Pareidolia Killed the Paranormal Star

This is the last in a series of four blog posts on science and the “paranormal.” I hope you enjoyed the series and please let me know if you have any thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

No self-respecting paranormal investigator would enter a haunted location without an audio recorder to record electronic voice phenomena (EVP). These phenomena are audio recordings of voices where none should be found. They can occur in empty rooms or amongst conversations and are the go-to evidence used as proof of the existence of ghosts, spirits, demons, Beelzebub, Elvis, Aunt Millie, or whoever is the haunter. Paranormal investigators are correct in labeling EVPs as evidence, but it’s not proof of an afterlife. It’s proof of a pareidolia life.

Pareidolia occurs when an individual creates significant meaning from vague information, usually in the form of sound or images (for example, seeing faces in clouds). Researchers Michael Nees and Charlotte Phillips, from Lafayette College in the United States, investigated the effects of paranormal priming on auditory pareidolia. They compared participant perceptions of different types of sounds (voices, actual EVPs, acoustic noise, and distorted voices) after priming.

Twenty-seven undergraduate participants (81 percent female with an average age of 20 years) were randomized into two groups: 15 were in the unprimed condition and told “This is an experimental study of the identification of voices in noisy environments;” and 12 were in the primed condition and told “This is an experimental study of the identification of electronic voice phenomena–purported voices of ghosts in recordings from paranormal research.” Participants then heard one of the recordings repeated once and were asked if they heard a voice “yes” or “no.” If they didn’t hear a voice, they moved on to the next recording. If they did hear a voice, they wrote down what they thought the voice had said. Participants listened to 34 randomized recordings from each of the four recording categories for a total of 136 recordings. After they had completed listening to the audio recordings, participants answered demographic and paranormal belief (1=skepticism to 5=strong paranormal belief) questionnaires.

The results showed that priming had a significant effect on participant responses: participants in the paranormal group answered “yes” to more recordings than the non-primed group. The sounds most responded to were voices, followed by distorted voices, actual EVPs, and then acoustic noises. Furthermore, participants in the paranormal group reported hearing a voice after listening to actual EVPs and distorted voices significantly more frequently than the non-primed group. However, there was considerable disagreement (agreement was found in 0.9 percent of EVP recordings) as to the content of the EVP recordings. Additionally, results of the paranormal belief questionnaire showed that both groups were very skeptical and they did not adhere to paranormal beliefs.

“In our experiment, the mere suggestion of paranormal research topic resulted in a perceptual shift in perception in otherwise skeptical participants.” This was troubling to the researchers because paranormal television programs frequently refer to their pseudoscientific beliefs and techniques as science. Nees and Phillips went on to say, “The perpetuation of misinformation about science in popular culture has harmed public discourse on important topics such as climate change, vaccination programs, and the teaching of science in schools.”

Put simply, shows like these – when taken seriously – make us stupid.

Rodney Steadman 06 November 2014

Works Cited

Nees M, & Phillips C (2014). Auditory Pareidolia: Effects of Contextual Priming on Perceptions of Purportedly Paranormal and Ambiguous Auditory Stimuli. Applied Cognitive Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/acp.3068

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