Investigating ghostly phenomena is actually a daunting challenge. The rational investigator must weed through bias, myth building, and historical facts. Yet they must maintain the ability to think critically through an assortment of possible natural explanations and follow a scientific methodology. Many, however, are defeated before they even get out of the gate. What mysterious force causes them the fail from the onset? There own psychology, their worldview and their belief systems. (In other words, they think their bullshit don’t stank – Bob)
In this blog I am going to identify one of the major psychological factors that render the average paranormal investigator and his or her findings into a big mushy pile of pure 100% USDA bullshit. While some may argue that this may be a petty argument, the mind is the most important tool that the investigator has at his/her disposal. If that isn’t properly tuned (or if they are suffering from a severe case of Rectal-Cranial Infarction – Bob) they are doomed to failure before they even start. While there are many psychological factors that affect paranormal investigators, this is one of the major ones. It is called Cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements. An example of this would be the conflict between wanting to smoke and knowing that smoking is unhealthy; a person may try to change their feelings about the odds that they will actually suffer the consequences, or they might add the consonant element that the smoking is worth short term benefits. A general view of cognitive dissonance is when one is biased towards a certain decision even though other factors favor an alternative.
A classical example of cognitive dissonance is expressed in the fable “The Fox and the Grapes” by Aesop (ca. 620–564 BCE). In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he decides that the grapes are probably not worth eating, with the justification the grapes probably are not ripe or that they are sour (hence “sour grapes”). This example follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one’s dissonance by criticizing it. Jon Elster calls this pattern “adaptive preference formation”
Dissonance is created when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s belief, the dissonance can result in misperception, rejection or refutation of the information and seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others to restore consonance.
(As an aside from Bob, all that above kind of makes you wonder about certain persons who belong to a certain well known Baptist church from Westboro Kansas, doesn’t it? Just saying…)
To illustrate my point here is another example of Cognitive dissonance that I will use to make my point:
In the 1950s Marian Keech was the leader of a UFO cult. She claimed to get messages from extraterrestrials, known as The Guardians, through automatic writing. Like the Heaven’s Gate folks forty years later, Keech and her followers, known as The Seekers or The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, were waiting to be picked up by flying saucers. In Keech’s prophecy, her group of eleven was to be saved just before the earth was to be destroyed by a massive flood on December 21, 1954. When it became evident that there would be no flood and the Guardians weren’t stopping by to pick them up, Keech became elated. She said she’d just received a telepathic message from the Guardians saying that her group of believers had spread so much light with their unflagging faith that God had spared the world from the cataclysm (Levine 2003: 206). (Man, how do I get a piece of this cult leader action??? – Bob)
More important, the Seekers didn’t abandon her. Most became more devoted after the failed prophecy. (Only two left the cult when the world didn’t end.) “Most disciples not only stayed but, having made that decision, were now even more convinced than before that Keech had been right all along….Being wrong turned them into true believers (ibid.).” Some people will go to bizarre lengths to avoid inconsistency between their cherished beliefs and the facts. But why do people interpret the same evidence in contrary ways? (Anyone want to volunteer to be part of my very own newly formed Cult of the Sane? Our temple will be a topless bar! – Grand PooBob)
The Seekers would not have waited for the flying saucer if they thought it might not come. So, when it didn’t come, one would think that a competent thinker would have seen this as falsifying Keech’s claim that it would come. However, the cult’s followers were rendered incompetent by their devotion to Keech. Their belief that a flying saucer would pick them up was based on faith, not evidence. Likewise, the prophesy failing to manifest didn’t count against their belief because it was another act of faith. With this kind of irrational thinking, it may seem pointless to produce evidence to try to persuade people of the error of their ways. Their belief is not based on evidence, but on devotion to a person, group or concept. That devotion can be so great that even the most despicable behavior by one’s prophet can be rationalized. (I promise not to make anyone do anything TOO despicable. Mostly just entertain me with your drunken antics – Illustrious Potentate the Sane)
I choose this as an example because it readily resembles the dissonance found within much of the “paranormal community”. Investigators have followed the same path of dissonance.
Investigators blindly accept that certain instruments can detect ghosts despite the fact that they have never been proven to detect anything paranormal. EMF meters, various thermometers, dowsing rods, cameras, video and even audio recording, just to name a few, were introduced in the 1960s and 50 plus years later have still not produced any viable evidence of paranormal activity. Their usage has been rooted into the group think of the community through books, websites, various journals and lately television shows. While I’m on this subject, let’s not forget the old school technique of using psychics and mediums to search for spooks. This has been around since the birth of the spiritualist movement in the early 1900s. Yet, like all of the above, it has never been scientific proven. Let’s try to prove that the paranormal exists using a paranormal technique. Seriously? You can’t see anything wrong with that? (This, children, is called circular logic. And while it makes for fun at parties when you can make people do Stupid Human Tricks, when trying to do any real investigating it annihilates any data integrity you may have had. Plus it makes you look like a douchebag. Just sayin’. – Bob)
Cold spots, residual and intelligent hauntings are hypotheses that were initially presented in the 1930s and the belief in these hypotheses are still widely held today despite the fact that they have never been proven and defy several known laws of science. The concept behind these hypotheses is rooted firmly in pseudo-science, often through a wilful ignorance of scientific laws concerning the transmission and conservation of energy. Battery drainage phenomenon is a more recent addition to the list (but we covered that in an earlier blog).
The most obvious is the simple fact that ghosts have not been proven to exist. However within the “paranormal community” it is a readily accepted fact. Statements such as “no one knows what ghosts are” is common, yet they use the same unproven instrumentation and methodologies. If you do not know what a ghost is (you have no hypothesis) exactly how are you going to search for them? Why are you doing what you are doing? Science is based on precise measurement of phenomena. What are you going to measure? (Just as a hint, with most of the EMF meters people use in the field, they are going to measure the wiring in the house. Know why? Because most people use meters that are calibrated to find AC fields of between 50-60Hz. AC means man-made, folks. NEVER natural. So take your cheap ass little EM meter you picked up at Home Depot and toss it in the garbage. Then get over to the Temple of Bob for some cold refreshments and entertainment/enlightenment. – Saint the Sane)
Another rationalization is “ghosts are everywhere”. They attempt to justify this point of view by pointing out the apparent randomness of paranormal activity. Ghosts can come and go at will or maybe they can just hide really well. Even if a phenomenon at a location is explained through natural causes, it could still be haunted. The ghost just wasn’t there at the time of the investigation. Also places that have never had reports of paranormal phenomena can be haunted as well. No one has simply noticed it before their investigation. (This is what we call a ‘moving target’ and it makes us all look like complete jackasses in the eyes of the scientific community. If we can’t even come to a solid consensus on what constitutes a haunting, how are we ever to come up with valid, viable theories? We don’t, and thus we will continue to be relegated to the realm of carnival sideshows and terrible television programming on certain cable networks. – Blessed Bob the Disgusted, Master of Beer and Boobies)
Levine, Robert. The Power of Persuasion – How We’re Bought and Sold (John Wiley & Sons 2003).
Gilovich, Thomas. Dale Griffin and Daniel Kahneman. 2002. eds.Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment. Cambridge University Press.
Festinger Leon. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study (Harpercollins 1964). (Originally published in 1956 by the University of Minnesota Press.)
Gardner, Daniel. 2008. The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t–and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger.Dutton.
Ariely, Dan. (2008). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. HarperCollins.
Critical thinking and belief in the paranormal: A re-evaluation, Chris A. Roe* British Journal of Psychology, Volume 90, Issue 1, pages 85–98, February 1999
Cody Polston is an author, historian and ghost investigator. He is the author of multiple books on history and paranormal topics. He was the host and producer of the popular podcast Ecto Radio and a writer for Ghosthunter X magazine. He is one of the founders of the Southwest Ghost Hunter's Association and has been investigating paranormal claims since 1985.
In the 1990's several other ghost hunting groups gave him the moniker the "Hitman" due to his involvement in "debunking" several well known haunted locations in Texas. Although the nickname was intended to be a negative insult, Cody adopted the nickname and began using in on his podcasts and other media venues.