, we try to reason with one another on social media.  Someone posts a photo asking for advice and someone offers an opinion.  The problem in these scenarios is usually twofold.  The person asking for information usually already has their mind made up and they will be unwilling to listen to any explanation that doesn't fit the idea they already have in their head.  On the other end, people can sometimes be aggressive, condescending, and plain nasty when it comes to the delivery of their opinion.  When you approach someone by using passive-aggressive language, even if what you are saying makes sense and you have the facts to back it up, they are not going to listen to you because of the way you have delivered the information.  The key here is the information itself.

My brain is the key that sets me free

Harry Houdini  

Anomalistic psychology

Chris French is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London believes that the best way to teach critical thinking is to apply anomolistic psychology

Having taught anomalistic psychology now for 15 years, I can vouch that it provides a fantastic way to teach critical thinking skills.

Most people, whether believers or sceptics, find paranormal and related claims fascinating. Such topics are often the focus of conversations at dinner parties and arguments in pubs, not to mention being a staple of tabloid newspapers and daytime TV. Starting from the inherent interest that students and the public have in such controversial claims, important questions can be raised regarding the most valid forms of evidence and arguments that could be put forward in support of them.

Anomalistic psychology is the study of human behaviour and a person's experience which is interpreted by the individual as being paranormal when in fact no paranormal event has occurred. In 1813, Dr. John Ferriar published 'An Essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions' which detailed his thoughts that people experienced what they thought to be ghosts which were actually optical illusions. Further to this, other psychologists have come up with various explanations for paranormal phenomena stemming from the power of suggestion through to medical conditions, optical illusions, and just how our brain interprets information - many of which I have explored through this blog.

Knowledge is power.  By educating ourselves of possibilities you are already in a lot of ways prepping yourself to think critically when on an investigation.  Anomalistic psychology itself is not widely accepted within psychology and it is controversial mainly because of its link to the paranormal.  Dr French believes that people who are exposed to anomalistic psychology will automatically begin to question paranormal phenomena.  Just asking those questions is taking the first step to critical thinking.  Inform yourself of the way our brain tricks us.  Learn about pareidolia.  Learn about cognitive bias.  Learn about what makes us see things that are not there.  Learn about optical illusions.  Just having that information stored in your subconscious means that you will start to ask more questions simply because you now have the knowledge to do so.

Applying critical thinking

Of course, many school intuitions encourage their students to think critically when it comes to their study and presenting their work and their views.  It encourages you to make reliable judgments based on reliable information.  That sounds like the perfect advice when it comes to interpreting paranormal phenomena.  Monash University in Melbourne describes the traits of a critical thinker as:

  • questions everything, including existing social norms and traditions
  • thinks systematically, considering all aspects of a problem and looking at each element in its wider context
  • carefully examines ideas and information
  • looks beyond what may appear as obvious
  • uses evidence to support claims
  • uses logic and reason in their arguments
  • avoids making assumptions
  • can recognise (and avoid) logical fallacies
  • strives to be aware of their own cognitive biases
  • considers different perspectives
  • uses the above critical thinking skills to make judgments.

So now you have the basics of critical thinking and the rest is up to you.  It is really easy to get caught up in the moment of an investigation.  I have made no secret of the fact that I do this all the time.  I get excited and passionate but afterwards, I take a step back, take a breath and start thinking.  This is my process to start thinking critically.  I read a lot of psychology books and papers to educate myself on the different ways our brains can trick us.  I have studied photography so I know how a camera works and can make comments on photos that are presented.  I use the knowledge I have to help others.  If I don't know something, I will admit it.  We can't know everything there is to know so pick an area and make this your focus.  This is an important point.  Don't pretend to know an answer if you don't know it.  One argument I often make with people as an example is the concept of orbs.  There are a few different natural explanations for orbs ranging from bugs to dust to lens flare and moisture droplets.  A lot of investigators will automatically jump to the conclusion it is dust without looking properly at the photo or the circumstances around it.  When I have questioned them in the past, they have told me that it doesn't matter if the explanation is not entirely correct it is still getting the point across the orbs are not paranormal.  Straight away they have made an assumption and not used any evidence to back up their claim.  The person presenting this photo has now been given an incorrect explanation.  If they take that on board, they themselves now are going to respond in the same way.  This is how misinformation spreads.  Don't get too caught up in trying to prove a point without backing it up with a proper explanation.  We cannot help to educate one another with misinformation.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  You are not going to accept evidence of the paranormal unless it is pretty solid.  If you are offering an explanation or debunking something, equally you have to provide the evidence to support why it is not paranormal to be able to educate and reason with the other person.  You may then have an actual chance of helping them.  It works both ways.

Both sceptics and believers need to be open-minded.  They need to be open-minded that something may be paranormal, and open to the possibility that it may not be.  If we automatically jump to the conclusion that something is not paranormal, we could be missing something significant.  By applying critical thinking to our explanation or debunking process, we should be gathering evidence to prove that it is not paranormal.  We expect people to provide evidence something could be paranormal so we need to do the same if trying to say that it is not.  If we cannot gather that evidence, maybe there is something significant or maybe we are the ones who have jumped to a conclusion.  If you are left with not being able to explain something, it makes it all the more interesting.  We use our opinions based on our experience but not the evidence to back it up.  It does happen!  I have actually seen some really respectful discussions where someone is genuinely asking a question and someone comes back with reference material to help explain their question.  It can be as simple for example in the orb argument to provide a diagram of how a camera works and why it produces an orb. 

Critical thinking can help us explain a lot of paranormal phenomena, but when applied as above, it can also make us rethink the way we explain this phenomenon.  Maybe we are jumping to the 'that's not paranormal' conclusion too quickly.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  Whether or not we have that proof we don't know, but the best way to help us find out is to educate ourselves with as much knowledge as possible.  You will be amazed at how much it changes your approach to paranormal investigating.  Knowledge doesn't 'ruin' the way you view the paranormal.  It changes it, and you will end up with even more questions than answers.  At least now you have the tools to be able to think about them critically.

If you enjoy LLIFS, consider buying me a book (otherwise known as buy me a coffee but I don't drink coffee and I LOVE books). Your donation helps to fund the LLIFS website so everyone can continue to access great paranormal content and resources for FREE!

Follow LLIFS on Facebook

Don't forget to follow the Facebook page for regular updates 

Mailing List

Join the mailing list to receive weekly updates of NEW articles.  Never miss an article again!

Haunted Magazine

Buy the latest and past issues Haunted Magazine

Books by LLIFS

Check out the books written by LLIFS