The desire for the magical and supernatural seems deeply ingrained in the human psyche. As seen in the great fantasy worlds such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, people seem naturally interested in a world beyond the mundane. This interest, however, may affect people’s judgment. Psychologists Christine Mohr (University of Lausanne, Switzerland) and colleagues investigated whether they could prime people to believe in the paranormal. They found that people primed to believe in the paranormal were more likely to think they could predict random numbers than those who had not been primed.
The researchers note that, contrary to popular understanding, belief in the magical and paranormal remains strong well into adulthood. While it is true that children have a greater difficulty distinguishing between reality and imagination than adults, adults across various nations continue to believe in the paranormal. For instance, in the United States, only 10% of Americans would say they have a skeptical stance towards the paranormal. Even in Europe, 90% of the Swiss report having supramundane experiences and likewise for the majority of Germans. It would appear, then, that not just children but also adults are susceptible to being primed to believe in the paranormal.
To assess the impact of paranormal priming on the interpretation of events, the researchers invited a magician to perform live in front of a psychology class. Before the actual performance, a lecturer – one of the researchers – discussed the science of magic. He then made the following announcement regarding the upcoming performer:
As you will be aware, the Anomalistic Psychology Unit at Goldsmith has a keen interest in investigating psychic abilities. Over the years we have carried out numerous experiments to test whether the claims made by psychics hold up on closer scrutiny. Whilst most of the individuals tested so far generally fail these tests, we were very fortunate in that we did find one person who passed most of the preliminarily tests (8/10). His name is Lee and whilst not perfect, his performance was significantly better than chance. Lee has told us that he has been developing a presentation of his psychic abilities, and has asked us if he could present it to you and get your opinions and reactions. I thought that this would be very interesting, and so I agreed to let him do it.
After that, with every attendee at least one seat away from every other attendee, each attendee opened a booklet. Some of the booklets described the performer as a “magician,” while others said he was a genuine “psychic” whose abilities were highly regarded and have astonished famous scientists.
All the participants then completed a series of surveys and played a dice game. The surveys consisted of the revised Paranormal Belief Scale (which can be divided into seven subscales: Traditional Religious Belief, Psi, Witchcraft, Superstition, Spiritualism, Extraordinary Life Forms, and Precognition). Each participant also answered whether they anticipated the upcoming performance to be accomplished through supernatural powers, magician’s trickery, or religious miracles. They also played a dice game in which in every second for 66 seconds the participants had to predict what the role of the die would be.
The performer’s trick consisted of asking for a volunteer from the audience and then having this person write down the names of five people and one deceased person on six separate pieces of paper. The performer then placed each piece of paper underneath a different candle. The volunteer them blew out all six candles, and, much to the audience’s amazement, only the candle with the deceased person’s name underneath it reignited. Finally, the participants once again filled out the surveys and played the dice game.
As expected, those who were told that the performer had real supernatural power were more likely to attribute his performance to the supernatural rather than to mere trickery or the miraculous. This occurred for even the survey they completed before witnessing the actual performance. Not surprisingly, those who had been primed to believe in the supernatural also produced fewer repetitions when trying to predict the number on the die, indicating that they believed they had real insight into the future.
The researchers draw three conclusions. First, that the contextualizing or framing of an event affects how people interpret that event (at least at the verbal level). Second, the same paranormal framing can exploit cognitive biases, as seen in the results of the dice games. Third, cognitive biases are flexible and persist well into adulthood. It appears, then, that everyone – even you – should be aware of cognitive biases!
For more, see “Priming psychic and conjuring abilities of a magic demonstration influences event interpretation and random number generation biases” in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.