Are Paranormal Beliefs a Result of Lazy Thinking?
A new study suggests a correlation observed in the West is culturally mediated.
Posted February 15, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Previous studies have shown that lower cognitive reflection scores correlate with higher paranormal belief but have focused on Westerners.
- A new cross-cultural study reinforced the existence of this correlation among Westerners but did not find it among Japanese.
- This suggests that the influence of analytic thinking on paranormal belief may not be direct but instead mediated by cultural norms.
In their 2021 New York Times bestseller Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein remark that “belief in ghosts, astrology, and extrasensory perception” is associated with lower Cognitive Reflection Test scores, implying that belief in paranormal phenomena may result from failure to engage in an adequate level of analytic thinking. However, a new cross-cultural study published last week in Frontiers in Psychology suggests this is a case of correlation without causation, and that it may be culturally mediated.
The Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT)
The Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) is designed to measure a person’s ability to respond to a problem by rejecting the first (incorrect) answer that springs to mind and then engaging their analytic reasoning skills to find the less obvious—but correct—solution. You’ve probably heard the following question at some point: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” (Frederick, 2005). Like the other questions designed for the CRT, this question is presented in such a way as to make a particular wrong answer very salient—in this case, the answer “10 cents.” It takes an additional step of reflection to realize that this “intuitive” answer can’t be correct and to figure out what the right answer is: “5 cents.”
Studies of CRT Scores vs. Paranormal Beliefs
A 2012 study by Gordon Pennycook et al. showed an inverse correlation between scores on the CRT and belief in paranormal phenomena—a type of belief that is now often included in the larger category of “epistemically suspect beliefs” or “ESBs” (Lobato, Mendoza, Sims, & Chin, 2014).
In discussing the meaning of these findings, Pennycook et al. suggest that analytic thought does not reinforce beliefs that are at odds with the naturalistic worldview and thus that “analytic individuals have decreased levels of supernatural belief because they are more likely to scrutinize ideas, detect such violations, and unbelieve them.” That is, Pennycook et al. suggest that their results are best explained by a direct causal link going from analytic thinking to reduction in paranormal belief.
Last week, however, researchers Yoshimasa Majima, Alexander C. Walker, Martin Harry Turpin, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang (2022) published a series of cross-cultural studies that undertook a similar comparison of cognitive reflection and paranormal belief but produced results that call Pennycook et al.’s explanation into question.
Majima and colleagues were motivated to undertake this work, in part, by the observation that “most studies examining the association between cognitive style and ESBs have been conducted exclusively with WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic; Heinrich et al., 2010) participants.” Indeed, only 10% of the 287 participants in Pennycook et al.’s study were from regions other than North America and Europe, and 100% of their study participants gave English as their primary language. Majima et al. also noted a previous study in which Japanese participants who self-reported having an analytic thinking style were more likely to have paranormal beliefs (Karasawa & Tsukimoto, 2010). Both of these were good reasons to explore the relationship between CRT scores and paranormal beliefs outside the Western and English-speaking worlds.
So, Majima et al. conducted several studies to measure cognitive reflection and paranormal belief in both English-speaking (North American and European) and Japanese-speaking (Japanese) populations. The results for their English-speaking subjects were similar to Pennycook et al.’s: an inverse correlation between CRT scores and paranormal belief. However, when CRT scores and paranormal beliefs among Japanese subjects were compared, no such correlation was found.
What could explain this? Majima et al. suggest that their results could be due to paranormal beliefs’ not violating Japanese cultural norms to the degree that they violate Western ones. It’s certainly true that there is a strong taboo against belief in the paranormal within Western culture, and it seems to be particularly strong among the highly educated.
While more study will be required to discover the precise factors at play in the Western correlation between low CRT scores and belief in the paranormal, given current data, it is important to acknowledge that it may not be cognitive reflection itself that is causing people to reject belief in the paranormal but rather the tendency of those with high CRT scores to be more influenced by the norms of educated, Western society, where such belief is frowned upon and the evidence that supports it (Cardeña, 2018) is rarely discussed.
Cardeña, E. (2018). The experimental evidence for parapsychological phenomena: A review. American Psychologist 73(5): 663-677.
Frederick, S. (2005). Cognitive reflection and decision making. The Journal of Economic Perspectives 19(4): 25-42.
Kahneman, D., Sibony, O., & Sunstein, C. R. (2021). Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. New York: Little, Brown Spark.
Karasawa, K., & Tsukimoto, T. (2010). The effect of information processing style on beliefs toward paranormal phenomena. Journal of Human Environmental Studies 8(1): 1-5.
Lobato, E., Mendoza, J., Sims, V., & Chin, M. (2014). Examining the relationship between conspiracy theories, paranormal beliefs, and pseudoscience acceptance among a university population. Applied Cognitive Psychology 28(5): 617-625.
Majima, Y., Walker, A. C., Turpin, M. H., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2022, February 9). Culture as a moderator of epistemically suspect beliefs. Frontiers in Psychology 13: 745580.
Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Seli, P., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2012). Analytic cognitive style predicts religious and paranormal belief. Cognition 123: 335-346.