The Emotions of Paranormal Belief

This is the second in a series of four blog posts on science and the “paranormal.” Happy Halloween!

Belief in the paranormal may have more to do with a person’s emotional state than what goes bump in the night. Recently, a research team from the United States, lead by Jennifer Whitson, conducted three experiments to investigate the relationships between uncertain emotions and belief in the paranormal. Specifically, the team hypothesized that experiencing uncertain emotions would lead to compensatory control processes (i.e. the identification of patterns whether they exist or not).

They first conducted a pretest to determine if certain or uncertain emotions were psychologically experienced as certainty or uncertainty. The team recruited 251 online participants (51 percent were female with an average age of 33 years) from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk). Participants were randomly assigned to one of eight emotion categories from happiness and contentment to worry and fear and asked to, “Please recall a particular incident in which you were very [emotion]. What made you feel [emotion]? Recall this situation as vividly as you can. Please describe this situation in which you were [emotion] — what happened, how you felt, etc.”

They were then asked to what degree they felt definite, uncertain, and insecure on a scale from one (not at all) to seven (very much). The results confirmed that certain or uncertain emotions were psychologically experienced as certainty or uncertainty. A second pretest was conducted to ensure that participants were experiencing the emotion they were asked to recall:

We assigned participants to recall one of the eight emotions from the pretest and then asked them “How much did the event or experience you wrote about make you feel the following emotion” from 1 = not at all to 5 = very much, such that participants who recalled an angry experience reported how much anger they felt, participants who recalled a happy experience reported how much happiness they felt, etc.

The results of the second pretest showed that participants did feel the intended emotions upon recall.

Experiment One assessed how willing participants were to defend their government with questions like, “Most policies serve the greater good” and “American society needs to be radically restructured,” answered on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to nine (strongly agree) – this is called the government defense scale. Participants consisted of 98 undergraduate students (61 percent female with an average age of 21 years) who were randomly assigned to one of eight emotional categories – the same categories as the pretest. They also completed the same emotions recall task as in the pretest. The results showed that uncertain emotions led to compensatory control; that is, participants demonstrated greater government defense after recalling uncertain emotions.

Experiment Two investigated conspiracies and the paranormal. The study consisted of 97 undergraduates (62 percent female with an average age of 21 years) randomly assigned to one of eight emotional categories. They also completed the emotions recall task. Next, participants conspiratorial thinking was measured by having them read three ambiguous scenarios about individuals working together to achieve an outcome. They were then asked to determine, on a scale of one (not at all) to seven (a great deal), how connected the individuals’ behaviour in the scenario was to the outcome. This was followed up with 15 questions that measured participants’ belief in the paranormal. The findings of Experiment Two suggest that when uncertain emotions were evoked, conspiracy and paranormal beliefs had significantly greater support than when certain emotions were recalled. Therefore, uncertain emotions resulted in compensatory control in the form of belief in conspiracies and the paranormal.

Experiment Three assessed affirmation and government defense. Like the previous two experiments, participants were randomly assigned to one of eight emotional categories, and they completed the emotions recall task. They were recruited using MTurk and consisted of 161 individuals (53 percent female with an average age of 30 years). Participants then completed three different assessments including the emotions survey. The first assessment was procedure affirmation manipulation where participants ranked a set of six global values according to personal importance. The affirmation group then answered questions about the value most important to them, which allowed them to engage in self-affirmation, and the no-affirmation group answered questions about their least important value, which did not allow them to engage in self-affirmation. The second assessment was the previously mentioned emotions recall task. Finally, participants answered seven questions from the government defense scale and scored them from one (strongly disagree) to nine (strongly agree). The results showed that participants in the uncertain emotion and no-affirmation group exhibited greater government defense (i.e. compensatory control) than participants in the uncertain emotion and self-affirmation group. Consequently, uncertain emotions could produce a desire to obtain a sense of control that might be mitigated through self-affirmation.

“Whether one finds comfort in a strong government, astrological predictions, or vast conspiracies mapping out our fates, all are responses potentially driven by the uncertain seeking predictable structure in our capricious world,” concluded the research team.

Belief in the paranormal may have more to do with a person’s emotional state than what goes bump in the night…but make sure to investigate the bump in the night because the living are far more unpredictable than the dead…unless they are uncertain.

Rodney Steadman 21 October 2014

Works Cited

Whitson J, Galinsky A, & Kay A (2015). The emotional roots of conspiratorial perceptions, system justification, and belief in the paranormal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 89-95 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.09.002

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