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The Psychology of the Paranormal, by David Groome, Michael Eysenck and Robin Law

Cover of The Psychology of the Paranormal
Publication Details: 
Routledge, ISBN 9781138307889
Publish date: 
April, 2019

The Psychology of the Paranormal is included in The Psychology of Everything — “a series of books which debunk the myths and pseudo-science surrounding some of life’s biggest questions … each book is written by an expert in the field.” However, none of the authors are known as experts in parapsychology or anomalistic psychology. That said, David Groome co-edited Parapsychology: The Science of Unusual Experience in 2017. His two co-authors, Michael Eysenck (the son of Hans Eysenck) and Robin Law, contributed to that anthology. The Psychology of the Paranormal concerns astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), mediums, alien abduction experiences, religious beliefs, and attempts to explain paranormal beliefs. Religious beliefs are said to resemble paranormal beliefs “... in certain respects, mainly in that they are based on personal experience and faith rather than upon scientific evidence.” According to the authors important life decisions are for many people influenced by their paranormal beliefs.

The chapter about astrology, by Groome, need not concern us here. However, the famous prediction by Jeane Dixon of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is mentioned in passing and dismissed as a lucky guess — bound to occur given the number of predictions Dixon made (see Ebon, 1968). Swann (2018) also highlighted this prediction. Vaughan (1973) found that the actual prediction differed from the prediction published in Ruth Montgomery’s (1965) A Gift of Prophecy: The Phenomenal Jeane Dixon. Vaughan reported that the real prediction read: “As for the 1960 election, Mrs. Dixon thinks it will be dominated by labor and won by a Democrat. But he will be assassinated or die in office ’though not necessarily in his first term’” (p. 11).

The chapter about ESP is written by Eysenck and Groome. Their section about the card-guessing studies, made popular by Joseph Rhine and his colleagues, in the 1930s and their section about ganzfeld research are about equally misleading. Any parapsychologist could have made the authors aware of this. They note that “... the decisions made by those carrying out a meta-analysis may be influenced by confirmation bias, which means seeking evidence that supports one’s beliefs while ignoring evidence which does not” yet seem oblivious of how their own bias (or lack of knowledge) has influenced their chapter. I urge all who read The Psychology of the Paranormal to attempt to learn the facts themselves by reading both sides of the argument for and against ESP.

… if ESP does exist, then it must be a fairly weak effect, because it seems to exert very little influence over anything in our real everyday lives. For example, if ESP were a real and powerful phenomenon, you would expect that if would by now have been used for some practical purpose such as detecting crime or winning lots of money in a casino. But the police have found that psychics cannot help them and the casinos continue to make profit.

Eysenck and Groome does however not consider any evidence for practical applications of ESP, for example, the associative remote viewing studies (Bierman & Rabeyron, 2013).

The chapter about mediums is written by Groome and Law. Naturally they mention the Fox sisters, who sparked the Spiritualism movement. They think that “... it seems fairly likely that they had indeed faked the whole thing in an effort to gain attention and fame.” Also mentioned are the Davenport brothers, Leonora Piper, and Eusapia Palladino.

In the early days ... the investigator would simply turn up at a séance to observe what he or she was allowed to observe. But, crucially, the séance was arranged and controlled by the medium, who was the main person in charge of the proceedings.

There is some truth to this, but Groome and Law seem to be unaware of the efforts by psychical researchers to control the medium and ensure that he or she could not engage in trickery. Some commentary about the research carried out at the Windbridge Research Center would also have been appropriate. Concerning contemporary psychics and mediums they claim: “The majority of them are probably perfectly honest people who genuinely believe that they possess some psychic power, and they may well be making use of cold-reading techniques without even realising that they are doing so.”

The chapter about alien abduction experiences is written by Groome and Law. They comment “... we must in theory keep an open mind on the occurrence of alien abductions, just as we should keep an open mind on the existence of the Yeti, the unicorn, and Father Christmas.” They claim that “... there is a growing body of evidence that the majority of alien contact or abduction claims are a consequence of fantasy proneness, which may in some cases lead to the creation of false memories.” Groome and Law note that unpleasant experiences of sleep paralysis may contribute to the belief that one has been abducted. However, they acknowledge “... we do not yet have a definitive explanation for these reports [of abduction].”

The chapter about religious beliefs is written by Eysenck. He argues “… that there are major commonalities among the world’s major religions with respect to the psychological factors leading individuals to adhere to them.” Eysenck comment on belief in God, the “spiritual but not religious”, and belief in intelligent design. Eventually, he conclude:

… the research evidence is consistent with the common assumptions that an overwhelming majority of human beings have strong desires to be socially connected with other people, to love and to be loved, to discover that the world is an orderly and non-random place, and to perceive that they can control their environment. These are all basic motives. Individuals whose lives fail to satisfy one or more of these basic motives are more receptive than others to religion.

The final chapter is written by all three authors. They remind the reader that they “... were unable to find any convincing scientific evidence to confirm the occurrence of any of the widely reported paranormal phenomena ... ” and suggest that confirmation bias can help people who hold paranormal beliefs maintain their beliefs.

It seems likely that people who hold on to paranormal beliefs, despite the lack of any supporting evidence, might derive some benefit from holding those beliefs. Perhaps a belief in the paranormal makes people feel that they have more understanding and more control over the events in their lives.

People who believe that they live in haunted houses or experience poltergeist activity are bound to disagree. The authors summarize:

... it has been found that believers in the paranormal are more prone to probability misjudgements, fantasising, false beliefs, finding familiar shapes in random arrays, and relying on intuitive rather than analytic thinking styles … this does not necessarily mean that they are in some way inadequate or flawed individuals.

This is a book that many psychical researchers will find provocative. The book is short (92 pages) and there is no reference list, but the text usually contains enough information for interested readers to find the research the authors refer to. The book is naturally meant to be just introductory. However, this is not a book suitable as course literature. Students are better off reading, for example, the anthology Groome co-edited in 2017, Holt et al. (2012), French and Stone (2014), and Irwin (2009). There is an extensive literature on paranormal and religious beliefs. Unfortunately, The Psychology of the Paranormal, is not a memorable contribution.

References

Bierman, D. J., & Rabeyron, T. (2013). Can psi research sponsor itself? Simulations and results of
   an automated ARV-casino experiment. Proceedings of the 56th Annual Convention of the
   Parapsychological Association
 (pp. 15-24). Columbus, OH: Parapsychological Association.
Ebon, M. (1968). Prophecy in our Time. New York: New American Library.
French, C. C., & Stone, A. (2014). Anomalistic Psychology. New York: Palgrave Mcmillan.
Irwin, H. J. (2009). The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher’s Handbook.
   University of Hertfordshire Press.
Groome, D., & Roberts, R. (Eds.). Parapsychology: The Science of Unusual Experience (2nd Ed,).
   London: Routledge.
Holt, N. J., Simmonds-Moore, C., Luke, D., & French, C. C. (2012). Anomalistic Psychology. New
   York: Palgrave Mcmillan.
Montgomery, R. (1965). A Gift of Prophecy. New York: William Morrow.
Swann, I. (2018). Psychic Literacy and the Coming Psychic Renaissance. Swann-Ryder
   Productions.
Vaughan, A. (1973). Patterns of Prophecy. New York: Hawthorn.