The observer effect and the paranormal

29th November 2019. Reading Time: 8 minutes General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know, Paranormal Theories. 1794 page views. 1 comments.

The observer effect in physics suggests that just observing a phenomenon will inevitably change it. In psychology, it suggests that a person behaves differently once they are aware they are being observed. What could this mean for paranormal phenomena?

In the past, I have wondered what effect we have on the environment around us when it comes to studying the paranormal. By us just entering a room, we are somewhat changing its natural environment. Would the activity occur if we were not there? Would there be more or less activity? Are we the ones causing the activity or are we merely fueling it? These are just some of the questions that keep me awake at night. Recently while doing some reading, I came across the concept of what is called 'The observer effect' which seems to be relevant in both physics and psychology. Of course, the first thing that popped into my head was 'How does this affect paranormal phenomena?'. In order to explore this question in a bit more detail, let's look at the basic concept of the observer effect.   Now the below is not to discuss the validity of the theory when it comes to psychics or psychology. I am not a scientist nor a psychologist, but it was reading about this theory that led me to ask my own questions relating to the paranormal. It is the mere catalyst toward some questions to ask about paranormal phenomena.  I felt however it was important to show what the theory is and where it came from as it may lead you to ask your own questions or spark new ideas.

The observer effect in physics

Physics can get very complicated very quickly. I am no scientist so I am going to keep this really simple. As I mentioned above the observer effect in physics suggests that just observing a phenomenon will inevitably change it. One of the ways in which this observation changes things is by the use of equipment to take measurements. In order to take a measurement of tyre pressure, for example, a little bit of air comes out when you insert the needle to get the reading. It means you have changed it. In order to observe/see something in the first place, light has to hit the particle again meaning it is changed. Once you have observed something, it has technically changed. This is not a discussion about physics, I think from the above you probably already have an idea where I am heading with all of this. First, however, let's look at the observer effect in terms of psychology.

The observer effect in psychology

Also known as the Hawthorne effect, the name is based on an initial study that took place at the Hawthorne Works in Cicero Illinois. It was named the Hawthorne effect in 1958 after Henry A. Landsberger who studied experiments that took place between 1924 and 1932 at the Hawthorne Works. During this time, the company had commissioned a study to see what levels of light would do for a worker's productivity. A change was noticed during the study, yet seemed to go back down again once the study had finished. It was thought that they showed a higher rate of productivity as they were more motivated knowing they were being watched and studied. Other further studies go on to question this however this is not something this article is going to debate. Just the mere concept of a person changing their behaviour knowing they are being watched is the main point here. I know myself, when I know I am being watched I too act differently. I always like to compare to sitting at a computer and having someone standing behind you. Suddenly you feel pressure or you feel like the spotlight is on you. You get nervous and feel like you have to 'perform'. I personally then tend to make mistakes I would not normally make. If I am doing a video, I change the way I talk (unknowingly) because subconsciously I know that I am being watched. What could this mean for the spirit world? Would a spirit act differently if they knew they are being watched?

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What could all of this potentially mean for paranormal phenomena?

So there are a few questions bouncing around in my little brain here and they are just that, they are questions. I don't have the answers of course, but I feel it is important that we discuss and even ponder different things as it can help direct us a certain way when it comes to our paranormal research. So the first thing I want to look at is equipment

In physics, we now know that measuring a phenomenon can't happen without changing it (granted it is at a quantum level which is very small). When I apply this to paranormal investigating for example there are a few things we have to look at here. We go into an investigation to measure temperature fluctuations, yet to do so we need to enter the room. The act of opening a door and walking in automatically changes the environment within a room. Depending on how many people have entered the room, could even cause the temperature to rise. If I apply this to measuring EMF or static electricity - things that are quite popular at the moment, just our physical presence can produce these readings. Of course we do have to wonder, is our presence the key to making things happen?

I don't mean in the sense that a person is faking something or even unknowingly projecting activity, but more so our own energy force, our body heat and our general presence. Is that what is needed for paranormal activity to occur? We talk about things like the Stonetape theory where certain events are 'recorded' in our surroundings. When the conditions are just right, it is thought this event then replays in a sort of residual playback. Is one of the keys to unlocking this residual energy our presence? In order to see something in the first place, light has to hit a particle. If we don't see something, how do we know it has happened? I guess this is what a lot of paranormal research aims to look at, doesn't it? While we can't see a spirit, we tend to think that a cold spot means it is around us or that the levels of EMF increase. While we cannot physically see it, the environment around us changing and that is what we as investigators are measuring. The hard part is trying to determine if these changes within the environment would have occurred if we were not there.

When we approach it from a psychology aspect, whether studies prove it or not, I believe that people change when they know they are being observed. For some it is quite noticeable, for others it may be subtle. Let's talk for a moment in the sense that a spirit is often described as a person who was once living and has passed away. You go to a particular location and try to communicate with these spirits. If they are intelligent and sentient like many people believe, they would be aware when people suddenly walk into their environment with gadgets in their hands just sitting around watching, waiting and calling out for someone to answer. I suppose it could go a few different ways. Maybe they are angry and want people to leave so they make themselves known in an attempt to 'scare away' the people there. Maybe they retreat and hide - much like in Beetlejuice where the Maitlands would run and hide up in their attic just wanting to be left alone and not used to 'put on a show' for the guests in the house. What if they see it as an opportunity for communication? Maybe nothing in the past has really occurred in this location but if they see people in their house trying to talk they see this as their moment to be noticed. I have often heard from many people and even experienced myself when going to a location that seems to be quiet with little to no phenomena occurring. After several visits, activity seems to increase. Some people believe it is because you have to build a relationship. Others believe it is because a spirit has to 'learn' how to use equipment. A lot of the apparently spirits people are communicating with are from times when we didn't even have a TV so how would they know what a K2 or a spirit box is. A lot of paranormal investigators themselves don't know how to use this equipment properly so it is safe to say a spirit wouldn't know either. The question is, would these spirits be trying to get attention if we weren't there?

There is so much about the paranormal that we don't understand, and more than ever there are more people out there looking for answers. It is more accessible than ever before. I often see reports that accounts of reported paranormal activities are a lot higher than in the past. Is it because we have social media now and it is easier to get the word out or is it because more people are out there looking? Are we the missing link needed? By us just being there, we are in all sorts of ways changing things. How this affects paranormal activity is yet to be seen. How could find out? The best way I can personally think of would-be data logging. Even though it is equipment that will have an effect on the environment, you are getting readings on a building when you are not inside. Compare results to when you are in the building VS not. If you can, leave it running for days and keep a log of people entering and exiting. Static cameras are good as well. You know it is entirely possible to investigate a building without actually being inside. It may not be as exciting as being there in person, but it may tell you a lot about what is happening and more so what the effect of our own physical presence really is!

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  • Christopher Lizotte 3 years ago

    I have always imagined paranormal phenomenon as worthy a level of skepticism that filters it from any serious discussion in my life or relationships. I have a few life experiences that are truly unbelievable. I am sure they are not "paranormal." If my observations are true, and I believe them to be, I'd love to share them with someone in the community, specifically someone with physics credentials willing to entertain some startling observations about reality that are far more commonplace, I believe, than are discussed currently in the scientific community. Design of experiments will reveal that which I can clearly state.
    Chris Lizotte