Bigfoot and Martians and Ghosts, Oh My!
Eyewitness psychology helps us to understand paranormal beliefs and sightings.
Posted June 19, 2020
In our last Forensic View post, we saw that we can induce perfectly normal people to see nonexistent geography, structures, and even canals on a featureless white disk, provided they think it’s an alien planet. This helps to explain several scientific mysteries, including the last-century “discovery” of non-existent canals on Mars, and it also explains a lot about more prosaic issues in forensic psychology. If the mind can turn a featureless white blob into an inhabited world, it can certainly turn a blond suspect into a memory of a brunette, or one kind of gun into a false memory of another. Granted, the Martian example is more extreme; but we can learn a lot from extremes.
Still, not everybody sees canals on Mars, or mentally turns blond assailants into brunettes in criminal cases. So why do some people see and believe in unreal things, while others don’t?
Here we must turn back to the extremes; and psychology doesn’t get any more extreme than in the world of Bigfoot, space aliens, and ghosts.
Nobody has any hard evidence that these things exist. Granted, there are UFOs, unidentified flying objects. People see lots of flying things in the sky that they can’t identify. I’ve seen many UFOs myself. They’re generally birds. But they still count as unidentified because I don’t know them personally.
But as to the space aliens themselves, and Bigfoot, and the ghosts—unless you’re a true believer in various bits of dirt, hair, and fecal matter, you’re pretty much stuck with eyewitness accounts, and we’ve seen how reliable those can be. We can make you an eyewitness to Martian canals that aren’t even there.
So why do people believe in, and see, Bigfoot, ghosts, and space aliens?
We did a study of this (summarized in Sharps, 2012). We used standard assessments to examine individual differences in those who believed in these things and those who did not, based in part on the following hypotheses:
1. Depressed people would be more likely to believe in space aliens, who might take them to a nicer planet. The depressed should also believe in ghosts, because ghosts are evidence of an afterlife where things might get better. But we didn’t expect the depressed to care about Bigfoot.
2. However, people with tendencies toward attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (just the tendencies, not the full syndrome), probably wouldn’t care about the ghosts. They’d be big on Bigfoot and UFOs, and since you need space aliens to drive the UFOs, they’d believe in them too.
Why did we think this? ADHD is complex, and many people have just a few of the subclinical symptoms, but we have observed, in my lab, that people with these tendencies usually hate to be bored—they frequently enjoy weird, exciting things like Bigfoot in the woods, and they’d like some flying saucers in there, too. Especially with phasers. The coolest thing would be Bigfoot flying the UFO, blazing phasers clutched in each cryptozoological fist. But ghosts—quite frankly, no. Shrieking undead zombies wielding machine guns, sure—but ghosts just don’t make it, not for those with ADHD tendencies.
We tested these ideas with standard instruments, and the results were entirely consistent with the hypotheses—the depressed believed relatively strongly in ghosts and space aliens, those with subclinical tendencies toward ADHD in space aliens and Bigfoot, and there was really no crossover. If this doesn’t demonstrate the genesis of these things in the mind rather than in physical reality, I don’t know what does.
But then there was dissociation.
We’re not talking about the terrible dissociative disorders of the DSM-5. We’re talking about subclinical dissociation, which can make the world seem a bit diffuse and unreal. Dissociation can lead you to daydreams, and to a readier acceptance of the improbable. Everybody probably experiences dissociation from time to time; but some people experience it a lot.
And what we found, again using a standard instrument, was that people who tend toward dissociation believe in everything. Bigfoot, space aliens, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, the 2012 Mayan-calendar End of the World—everything (Sharps, Liao, & Herrera, 2016).
And it gets worse. The dissociated saw these things, too (see Sharps, 2012).
In our experiments, helicopters with landing lights at odd angles became UFOs. Teenagers in rather bad Halloween costumes became Bigfoot. Rumpled cloth in partial lighting became a ghost. And so on—but only for those with elevated levels of dissociation. Everybody else saw aircraft, and teenagers, and cloth.
Dissociation, even at the everyday, subclinical level, doesn’t just predispose you to believe in the unreal. It helps you to see it.
And in our last post, the one about the Canals of Mars, guess who saw the buildings, and the mountains, and the weird colors and the canals on a blank white disk.
That’s right—those with relatively high levels of dissociation. Nothing clinical; these were perfectly normal people who just happen to experience a little more of the dissociation that everybody feels occasionally.
But they see and report things that don’t exist at all.
The importance of this phenomenon for the more practical world of criminal justice is hard to overestimate. In previous posts in The Forensic View, we’ve talked about the normal reconfiguration of eyewitness memory, and the influence of violent stress on our minds. Now we see the importance of individual differences. All of these factors can combine to influence the eyewitness accounts critical to the process of genuine justice for the guilty, and to the lives and freedom of the innocent. Not as much fun as Martians and Bigfoot, true; perhaps not as intellectually satisfying as the study of scientific error; but of infinitely greater importance for the suspects, and the victims, who come to the attention of the criminal justice system.
I hope to deal with these issues specifically, in future posts in The Forensic View.
But in the meantime, we might want to remember:
We can learn a lot from the extremes.
Sharps, M.J. (2017). Processing Under pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement (2nd ed.). Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law.
Sharps, M.J. Liao, S.W., and Herrera, M.R. (2016). Dissociation and Paranormal Beliefs: Toward a Taxonomy of Belief in the Unreal. Skeptical Inquirer, 40, May/June, 40-44.
Sharps, M.J. (2012). Eyewitness to the Paranormal: The Experimental Psychology of the “Unexplained.” Skeptical Inquirer, 36, July/August, 39-43.