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James Alcock, Professor, York University, Toronto, Canada

Throughout history, whenever there have been periods of tremendous social/political/economic change, interest and belief in the paranormal and pseudoscience have flourished. Obvious examples include France at the end of the ancient regime, prior to the Revolution; 1930s Germany (Padgett & Jorgenson, 1982); North America and Western Europe in the period beginning in the 1960s (Keinan, 1994); and of course, Russia, with the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the rapid social change that accompanied it (Kapitza, 1999).

It is supremely ironic that in an age when the products of scientific reasoning and empiricism and the technology that grows from it are everywhere in our lives, science itself is being devalued by many of the very people it serves. The public expect  nay, demand  that scientists hurry and find cures for cancer and AIDS, and the public, at least in wealthy industrialized countries, expects ever more powerful home computers, better cellular telephones, and more sophisticated automobiles. And yet that same public to a large degree not only misunderstands science but actually denigrates it. Sadly, this is becoming just as true for evidence-based medicine, us all manner of alternative therapies and magical potions grow in popularity. Science is seen as difficult, inaccessible, arcane, and even threatening. Personal intuition and belief takes the place of careful reasoning and empirical inquiry in the assessment of what is truth and what is not. Indeed, Sergio Kapitza (1999) views the growth of pseudoscience in Russia is a possible result of a global intellectual crisis, through which European civilization is now passing.

Why should there be a global intellectual crisis? Why should individuals, especially intelligent and educated individuals, turn to the paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs of bygone times in an age dominated by the many successes of science? Science fought hard to emerge from a world dominated by superstition and supernaturalism. Why do so many people seem to want to return to it?

I believe that there are a number of reasons. However, before exploring these possibilities, it is necessary to consider how the human brain comes to learn anything about anything, and how our beliefs are formed and maintained.

Magical thinking

The term magical thinking refers to the thought process that finds some sort of link between two events that occur closely together in time or that resemble each other in some way, without any concern at all about the nature or even the existence of the presumed link between them. The fact is that we are by our very nature magical in terms of our fundamental thought processes. Despite all the remarkable achievements of our species in terms of understanding and harnessing nature, we are born to magical thinking. We have to acquire logic and reason.

We are given to magical thinking because of the ways in which our brains and nervous systems are hardwired to learn about the world. This learning occurs primarily on the basis of two factors.

(1) The first of these is stimulus similarity, or resemblance: what we learn about one object or event will automatically be attributed to similar objects or events, unless we have enough experience to permit differentiation between them. If we taste pizza for the first time and do not like it, we are likely to be reluctant to try other pizzas in future. In the absence of any logical processing, our brain extends what it has learned about one pizza to all pizzas.

(2) The second factor upon which learning is based is temporal contiguity: our nervous systems are set up so that salient events which occur closely together in time automatically come to be associated in the brain, as though they in some way go together. It was the great Russian scientist and Nobel Laureate, Ivan Pavlov (1849  1936), who discovered this fundamental principle, which has become a pillar in the foundation of the modern psychology of learning. Pavlov was studying salivation and digestion in dogs, and discovered that if he rang a bell just before presenting food to hungry dogs, they would come to salivate even when the bell was presented alone. Pavlov labelled this a conditioned reflex, as opposed to an inborn reflex, and we now refer to the process by which this conditioned reflex: comes about as classical conditioning.

There is also another form of basic learning  operant conditioning  by which a behavior that is followed by some desirable consequence is likely to be repeated in order to produce the same consequence again. The desired consequence or reinforcer, might be food for a hungry organism, water for a thirsty one, or relief from anxiety for a frightened one.

These two forms of automatic learning, or conditioning, occur in fish, fowl, animals and humans, infants and adults. Such conditioning generally occurs without awareness, or in some cases, despite awareness, and thus it happens without benefit of logical scrutiny. If we are attacked by a vicious dog, we may well develop a phobic fear of all canines that has nothing to do with any theory or logic. The automatic power of temporal contiguity to produce a perceived relationship between two events promotes survival, as well as understanding of the world around us. It also leaves us open to egregious error from time to time. Crossing one's fingers may seem to produce desired outcomes, just as taking large doses of vitamin C may seem to protect against colds, or supplication to Jehovah or Krishna or Zeus may seem to ward off danger. And of course, seeming is reinforcing, one might even say that seeming is believing. Although the ritual appears to bring the desired outcomes only occasionally, that is all that is necessary to establish a powerful belief in it.

Magical thinking was a topic of considerable interest to anthropologists earlier in this century, as they were confronted by the superstitious beliefs mid practices that they found rampant in the so-called primitive societies that were being examined in various corners of the world. However, con-temporary anthropologists recognize that the propensity for magical thinking does not distinguish primitive societies from technologically advanced ones. It is a feature of the intellectual activity observed in all societies.

Intellectual thinking

Experiential learning, based on resemblance and temporal contiguity, begins at birth and continues to play a powerful role throughout an individual's life. However, as the child grows, a second form of knowledge acquisition gradually develops. This form is based on the mental manipulations of ideas and concepts, rather than being tied directly to personal experience. It is usually deliberate rather than automatic, and it can be carried on quite independently of emotion. As the child grows, this form of information processing becomes more and more dominated by language. It is in this intellectual system that non-experiential information is absorbed  through books, teachers, and stories from other people. And gradually, even without any instruction, logic begins to take shape: I am in Moscow, which is in a northern clime, and so it makes no sense to look for coconut trees in the garden. Through his or her schooling, the child is given the benefit of thousands of years of human experience and deliberation, rather than having to experience everything first hand.

Thus, human beings relate to and learn about the world in two distinctly different ways, magically and intellectually (Alcock, 1981; Epstein, 1994). One of these ways is tied very much to the automatic associations that the nervous system constructs on the basis of temporal contiguity and resemblance and is more likely to involve emotion, while the other is a logical, analytical, and largely verbal approach. Epstein (1994) has written at length about the ways in which these two modes of information processing interact with each other. He points out that people's thinking is transformed in the presence of emotional arousal and the more aroused they become, the more their thinking is non-analytical, concrete, and action oriented  all of which are attributes of the experiential system. Moreover, thinking which occurs in a highly emotional state often seems to be more obviously valid to the thinker, and thus, high confidence in the products of one's thinking is not always reflective of accuracy or cogency of thought.

These two learning systems, being more or less independent, sometimes work in opposition. A person may have a dread for high places, and yet know logically that a trip up an elevator in a high building presents no real danger. Yet an attempt to overcome the phobic learning can lead to such distress that the individual fails and actually strengthens the phobia, all the while recognizing logically that there is nothing to fear. We may disavow a belief in ghosts, and yet  having experienced chills while listening to ghost stories in our childhoods  we may feel uncomfortable or even frightened while walking through a graveyard late at night, even all the while telling ourselves that ghosts do not exist. Such anxieties are not easily staved off by reason. People who have given up a childhood belief in God may be surprised to find themselves silently praying for divine assistance in a moment of great fear where intellectual problem solving proves insufficient.

Development and maintenance of beliefs

Our beliefs about the world have several sources.

▪ Personal experience: As already discussed, we learn automatically from our experience about the world around us. Our beliefs about the world are directly shaped by this experience.

▪ Authority: Language provides a powerful means for the transfer of massive amounts of information. In childhood, of course, such information is usually provided by older people, whose authority is such that the child rarely questions the accuracy of what he or she is taught. Whether instructed on the benefits of regular dental hygiene or on the spooky effects of the full moon on people's behavior, the child has no reason to reject what is being taught. A society may teach that all perception is illusion, or that the earth is flat, or that we are born and reborn millions of times, bound to the wheel of life. The child will have no reason and no means to reject such teaching. Many of our most deeply held beliefs come from authority figures who instilled these beliefs in us when we were very young. Whether it has to do with the earth being a globe, and not flat, or with the existence of gods or earthly spirits, beliefs instilled at an early age are often very resistant to change, and indeed, they may serve as axiomatic beliefs against which new information is assessed.

Adults, too, acquire beliefs from authority figures. We may believe something that we read in a respectable newspaper, or reject it if it appears in a less respectable tabloid. With the explosion of media sources, there is an exponentially increasing amount of information to be sampled, and we pick and choose in part on the basis of our assessment of the authoritativeness of the source.

▪ Social sharing: If the beliefs we acquire are generally shared by society at large, there is little reason for us ever to question them, and we generally come to think that they are justified and sensible. This is as true for paranormal and supernatural beliefs as it is for any other. Thus, while most North Americans may react with disbelief to Hindu pantheism, and they may find bizarre the Zoroastrian belief in the sanctity of earth, air, fire and water, which leads to the practice of disposing of dead bodies by leaving them atop tall towers to be consumed by birds, little such reaction attends thoughts of a Christian God who sent His son to earth to die for our sins against Him. Even children who have little exposure to organized religion are led by popular culture to believe in various transcendental aspects of reality  God and Heaven, for example  which are not easy to reconcile with the prevailing scientific viewpoint. Even in these days of declining formal religious participation in Western countries, religious and quasi-religious belief is abundant. United States currency affirms a belief in trust in God. The Canadian national anthem asks God to maintain freedom, while the British national anthem prays to God for the well-being of the Monarch. Courts try to ensure a high standard of truth by means of an oath before God. Weddings and funerals usually involve prayers to God. It is interesting that during the so-called Gulf War, the most highly technological war in history, major leaders including the President of the United States, the British Prime Minister and the Iraqi President all publicly prayed to God for victory. Thus did modern technology and ancient theology work together towards a common purpose (Alcock, 1992). In the wake of the September 11 tragedy in the United States, once again we see appeals to a supernatural power by the leaders of various countries, not the least of which are the United States and Afghanistan.

▪ Reason and logic. We learn to reason and apply logic, and this process can generate new beliefs, beliefs that may be in conflict with either the beliefs arising from personal experience or from authority. Such a conflict is unpleasant and will generally lead us to find some way to harmonize our beliefs, possibly by modifying one of them. Since beliefs based in personal experience are often very difficult to modify, it may be easier to rearrange our logical analysis so as to provide consistency. It may be easier for an individual to try to find a logical accommodation for an experience of apparent extrasensory perception than to deny the experience. This can promote even stronger belief in the paranormal.

The appeal of the paranormal

Paranormal belief has been growing steadily in the Western world since the end of the 1950s. I began by saying that belief in the paranormal typically grows during periods of great social/economic or political change. Why should that be so? What is it about belief in the paranormal that gives it such appeal in disordered times that cry out for a rational and logical approach?

There are several factors at work:

▪ Disordered times produce heightened anxiety, and paranormal beliefs help to reduce anxiety for many people. Believing that there is an aspect of our existence that is beyond the material world (which is beyond the capacity for science to understand), or believing that one can cure disease magically where science fails, or believing that there are spirits who will protect or save us, can be a powerful agent of anxiety-reduction.

▪ Disordered times by their very nature reflect a breakdown in the established social fabric, throwing many long-accepted ideas and authorities into question. Challenges to the old order abound, and science, which has become a dominant authority in the last century, thus meets with suspicion and even rejection. Casting aside science means providing ample opportunity for the development of irrational beliefs.

▪ Since the 1960s, there has been a growing emphasis on narcissistic individuality in western societies, which promotes the idea that each individual is just as competent as the next in evaluating reality and truth, and that intuition and personal experience is as important, or even more important, than rational enquiry. Even in some university quarters, there are those who espouse the view, and teach it to their students, that all knowledge claims are of equal value, and that scientific knowledge is one set of arbitrary beliefs. This of course promotes uncritical acceptance of paranormal and supernatural claims.

▪ The very success of science and technology has produced for many people the belief that anything is possible. Who would ever have believed fifty years ago that people would fly in space, that hearts would be transplanted from one person to another, etc? Technology has itself taken on a magical aspect: We all could pry the back of a mechanical wrist watch and understand in principle what makes it tick. Very few amongst us can really understand how the figures appear and disappear on a digital watch. Technology promotes a new kind of magical thinking. We learn that things happen, but we no longer even bother to try to understand how, because the explanation will be beyond most of us. This indirectly promotes the notion just about anything is possible, to the detriment of critical thinking.

These are some of the reasons why we are seeing such a growth in belief in the paranormal. The antidote to paranormal and superstitious belief is, of course, critical thinking  the deliberate application of logic and reason to the evaluation of knowledge. Critical thinking is no longer in vogue, but we must all work hard to try to bring it back into vogue. Our very futures, individually and collectively, depend on that. Ultimately, it is not so much the content of paranormal beliefs that poses a danger. The danger arises from the process by which people come to such belief. The same process will also generate many other irrational beliefs, some of which may be much more dangerous to our well-being than belief in the paranormal.


Alcock, J. E. (1992). Religion and rationality. In. J. F. Schumaker (Ed), Religion and Mental Health. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Alcock, J. E. (1981). Parapsychology: Science or magic? Oxford, England: Pergamon.

Epstein, S. 1994. Integration of the cognitive and psychodynamic unconscious. American Psychologist, 49, 709 724.

Kapitza, S. P. (1999). Science and pseudoscience in Russia. Skeptical Inquirer, 23 (1), 34 36.

Keinan, G. 1994. Effects of stress and tolerance of ambiguity on magical thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 48 55.

Kurtz, P. (1986). The Transcendental Temptation. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Padgett, V. R. & Jorgenson, D. O. (1982). Superstition and economic threat: Germany, 1918 1940. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 736 741.

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