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Do Paranormal Beliefs Indicate Poor Mental Health?

New data support the normality, and adaptability, of paranormal beliefs.

Key points

  • People have a stereotype that people who believe in the paranormal are to some degree mentally unstable.
  • Belief in paranormality may be adaptive and protective for some people.
  • New data suggests that believing in paranormal themes does not necessarily indicate psychopathology.

Most of us have had the experience of talking to a family member about apparently strange beliefs that they hold. The existence of ghosts or the supernatural often feature among these beliefs, and many people attribute a degree of abnormality or naivety to such beliefs.

However, little empirical attention has been paid to whether those who believe in paranormal phenomena actually experience the world differently in terms of their mental health and functioning. That is, until recently.

Cederic Venenberghe // Unsplash
Paranormal experiences have a sort of mysticism about them, but what do they tell us about believers' mental wellbeing?
Source: Cederic Venenberghe // Unsplash

Dr. Neil Dagnall, a reader in applied cognitive psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, has been studying paranormal beliefs for some time. In his latest work, attention was paid to psychopathology and its associations with beliefs in the paranormal. Dagnall and his colleagues were particularly interested in identifying whether such beliefs actually indicate maladaptive psychological profiles. When asked, he said:

"The paper examines the incorrect assumption that belief in the paranormal is directly associated with poor psychology functioning/adjustment. Historically, there was some evidence to support this notion; however, it was inconsistent and unconvincing. When you consider that a significant proportion of the general (non-clinical) population believe in some aspect of the paranormal and/or report supernatural experiences, this assumption is counterintuitive—clearly most believers/experiencers possess no significant psychological issues."

Profiles of Paranormality and Mental Functioning

They set to work surveying almost 4,500 British citizens on their beliefs in the paranormal, their mental health, and their general sense of wellbeing. The researchers then analyzed the data using a latent profile analysis, which clusters individuals within a dataset based upon the trends in responses they give to survey questions. Four subgroups were identified:

  1. High levels of both paranormal beliefs and psychopathology (around 16 percent of the sample)
  2. High levels of paranormal beliefs and unusual experiences with more moderate levels of psychopathology (around 19 percent of the sample)
  3. Moderate levels of both paranormal beliefs and psychopathology (around 20 percent of the sample)
  4. Low levels of both paranormal beliefs and psychopathology (around 46 percent of the sample)

Looking in more depth at these profiles, Dagnall and colleagues found that members of the first profile exhibited far worse mental wellbeing—scoring lower on measures of life satisfaction, and higher on measures of perceived stress and indicators of physical ill-health—than those in the other profile groups. However, those who exhibited moderate levels of belief in paranormality were just as mentally well as those who experienced these beliefs to a much lesser degree.

Speaking of these data, Dagnall said:

"Paranormality (belief/experience) is a common feature of the human condition, and not something to be disregarded. Regardless of whether the paranormal exists or not, beliefs and experiences are an important area to study because they often have a profound influence on individuals."

This profound influence might even be protective against mental ill-health, as some of Dagnall's other work suggests. That is, paranormal beliefs might act as a lens through which people make sense of their experiences, and find comfort in those circumstances within which they find themselves. The functional belief in paranormality is something that the research team is interested in exploring further.

"Beliefs clearly must fulfil some adaptive function(s) otherwise they would not persist. It would be interesting to further explore the conditions under which beliefs are adaptive, non-adaptive, and benign," Dagnall told me when thinking about this possibility.

In all, data such as these highlight how our common sense beliefs about social phenomena, and the people who experience them, can be wildly incorrect. Not only this, stereotypes about people such as those who believe in the paranormal are often negative and stigmatizing. This is a shame, especially when such beliefs may be protective against mental anguish for some people. This is why research into these topics is important. In closing, Dr. Dagnall stressed this point:

"The study of topics such as these is vitally important because the endorsement of scientifically unsubstantiated beliefs persists within contemporary societies. In this context, it is unfortunate that research into paranormal belief (given its clear importance) is often trivialised, marginalised, and demised."

The research has been published in Frontiers in Psychology.

References

Dagnall, N., Denovan, A., & Drinkwater, K. G. (2022). Variations in well-being as a function of paranormal belief and psychopathological symptoms: A latent profile analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.886369

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