Ghostbusters: A psychologist explains why we believe in the paranormal
Should we get Venkman and co. on speed dial?
If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? Probably the police, because neither ghosts nor the Ghostbusters are real. But that doesn’t stop people believing in the paranormal.
A YouGov poll in 2019 found that 45 per cent of Americans believe in ghosts, whereas in 2016 another YouGov poll showed that British people are more likely to have faith in spooky spirits than the existence of God. With the release this month of nostalgic sequel Ghostbusters: Afterlife, there seems no better time to ask: why are we still haunted by our belief in ghosts?
“It tends to be driven by two things,” says Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. “One is personal experience – lots of people claim to have had a paranormal experience after the loss of a loved one.
"The other is popular media. Most experiences aren’t that difficult to rationalise away. With photographs, for example, there used to be many double exposures but not so many today. Those sorts of ghosts have gone away with the arrival of camera phones.”
According to Wiseman, both drivers take advantage of various psychological traits – some of which are universal, while others are specific to certain people. “Humans have open, imaginative minds,” he says. “And we want to imagine a world that doesn’t have pain or suffering, where our loved ones are still with us. We’re pattern-searching creatures. And the price we pay for seeing patterns that are there, is occasionally going into overdrive and seeing patterns that aren’t there.”
- Everything you ever wanted to know about… illusions, magic and the paranormal with Prof Richard Wiseman
More specifically, Wiseman links a belief in ghosts to creativity. In 2013, for example, a study performed at the University of British Columbia concluded that people with a higher tendency to attribute human traits to non-human objects (anthropomorphising) were also more likely to believe in ghosts.
“People who believe in a lot of these things do have the same kind of psychological make-up,” says Wiseman. “They’re open-minded, creative, quite high in ability to be absorbed in a situation like a play or a film, to identify patterns.”
This innate creativity can be taken advantage of, however. A study performed in the 1990s by psychologist Dr James Houran found that people are more likely to believe in the paranormal if they’ve been ‘primed’. This is a psychological term for when the introduction of a stimulus influences a subsequent stimulus, for instance how seasoning changes the taste of a steak.
“He took two groups of people around a disused cinema,” explains Wiseman. “He told one group it was an architectural tour and they experienced nothing anomalous. He told the other it was haunted and, lo and behold, some people in the group started to experience things. When there’s ambiguity, suggestion can tell you how to perceive, and how to report what you’re experiencing. Magicians and psychics use it all the time.”
The immense power of human belief, its ability to colour and shape how we experience reality, can often lead to us believing silly things (like ghosts) and sinister things (like conspiracy theories). But Wiseman chooses to celebrate the optimistic side of this double-edged sword.
“If you look at the great scientific advances, like putting someone on the Moon or coming up with a vaccine for COVID in months, to do that you have to believe you can do something that’s pretty close to impossible. I think that capability to believe in something, even though the evidence is minimal, allows us to do amazing things. And every once in a while, ghosts lead us astray. But you can’t have one without the other. It’s the price we pay for doing amazing things.”
- This article first appeared in issue 370 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
About our expert, Prof Richard WisemanRichard is a Professor in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is a former professional magician, a Member of the Inner Magic Circle, an Honorary Fellow of the British Science Association, and a Fellow of the Rationalist Association.
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Stephen Kelly is a freelance culture and science journalist. He oversees BBC Science Focus's Popcorn Science feature, where every month we get an expert to weigh in on the plausibility of a newly released TV show or film. Beyond BBC Science Focus, he has written for such publications as The Guardian, The Telegraph, The I, BBC Culture, Wired, Total Film, Radio Times and Entertainment Weekly. He is a big fan of Studio Ghibli movies, the apparent football team Tottenham Hotspur and writing short biographies in the third person.