Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Priming the paranormal

There's a familiar cliché, that "you see what you are looking for."  It's something that I think we can all relate to; our perception is often limited by what we already thought was there.  That our perceptual/integrative systems are inaccurate we've known for years; experiments have supported the conjecture that when our attention is focused, we can miss major features of what we're seeing.  (If you don't believe it, check out this amazing video -- it's less than two minutes long and will blow your mind.)  Further, when we already have preconceived notions about what we are going to see, we tend to find it whether it actually exists or not (this is the basis of the logical fallacy confirmation bias).

This latter point was the subject of a brilliant little study by Chris Jensen Romer, funded by the Society for Psychical Research, and which was just published this week.  It bounces off (and improves upon) a 1996 study by Houran and Lange, which looked at how individuals who are primed to notice "paranormal occurrences" in their houses mostly... do.

Romer's study, which is outlined in more detail here, involved five couples keeping a diary of "unusual or unexplainable experiences" that occurred in their homes over a one-month period (between October 17 and November 17, 2012).  Here were the instructions that were given to the couples who volunteered:
For the next month, until November 17th, please pay particular attention to any unusual occurrences in your residence. These occurrences may be emotional feelings, physical sensations, or environmental events in your residence. Please keep detailed and accurate notes, even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen. I will need the gender and age of adult occupants, and who had each experience noting. If you have children please do not discuss this with them. I have no desire to upset children! The types of unusual experiences I am interested include but are not limited to
* Visual – seeing things not there
* Audio – hearing stuff with no known cause
*Tactile – the feeling of being touched with no obvious reason
* Olfactory – strange smells
* Sensed “presences”
* Intense emotion for no apparent cause beyond that you might normally experience
* Object movements with no apparent cause
* erratic function of equipment.
Of the five couples involved in the experiment, only one of them reported no experiences of any kind that fell into the categories listed.  The other four couples all reported varying numbers of odd observations; one couple said that these had occurred in the family car, but not in the home, a finding that Romer's analysis excluded as it did not fit the methodology, but which still supports Romer's conclusion quite nicely.  The other three couples all reported a great many goings-on, with one recording 22 overall "unusual experiences" -- just shy of one a day.

What's most interesting about this study is that consistently, the test subjects reported higher and higher frequencies of "unusual experiences" as the month progressed.  Although in my opinion it's still a small data set to draw any kind of rock-solid conclusion upon, the relationship looks linear -- the number of weird things you notice seems to be directly proportional to the amount of time you've spent looking for them.  This, Romer concludes, "... may simply show the priming effect of participating in the experiment.  There is no reason to think the participants would have thought very much if at all about what occurred, let alone ascribed it to spooks, if they had not been participating in the diary study."  It's evident that these peculiar little events happen all the time, and most of them (rightly) escape our notice; but when we're forced to notice them, we do, and then the ones we notice increase our certainty that "something strange is going on," and the whole thing snowballs.  Romer writes, "... I have no doubt that life is full of tiny anomalies: during the day it has taken me to write up this replication my partner has texted to say she had her sat nav come on while lying on her bedroom floor and make her jump by telling her to “turn right”; I myself thought I saw Cuddles my black cat sitting on top of a cupboard, but on looking again he was not there, and was still sleeping in my bedroom when I returned to the computer."  We only ascribe meaning to them when we're primed to -- when enough of them occur in rapid succession that we're forced to pay them more attention, when we already thought our house was haunted... or when we're asked to notice them and write them down.  After that, positive feedback takes over.

It's the psychological component of our perception that always makes me suspicious of eyewitness accounts.  People act as if we're highly accurate recorders of what we experience, when in reality our attention is selective and our memories highly unreliable.  Odd, then, that eyewitness testimony is considered one of the highest forms of evidence in courts of law, isn't it?  What Romer's study does is to cast further doubt on our ability to discern what constitutes out-of-the-ordinary occurrences -- which makes me even more suspicious of most of the alleged evidence of hauntings.

On the other hand, the whole thing has made me wonder a little about the scraping noise I keep hearing up in the attic.  Wonder if I should investigate?

Nah.  I'm sure it's nothing.


  1. A Reasonable Ghost Story:

    So I'm sitting on the John in my guest bathroom a couple nights ago, when I hear this scratching sound coming from the corner of the ceiling, above the shower. The scratching sound gets louder and louder. "Can't be a mouse, what is that?" I say to myself. As I finish the muttered sentence, a black, wispy ooze starts to flow out of the corner, forming and growing into a black blob. The blob coalesces and begins to take a humanoid shape. I'm dumbfounded, unable to move. The blob coalesces further. Long, stringy black hair and a corpse-ish looking face, with eyes like black onyx, materializes in front of me. I can't blink. I can't move. It stares at me for a brief moment, then punches me in the face (which hurt, but not a knockout punch... kinda wimpy actually).
    "Call your mother more often!" The apparition exclaims.
    I pause, in shock, then regain my senses. "Please let me get up off the toilet! I don't want to die this way!"
    The apparition's menacing face changes.
    "Oh, well, yeah, sure." The apparition backs away and I stand up, pulling up my pants and buttoning them. An awkward moment ensues.
    "So, you're a ghost?"
    "YES! I will kill you!!!"
    "Why would you do that?"
    "This is my house! You can't have it!"
    "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know. We're just renting anyways. We were actually looking to purchase a home in the Arcade area."
    "Arcade area?" The apparition replies. "No no. That area might look nice, but it's got a bad crime rate. I'd check out some of the downtown homes. They've got more curb appeal and equity."
    "Oh... well... Thanks for the tip." I say, in a state of bewildered amusement. "Hey, so... if you're a ghost, you used to be a person?"
    "Yes. Name's John Smith."
    "It's a pleasure, John Smith. So who were you in your former life?"
    "I was a tax preparer for Jackson Hewitt until I got prostate cancer and passed 15 years ago."
    "My condolences."
    "Thank you."
    "Hey, you know taxes. I was filling out my Turbo-Tax online and when it got to the part about the 1099-G it says that if I have anything in that area that I have to include it on my tax form. I have state taxes from the prior year, but the list of possibilities doesn't include state tax. What am I doing wrong?"
    "Silly! You don't have to include prior state taxes from the 1099-G. Just leave it blank."
    "Oh, okay. Thanks for the tip! ...So... are you going to be haunting us from now on?"
    "Nah. You said you were looking to move anyhow, and you seem like a nice guy."

    *poof* John Smith vanishes into thin air.

    "Hey, wait, I didn't get to say goodbye!"

    I never saw John Smith again.

  2. The Tax ghost. Might be the most boring ghost story ever. Well done.

    I think that it's all about perception when it comes to the unknown. Think about how a scary a strange noise is when you're alone at night compared to any other time when you probably wouldn't even notice it. Add a scary movie or someone telling you the house is haunted and imagination takes over. Watching ghost investigation shows from the safety of my living room makes the investigators look laughable, but I'd be freaking out over every noise and shadow if I were there.

    I remember my Dad telling me that when he walked out of the theater after seeing Jaws he was afraid to step in a puddle. So maybe Dad tends to exaggerate a bit, but you get the idea.

  3. You never hear a ghost story where the "victim" says something like: "I can't believe it?!?! I saw what looked like a ghost in my backyard last night and today all of my lemons were picked and sitting in a basket on my porch! Thanks, ghost!"

    You're right on. Why is it that ghosts only exist in the realm of the scary? Where are all of the mundane or helpful ghost stories?

  4. I'm guessing they are with all the mundane and helpful news stories. On the cutting room floor.