Explaining the Unexplained: Warranting Disbelief in the Paranormal

Peter Lamont
Peter Lamont

For well over a century, psychologists have attempted to understand belief in psychic or paranormal phenomena (e.g. Carpenter, 1873; Jastrow, 1886). In doing so, they have traditionally approached such beliefs as erroneous, and often the product of misattribution of normal (i.e. non-paranormal) experiences. Such experiences have been attributed to malobservation, probability misjudgement, gullibility and wishful thinking, while belief in the paranormal has been associated with low intelligence, marginal social status, inadequate education, and a lack of critical thinking (e.g. Gilovich, 1991; Irwin, 1993; Wiseman and Watt, 2006).

The psychology of terror that has dominated the literature can be seen in the titles of journal articles (which invariably refer to belief in the paranormal rather than belief about the paranormal), of books such as ‘How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life’ (Gilovich, 1991) and ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’ (Shermer, 1997), and of various hypotheses that seek to explain “belief” rather than “disbelief” (for example, the “misattribution hypothesis”, the “cognitive deficit hypothesis”, the “social marginality hypothesis”).

In short, psychologists have typically treated “belief” rather than “disbelief” as problematic, and sought to understand why people believe in the paranormal rather than why people do not.

Given the widespread scepticism among psychologists about the existence of paranormal phenomena, this asymmetry is hardly surprising, but as research in the sociology of scientific knowledge has shown, there is much to be learned from a symmetrical approach to matters of controversy such as the paranormal (e.g. Collins and Pinch, 1982; Pinch, 1979).

This article begins from the position that “disbelief” in relation to the paranormal (commonly referred to as “scepticism”) is itself worthy of study. After all, “disbelief” is not the absence of belief, but a belief position in its own right.

It may be a position that most psychologists regard as normal, unproblematic, even self-evident, but beliefs in paranormal phenomena have been widespread throughout history and in most cultures, and even in the United Kingdom today a majority of people reportedly believe in paranormal phenomena of some sort (Blackmore, 1997; Wiseman and Watt, 2006). In many social situations, therefore, a position of scepticism is not necessarily the norm.

Furthermore, the popular media regularly provide the public with evidence of the paranormal, and alternative “normal” explanations that would undermine such evidence may not be obvious to many people who nevertheless regard themselves as “sceptics”. If they wish to justify their position — for example, in a conversation with colleagues or friends who describe events they that have seen or heard about — this might prove problematic. Thus, from a social psychological perspective at least, articulating such a position may involve some interesting discursive work.

The importance of discourse as an arena in which beliefs about the paranormal are expressed has received little attention. Though studies have shown how talk about the paranormal is designed in a way that attends to the interactional context in which it is produced (e.g. Wooffitt, 1992, 2006; Wooffitt and Allistone, 2005), there has been little consideration given to the rhetorical and constructive nature of avowals of belief relating to the paranormal (Lamont, 2007).

Instead, research on paranormal belief has relied almost exclusively upon the use of questionnaires, and such an approach is not without problems. In addition to the specific criticisms of paranormal belief questionnaires (e.g. Wiseman and Watt, 2006), there are more fundamental issues such as the problem of constitution (Potter and Wetherell, 1987).

For example, participants’ responses to questions about different categories of paranormal phenomena are taken to represent internal mental states, but the questions relate to abstract categories (such as “mind reading”) rather than to specific events, and participants’ responses may not reflect beliefs about similar “objects of thought” (Lamont, 2007).

One way to provide specific events about which participants might express a view is to show them a pseudo-psychic demonstration, but so far as these have been used in experiments, they have been accompanied by questionnaires about general categories of paranormal phenomena in an attempt to study how paranormal belief might be related to observation and interpretation of specific “paranormal” events (e.g. Hergovich, 2004; Wiseman and Greening, 2005).

Thus, responses to questions about abstract categories are taken to represent ongoing beliefs while responses to questions about the specific demonstration are used to access observational or interpretational differences (relating to the event itself) between “sceptics” and “believers”. This both fails to address the problem of constitution, and raises the question of whether participant responses can be taken as representative not only of beliefs at that time but also of ongoing internal mental states.

This article takes a different approach, by treating participants’ discourse about an ostensibly paranormal event as functional, rather than as descriptive of ongoing internal mental states.

In the present study, we certainly found that participants’ talk included avowals of belief regarding the paranormal. Indeed, one participant reported that “I don’t believe in paranormal activity whatsoever” and, a few minutes later, that “I don’t have strong beliefs against it but I don’t have strong beliefs for it”.

Since both these expressions came from the same participant, within a few minutes of each other, they can hardly be taken as representative of an ongoing internal position. By treating beliefs as positions that are not only expressed but also defended and warranted in social interaction, this paper seeks to identify how individuals “maintain” such positions.

In this sense, belief maintenance is being seen as a social, discursive process, one involving discursive work in order to uphold a social position (which may indeed correlate with an internal cognitive position, but which is nevertheless primarily a social phenomenon) (see Lamont, 2007). To this extent, the present article adopts the theoretical stance exemplified by discursive psychology (Edwards, 2006; Potter, 2003, 2005).

In the extracts that follow, we argue that the function of participants’ talk is primarily that of warranting a position of disbelief (in the paranormal cause of the events they saw) despite the lack of an alternative “normal” explanation.

The particular interactional difficulty identified here can be contrasted with other situations in which individuals might lack explicit knowledge. For example, if someone is asked how a magic trick works, they may respond by saying that they do not know, or they may provide some guesses as to possible methods. In interactional terms, this may be heard as an adequate response provided the speaker is not positioned as having expertise in magic. However, people do not have a stake or interest in denying the reality of magic tricks.

What happens in the cases examined here is that participants position themselves as belonging to a certain category, that is, “a sceptic” or “sceptical” person.

Claiming membership of that category is normatively associated with certain category-properties, such as entitlements and responsibilities (Sacks, 1992). In particular, the context explored here, in which participants are asked to account for potentially paranormal events, is one in which self-ascriptions of the “sceptic” label can be seen to carry a responsibility to provide non-paranormal explanations for events that might otherwise be construed as paranormal.

The interactional problem they face is how they are to justify a position in which they reject these events as paranormal in the absence of a non-paranormal explanation.

As we shall see, participants do not merely attribute the events to trickery, or offer some guesses as to possible methods, but rather employ a number of discursive strategies to justify their position.

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