Weird Science

Investigating the psychology of weird experiences

Anomalistic psychology: What is it and why bother?

Why is it worth taking weird experiences and beliefs seriously?

I set up the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, back in the year 2000. If I had a pound for every time since then that I have been asked the question "What exactly is anomalistic psychology?", I would be a very rich man.

Here is the definition on offer on the unit web site:

Anomalistic psychology may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those which are often labeled "paranormal". It is directed towards understanding bizarre experiences that many people have without assuming a priori that there is anything paranormal involved. It entails attempting to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known psychological and physical factors.

Most people are intrigued by the idea of using psychology to try to explain what is commonly (and often misleadingly) referred to as "the unexplained" and are keen to find out more. But a small minority, often those who see themselves as hard-nosed scientists, roll their eyes in disgust at the very idea that anyone should put time and effort into such an enterprise. As far as they are concerned, they can be absolutely sure that all paranormal claims are invalid without even having to look at the evidence put forward. Furthermore, they are sure that all such claims are the product of insanity, stupidity or dishonesty. In fact, the vast majority of such claims come from people who are perfectly sane, intelligent and honest.

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There are a number of very good reasons for taking anomalous experiences seriously. The most obvious of these is the sheer prevalence of such experiences and beliefs. Time after time, opinion polls in the UK and USA show that the majority of the adult population endorses at least one paranormal claim that flies in the face of the conventional scientific worldview. Furthermore, a sizeable minority claim to have had direct personal experience of the paranormal - everything from telepathy, precognitive dreams and psychic healing to seeing ghosts and UFOs. It is not just modern Western adults either. Such high levels of paranormal belief have been found in every single society both geographically and historically although the content of the beliefs and experiences may vary across cultures. Clearly, if psychology has nothing to say about such phenomena, it is missing out on an important part of the human condition.

The prevalence of such beliefs and experiences is often taken as an indication that, in fact, paranormal forces really do exist and the wider scientific community is simply wrong to reject them. However, it can reasonably be argued that the fact that such experiences are common throughout all known societies reflects the fact all human beings share basic similarities in terms of their psychology and underlying neurophysiology. It should be noted, however, that anomalistic psychologists typically do not reject outright the idea that paranormal forces exist. They simply adopt this position as a working hypothesis. The question they continuously ask is: "If paranormal forces do not exist, how might we explain this or that paranormal phenomenon?" I hope to convince you in future blogs that this has proved to be a very fruitful approach. Whether plausible non-paranormal explanations supported by good empirical evidence can be found for the full range of paranormal claims remains to be seen but we can already say with considerable confidence that the vast majority of paranormal and related claims can be so explained.

Anomalistic psychology should not be thought of as opposing parapsychology but as complementing it. To date, the wider scientific community remains unconvinced by the evidence put forward by parapsychologists in support of paranormal claims. But if at some point in the future parapsychologists actually do manage to produce a robust and replicable paranormal effect under well-controlled conditions, anomalistic psychologists will have performed a great service for them. They will have helped them to sort the wheat from the chaff, to distinguish between those phenomena which are genuinely paranormal and those which only look as if they are.

But of course it may turn out that there is nothing but chaff. If that is the case, however, it is pretty interesting chaff! It appears that many ghost sightings are based upon sleep-related hallucinatory experiences. Understanding alien abduction claims and hypnotic past-life regression will almost certainly increase our understanding of false memories. Claims of psychic healing should be examined closely for what they may tell us about placebo effects and the power of suggestion. These are just a few examples of the ways in which anomalistic psychology can provide insights that are not only fascinating in their own right but have relevance well beyond the world of the paranormal.

Chris French is a Professor of Psychology and Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London.

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