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Why We Believe in the Supernatural, but Shouldn’t

Why we fall prey to fortune tellers, psychics, and hucksters.

Do you believe in the paranormal?

As a research psychologist, I am trained to be skeptical. As much as I might like to believe in supernatural phenomena, I know that research doesn’t support the existence of mental telepathy (mind reading), clairvoyance (predicting the future), telekinesis (moving things with your mind), or ghosts. Often, what we believe is supernatural is actually caused by natural phenomena. (See my posts on “everyday mind reading” and “intuition.")

I’m not here to tell you what you should believe in—some of my friends and family members believe in ghosts, astrology, and fortune-telling—but it does concern me when people ignore natural, often-psychological explanations for happenings and immediately believe they are supernatural. Even worse, it is our desire to believe in the supernatural that can make us victims of charlatans and con artists, and we need to be able to defend ourselves.

So, if science tells us that supernatural phenomena are not real, why do people still believe in them? Part of the reason is due to cognitive biases that fool us into believing that we have solid evidence for the paranormal.

Hindsight Bias. Have you ever had a premonition that something was going to happen? Say that a family member was sick. Then, a day or two later, you find out that your father has come down with pneumonia. You tell yourself, “I knew it all along!” Is this evidence that you have clairvoyance, or is it simply hindsight bias? Hindsight bias is the human tendency to believe that we knew something was going to happen, but only after hearing about the event’s occurrence. Hindsight bias makes us think that we (or others) can actually tell the future.

Confirmation Bias. Have you ever gone to a fortune teller or seen a show featuring a mind reader? They seem to have some supernatural ability to know us, and our future. The fortune-teller, for example, tells you that you will meet a “tall, dark stranger,” and a few days later someone meeting that description waltzes into your life. The reality is that confirmation bias makes us believe in fortune-telling because of confirmation bias—our tendency to look for information that confirms initial beliefs (e.g., meeting the stranger), and to ignore disconfirming evidence (e.g., all of the other people we met who don’t fit the description).

Confirmation bias may also lead us to believe that we have psychic powers as things that we predict will happen, actually happen—but we ignore and/or tend to forget all the times we predict an outcome that doesn’t occur.

Correlation and Causality. This is a bias that occurs when events that are actually unrelated occur together. Our bias tends to make a causal connection, believing that one thing actually caused the other. For example, we read an astrological forecast that foretells that we will have a difficult few days ahead, and then bad things happen to us. We see the two as connected, even though they aren't, and it strengthens our belief in astrology.

In actuality, these biases work hand-in-hand to lead us to believe in supernatural phenomena, even though systematic research suggests that these forces don’t really exist.

Is the belief in the supernatural dangerous? In most instances, not at all. However, when unscrupulous characters try to trick us, telling us that they have some power to predict the future or protect us from harm, and then offering to provide supernatural services for a hefty fee, then we need to be on our guard. In these cases, healthy skepticism is called for.

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