The psychology of paranormal belief

LiveScience and MSNBC report on a topic that has long fascinated me – human beings’ inclination to believe in the paranormal:

In a 2006 study, researchers found a surprising number of college students believe in psychics, witches, telepathy, channeling and a host of other questionable ideas. A full 40 percent said they believe houses can be haunted.

Why are people so eager to accept flimsy and fabricated evidence in support of unlikely and even outlandish creatures and ideas? Why is the paranormal realm, from psychic predictions to UFO sightings, so alluring to so many?

Since people have been people, experts figure, they have believed in the supernatural, from gods to ghosts and now every sort of monster in between.

“While it is difficult to know for certain, the tendency to believe in the paranormal appears to be there from the beginning,” explained Christopher Bader, a Baylor sociologist and colleague of Mencken. “What changes is the content of the paranormal. For example, very few people believe in faeries and elves these days. But as belief in faeries faded, other beliefs, such as belief in UFOs, emerged to take their place.”

Figuring out why people are this way is a little trickier.

“It is an artifact of our brain’s desire to find cause and effect,” Cronk, the psychology professor, said in an email interview. “That ability to predict the future is what makes humans ‘smart’ but it also has side effects like superstitions [and] belief in the paranormal.”

“Humans first started believing in the supernatural because they were trying to understand things they couldn’t explain,” says Benjamin Radford, a book author, paranormal investigator and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “It’s basically the same process as mythology: At one point people didn’t understand why the sun rose and set each day, so they suggested that a chariot pulled the sun across the heavens.”

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