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Why Certain People See Ghosts While Others Don't

Personality, cognitive style, and personal background all play a role.

Key points

  • Believing in paranormal phenomena is a critical first step in seeing ghosts or having similar paranormal encounters.
  • Your personality and your "cognitive style" are good predictors of embracing paranormal beliefs.
  • Your religious background may influence the nature of the ghosts you see.
Motortortion Films/Shutterstock
Source: Motortortion Films/Shutterstock

There is evidence that human beings may be evolutionarily predisposed to see ghosts and other paranormal presences, and if you have ever seen one yourself, you have something in common with 18% of Americans.

While any of us might see a ghost given the right circumstances, it is clear that some people are more prone to seeing them than others. In this post, I will explore what makes us susceptible to paranormal encounters.

It Helps If You Believe That Paranormal Experiences Are Possible

In the words of sociologist Christopher Bader, “The first requirement for there being a ghost in the house is someone believing there’s a ghost in the house.” Our perception of what is going on around us at any given moment is driven by our expectations, needs, and beliefs, and this is especially true when the sensory information we are receiving is sketchy and ambiguous. When it is uncertain if a threat is present in our immediate environment, we tend to err on the side of caution and get “creeped out.” This response puts us on heightened alert, triggering the top-down processing that may reinforce our belief in the paranormal and cause us to see ghosts. A study published in 2013 confirms that experiences of supernatural phenomena are most likely to occur in threatening or ambiguous environments.

So, individuals who believe in ghosts and other paranormal beings may resolve ambiguous stimuli such as cold spots and creaky sounds in an old house as the work of sinister paranormal forces, whereas unbelievers are likely to search for more mundane causes.

And given the prevalence of paranormal beliefs in the general population, it is not surprising that so many people end up seeing ghosts. Gallup Polls in 2001 and 2005 revealed that about 75% of Americans hold at least one paranormal belief, and that about 50% embrace enough of them to be described as “believers.”

The most common tool employed by psychologists to measure paranormal beliefs is the “Revised Paranormal Belief Scale” published by Jerome Tobacyk. Tobacyk’s scale measures six categories of paranormal belief as well as traditional religious belief. The paranormal categories include the following:

  • Precognition (being able to foresee the future).
  • Extraordinary Life Forms (believing in aliens, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.).
  • Spiritualism (communication with the dead).
  • Superstition (astrology, the number 13 is unlucky, etc.).
  • Witchcraft (a belief in “black magic”).
  • Psi (a belief in psychokinesis, mindreading, etc.).

Using Tobacyk’s scale and other similar measures, researchers have discovered that people who believe in the paranormal are more likely to embrace conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. It also appears that women are more likely than men to endorse paranormal beliefs, with the peculiar exception of men being more likely to believe in aliens and other extraordinary life forms such as the Loch Ness Monster. A history of childhood trauma has also been linked to paranormal beliefs.

Cognitive Style Can Predict Paranormal Beliefs

It turns out that one’s “cognitive style” can be a predictor of paranormal beliefs. Cognitive style is not the same thing as intelligence. Highly intelligent people can differ from each other when it comes to their preferred style for solving problems and deciding what is true and what is not. There have been many different models for understanding cognitive style, some of which are quite complicated. Perhaps the best known of these is based on the theories of Carl Jung, and it provides the basis for the popular Myers-Briggs Type Inventory which classifies people according to 16 different cognitive styles.

For the purposes of this post, the cognitive style difference that matters most is that between individuals who typically employ an intuitive as opposed to an analytic approach to understanding the world around them. Those with an intuitive cognitive style tend to “go with their gut.” They reach solutions to problems quickly and trust their feelings and instincts to guide them to the truth. Those with an analytic cognitive style, on the other hand, proceed more slowly and methodically. They rely heavily on empirical information and try to avoid being too strongly influenced by emotions and intuition.

Both cognitive styles can be effective, but several studies have indicated that having an intuitive cognitive style makes you more likely to endorse paranormal beliefs.

Your Personality Also Predicts Paranormal Beliefs

It would not be surprising if at least some personality traits predict how comfortable you are with paranormal beliefs, and many studies have confirmed that this is indeed the case. Specifically, individuals who score high on openness to experience, extraversion, or sensation-seeking are more likely to endorse paranormal beliefs than people who score lower on these traits. People who do not describe themselves as “industrious” are also more likely to hold such beliefs.

A recent experiment I completed with two of my students demonstrated that how comfortable one is with ambiguity predicts how easily one gets creeped out. Individuals who are intolerant of ambiguity like clarity and are quite uncomfortable with uncertainty. They are equally uncomfortable with uncertainty about the present and with uncertainty about the future, and in our study they expressed greater unease when viewing ambiguous or creepy images. Although we did not directly ask our participants if they believed in ghosts or had ever seen one, I am confident that it is probably true that people who are most easily creeped out are also most likely to “see” ghosts.

Your Religious Background Matters

Almost every religion offers an explanation for what happens to us after we die, with the assurance that death isn’t the end. And there is, in fact, evidence that very religious people don’t fear death as much as others.

But there’s a catch.

Religion’s talent for easing our anxiety about death may have the perverse effect of increasing the likelihood that we’ll be on edge about ghosts, spirits and other supernatural beings while we are alive. This, however, may depend upon how religious you actually are.

All of the available evidence suggests that those who describe themselves as believers—but who don’t attend church regularly—are twice as likely to believe in ghosts than those at the two extremes of religious belief: nonbelievers and the deeply devout.

With most religions populated by an impressive cadre of prophets, gods, spirits, angels, and miracles, the tenets of religious faith might shape what you see. They could determine whether a visitor from the spirit world is a welcome or unwelcome guest, while also influencing whom you think you’re meeting.

Seeing Ghosts Is a Product of Brain Chemistry

About 50% of individuals with Parkinson’s disease report that hallucinations are one of the symptoms they experience, and these hallucinations sometimes appear in the form of ghosts or other supernatural beings. Exciting recent work from the lab of neuroscientist Olaf Blanke reveals that a disruption of communication between the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain may be responsible for the hallucinations of Parkinson’s patients, and Blanke and his colleagues have also discovered that they could induce an experience of a presence or apparition in many epileptic patients by stimulating the border area between the temporal and parietal lobes.

Thus, it appears that seeing a ghost can be very much a psychological experience rooted in biological events. It is believed that the hallucinations frequently reported by high-altitude mountaineers, polar explorers, and solitary sailors can be traced to changes in brain chemistry triggered by factors such as hypothermia, low oxygen levels, and social isolation.

In summary, those of us who see ghosts likely believe in the paranormal, or are at least open to its possibility. And if you possess just the right combination of personality traits, cognitive styles, and religious beliefs, a spooky environment may prove to be the final ingredient for a chilling encounter.

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