By Nancy K. Dess, published on September 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
AN EXPERT ON THE PARANORMAL EXPLAINS WHY SOCIETY IS SOSMITTEN WITH SUPERNATURAL PHENOMENA
THE X-FILES, THE OTHERS, GHOSTS OF MARS. EVERY YEAR, TELEVISION SHOWS AND MOVIES FEATURE EXTRATERRESTRIALS, GHOSTS AND MIND READERS. THE PARANORMAL REALM FASCINATES THE PUBLIC—AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENTISTS. WHY THE APPEAL? RAY HYMAN, PH.D., PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF PSYCHOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OREGON, IS AN INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED SCHOLAR ON THIS ENDURING FRONTIER OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE.
Nancy K. Dess [NKD]: When did you get interested in the paranormal?
Ray Hyman [RH]: As a child my hero was Houdini; I did my first magic show for money when I was 7. I gradually added tricks such as palm reading and was bowled over by how people reacted, amazed at my accuracy. In college, a professor bawled me out for taking money [for reading palms] on false pretenses. Then I gave him a reading. Later he called me in again, shut the door, held out his hand and said, "Tell me more." So I became a believer.
NKD: But you're a skeptic now. What happened?
RH: One day a friend said, "Wonder what would happen if you read all the palm lines backward?" I did that with my next customer. She was completely silent, and I thought I'd bombed. No--she was stunned by how accurate I was. That's when I knew it had nothing to do with the lines on the hand. I switched my major to psychology.
NKD: What paranormal phenomenon interests you most?
RH: I'm intrigued by why people believe in all sorts of claims, not whether they're "real." A prevalent one is psychic characters--those who contact the dead and appear on Larry King Live and The New York Times best-seller lists. I give workshops showing how anyone can do what they do. When the situation is set up right, people find meaning. The brain is a meaning-seeking device that finds patterns in the world whether or not they are there.
NKD: So much for human cognition building accurate representations.
RH: Yes. The good news is that inaccuracy has advantages. For instance, compared to depressed people, emotionally healthy people have an unrealistically rosy outlook. We don't always want the truth. I was once filmed for Unsolved Mysteries, explaining why some people believe in hauntings. They didn't use the footage. When I asked why, they reminded me that the show was about unsolved mysteries.
NKD: Even smart people get fooled.
RH: Sure. Even researchers on both sides of the debate over whether paranormal phenomena are real get fooled. The same mind built to extract good information from an ambiguous, overwhelming world can produce errors. Anyone who knows these biases can exploit them.
NKD: Are paranormal beliefs harmless fun?
RH: The argument goes, "What's so bad about thinking someone bends spoons or tells the future?" It's true that people may feel better. But often they believe that they've learned something valuable or that a problem is solved, then base decisions on bad information or put faith in a psychic rather than themselves.
NKD: But what about movies and TV shows? It's just entertainment.
RH: It can be, but exposure can lead to the illusion of truth. Experiments have shown that when people are first shown far-out statements—like "baby is half space alien"—they say "ridiculous." But if those statements are seen again later and mixed in with others, they seem more plausible. The feeling of recognition translates to a feeling that it must be true.
NKD: So how can we sort truths from scams?
RH: It isn't easy. Information pollution is a big problem, especially with the Internet. The key is to be aware that messages and messengers are not always trustworthy and that thinking is fallible. Have fun with extraordinary claims unless they really matter to you, then take them with a large grain of salt.
Nancy K. Dess is a professor of psychology at Occidental College and former senior scientist at the American Psychology Association.