Several psychologists have studied why and how people believe in different things. In popular science, Michael Shermer, psychologist and the founder of The Skeptics Society, has written several books on this topic, such as The Believing Brain and Why People Believe in Weird Things. As another example, psychologist Bruce Hood is the author of the book SuperSense.
Sometime ago, I discovered a field called Anomalistic Psychology. Psychologist Christopher French is the founder and director of Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. According to French, anomalistic psychology
attempts to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of know (or knowable) physical and psychological factors. It is direct at understanding bizarre experiences that many people have, without assuming that there is anything paranormal involved.With Anna Stone, professor of anomalistic psychology and critical thinking, French authored the interesting book Anomalistic Psychology. The book presents a comprehensive overview of anomalistic psychology research. For example, Chapter 2 presents research regarding individual differences associated with paranormal beliefs, such as age, gender, socio-economical status, etc.
I always remember that there are people that insist that there are scientific evidence for the existence of paranormal (ghosts, communication with the dead, extrasensorial perceptial, etc). However, French and Stone are very clear in the following quote from the book:
It is possible of course that some people believe in the paranormal because paronormal forces really do exist and these people have had direct personal experience of them. This a possibility that has been taken seriously by many of the finest intellects of the history of science and a consideral amount of time and effort has been spent in trying to prove that paranormal forces really do exist. After well over a century of serious scientific research investigating this possibility, however, the wider scientific community remains unconvinced by the evidence produced to date. Chapter 10 of this book will present an overview of parapsychology that will conclude that although some current approaches appear to at least merit further reaserch, the wider scientific community is fully justified in its scepticism.Considering the evidence from controlled tests of spirit mediums, the authors say that many studies have been done asking the medium to give a reading for different sitters, and then asking each sitter to select the reading that best apply to them. According to the authors, results shows that sitters cannot select the readings that apply to them correctly, offering no support for the survival hypothesis (the possibility of some aspect of consciouness survives death).
The book is very comprehensive, exploring several topics related to paranormal beliefs or experiences. Besides what I've described, some examples of what is covered in the book:
- childhood beliefs;
- near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences;
- cognitive bias and memory bias;
- cold reading;
- pattern recognition in random data;
- alien contact claims;
- scientific status of parapsychology.
I predict that anyone interested in the psychology of belief, as I am, will consider the book very interesting and a must read.