Eyewitness to the Paranormal: The Experimental Psychology of the ‘Unexplained’
Matthew J. Sharps
Research in experimental psychology has shown that many paranormal sightings fall directly within the realm of eyewitness memory. Experiments reveal that such “sightings” derive from the psychology of the observers rather than from supernatural sources. Experiments show these proclivities.
If many sources on cable TV and the Internet are to be believed, the world is currently under attack by a variety of supernatural forces, apparently acting in concert.
Such reports are ubiquitous. Aliens appear at night on deserted country roads. The ghosts of hoary and defunct Scottish peers turn up on castle battlements, demanding retribution for ancient defeats at the hands of the Sassenach. Bigfoot, all eight or nine feet of him, runs past a given cabin on his way to some cryptozoological tryst—and all of it winds up on television.
What, exactly, is going on?
There is a difficulty in explaining many of these paranormal “sightings.” At first, one might expect that the witnesses to these phenomena would be residents of the wilder shores of psychological instability; however, many of the people who report these things are sober, educated, reasonable individuals. Many are actively adverse to publicity, and an appreciable fraction of them passes polygraph tests. In short, many of these witnesses—in fact, probably the majority of them—are neither lying nor mentally ill. They have normal nervous systems, and they are convinced that they have experienced something extraordinary.
Logically, therefore, there are only two viable explanations for the events these people claim to experience. Either Bigfoot, the ghosts, and the Gray aliens actually exist, or the individual witnesses to these exotic beings have actually observed and misinterpreted relatively prosaic phenomena. If the latter is the case, then these misinterpretations are very literally eyewitness errors and, as such, are governed by the same psychological principles that operate in eyewitness processes in the forensic world.
Eyewitness Memory and the ‘Paranormal’
On average, most of us think of eyewitness memory in relatively narrow terms, such as criminal identification via police lineups. In fact, the eyewitness field has much broader significance both in the criminal justice system and beyond. Every human phenomenon involving reportage—from recall of childhood memories in psychotherapy to the observation of a planetary transit—coalesces around some kind of account of some variety of human experience. This means that the processes involved in eyewitness cognition per se are continually operating, albeit at a relatively subtle level, through the entire fabric of human existence.
Unfortunately, eyewitness memories are frequently wrong. In my own work I have found that people, including and perhaps especially jurors, tend to think of the human nervous system as some kind of digital recorder, faithfully reproducing what we’ve actually seen when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Eighty years ago (Bartlett 1932) it was demonstrated that human memories become reconfigured—changed in terms of gist, brevity, and personal belief. Our memories lose detail; they become shorter; and what we think we’ve seen frequently replaces what we’ve actually seen. These aspects of human memory have been reconfirmed by modern studies (e.g., Ahlberg and Sharps 2002) and have been shown as far back as the 1970s to be directly important for eyewitness memory; for example, Loftus (1975) showed that witnesses will typically “remember,” and confidently report, the color of a barn in a given scene as red even when there is no barn in the scene to be observed. This illustrates the effect of personal belief on an individual’s memory. People generally expect barns to be red; therefore, when Loftus asked experimental witnesses for the color of the barn they had seen, their imaginations obligingly provided the most typical color even though no actual barn had been presented to them.
Our recent experimental research has underscored this effect (Sharps et al. 2009; see also Sharps 2010). In studies of witness errors derived from a
violent crime scene, the most prevalent error
(an average of nearly two errors of this type per witness) was a mistake in the physique or clothing of a gun-wielding perpetrator. However, the second most prevalent error (an average of 1.25 errors of this type per witness) was one of “inference, extrapolation, or imagination”: in other words, the average witness simply made up, out of whole cloth, one and one-quarter nonexistent “facts” about a given violent crime.
‘Seeing’ the Supernatural
Human memory, therefore, is malleable: what you see is not necessarily what you get. This concept has obvious relevance to sightings of the “unexplained.” It is clearly possible for a human being—for example, at twilight when visual acuity is reduced—to see an angry cow behind a bush but come out of the situation with a clear memory of a menacing Bigfoot. A wisp of fog or smoke seen in the indirect glare of a streetlight becomes a ghost; the bright lights of a factory, seen at night through an industrial haze, become a UFO.
Yet how does a given witness transform the prosaic into the miraculous? What are the psychological processes operating in a normal person by which this transmutation is to be accomplished? In other words, what psychological factors would be likely to turn prosaic reality into a supernatural or paranormal representation in the mind?
The Psychology of Atypical Perception
My students and I (Sharps et al. 2006) focused on three specific psychological characteristics—depression, dissociation, and tendencies toward attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD)—in a study of seventy-eight adults. This study employed standardized instruments for the measurement of ADHD, dissociation, and depression in each respondent and evaluated these measurements against respondents’ self-ratings of paranormal beliefs of various types. We chose these characteristics for two reasons.
The first reason is that while none of these conditions is something you’d want to have, none constitutes mental illness per se. Although these conditions may, at their higher levels, become classifiable as symptoms of mental illness, at their lower, everyday levels, virtually everyone experiences depression or dissociation at times. Even symptoms of ADHD are distributed normally in large populations (Buitelaar and Van Engeland 1996). In other words, you don’t have to have a diagnosable condition of ADHD to have a little ADHD. Subclinical, non-diagnosable levels of these three conditions are highly prevalent in the human population.
The second reason we focused on these three conditions is that they make sense as potential predisposing agents for belief in and perception of the paranormal. Consider ADHD, especially those forms that involve a degree of hyperactivity. Individuals with these characteristics tend to be attracted to active, exploratory activities and lifestyles (Barkley et al. 2008) similar to those often depicted in science fiction. Therefore, it makes sense that people with subclinical levels of ADHD might find themselves thinking about, wishing for, and believing in strange and menacing animals such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, or in UFOs and space aliens, which would provide evidence of adventurous possibilities beyond the Earth.
Similar considerations apply to the depressed, although these involve different paranormal objects. While we could find no reason why a depressed person would be attracted to Bigfoot, ghosts are another matter—they represent the prospect of an afterlife in which things might get better. Also, the depressed might be more likely to believe in aliens and their UFOs as well: an abundance of movies and TV programs preaches the joys of being selected for a benevolent alien abduction, removed from earthly torments, and presented with exotic new cosmic possibilities.
What about dissociation? People with some level of dissociation tend toward a diminished critical assessment of reality. Dissociated people may feel “strange” about themselves, even to the extent of feeling that they are undergoing out-of-body experiences. They may have anomalous perceptions of the passage of time or of their own experience. The world may appear to be “not quite real or … diffuse” (Cardena 1997, 400). This disconnection with reality might incline those with even subclinical levels of dissociation to view impossible or highly improbable things with an enhanced level of credulity. For this reason, it was anticipated that people with dissociative tendencies would be prey to paranormal beliefs at higher levels than the general population. However, here we see no thematicity as we did with depression or ADHD; in short, we would not expect individuals with dissociation to focus on any specific area of the paranormal.
Therefore, we hypothesized a higher degree of belief in “cryptids” (unknown animals such as Bigfoot) and in aliens for those with ADHD tendencies; a higher degree of belief in aliens and ghosts for those with depressive tendencies; and a generally higher level of nonspecific belief in the paranormal for those with dissociative tendencies.
These hypotheses were entirely supported by the empirical results of our study (Sharps et al. 2006). We found this result exciting because, for the first time, we had proof of the involvement of specific psychological processes in paranormal beliefs. Very specific human psychological characteristics can be used to predict belief not only in supernatural prospects generally, but also in specific kinds of paranormal “beings.” In view of abundant research demonstrating the malleability of memory in the face of personal beliefs, this research clearly brings belief in the paranormal into the realm of predictive scientific psychology. What you are like as a person contributes in scientifically predictable ways to what you’re willing to believe.
However, this initial study addressed belief, not perception. While we would theoretically expect belief to drive perception, the question of perception itself is another matter. There is, after all, a significant difference between believing that there might be a Bigfoot and seeing one in your yard. What evidence is there that specific psychological characteristics drive the tendency to see paranormal things, to misinterpret the prosaic as if it were the fantastic?
Why We See Things That Aren’t Really There
My students and I addressed this issue in a second study (Sharps et al. 2010) of ninety-eight adults, using the same standardized instruments for the measurement of dissociation, ADHD, and depression. We acquired from public-domain Web sources a series of digital photographs purporting to depict Bigfoot, space aliens, or ghosts, which we then presented in counterbalanced series to our respondents via PowerPoint. Respondents were asked to rate the probability that the given photograph actually depicted the Bigfoot, ghost, or alien in question.
This study, then, tested directly the effects of psychological characteristics on the tendency of an individual to identify a stimulus item as paranormal in nature. In this study, dealing with effects on perception as opposed to belief, the influence of neither ADHD nor depression was sufficiently powerful enough to influence perception. However, dissociation strongly predicted the tendency to perceive a given photograph as actually depicting a paranormal being. More specific analyses demonstrated that this influence of dissociation was significant for Bigfoot and for aliens but not for ghosts. Thus, although the effects of psychological characteristics were shown to be different and more limited for perception than for belief, the overall effect was confirmed: those with dissociative tendencies were more likely to identify “beings” as genuinely paranormal or supernatural than were those without these tendencies. Since the majority of human beings report some dissociative experiences (DePrince and Freyd 1999), this result may be of substantial interest in explaining the burgeoning numbers of paranormal beings infesting our cable television.
Experiments in Context
These studies showed us two things. First, people with identifiable psychological profiles are not only more likely to believe in the paranormal or supernatural, but their psychological tendencies may also be used to predict the exact types of “unexplained” phenomena in which they are likely to believe.
Second, one of these psychological characteristics—a tendency toward dissociation—allows us to predict individual proclivities toward seeing a given stimulus item as a paranormal creature, whether Bigfoot or an alien.
Seeing Is Not Believing
It should not be surprising that the influence of psychological factors on perception is different from that influence on belief. Beliefs in the paranormal can be “gestalt” (Sharps 2003, 2010), lacking immediate direct challenge from the physical environment; people can believe in Bigfoot, for example, without actually expecting to see one. However, perception of a given paranormal being is much more immediate and feature-intensive; therefore, some psychological tendencies that influence belief may not be powerful enough to alter feature-intensive perception of immediate reality—to actually transform a bear into a foraging Sasquatch. Only dissociation, we found in our experiments, is sufficiently powerful to influence both belief and perception, to propel a real-world stimulus into the realm of the paranormal.
Why Don’t the Dissociated ‘See’ Ghosts as Well as Cryptids and Aliens?
Bigfoot and alien perceptions were subject to the effect of dissociation, but ghost perceptions were not. Why? In Western culture, cryptids and aliens are largely perceived as “fringe” constructs. Ghosts are less so; for example, many sober individuals, the late novelist Michael Crichton among them (1988), feel and report a strong conviction that a dead loved one is “present” in the mortuary or at that person’s funeral. In short, “seeing” or “feeling” a ghost may be more socially legitimized than the same perception of a cryptid or a space alien, with a resulting enhancement in feelings of credulity. If so, this phenomenon points to the need for further research on the intersection of culture with individual psychology in this area.
A person need not, in any technically accurate sense, be mentally ill to “see” a paranormal “being.” This is a crucial caveat. Our respondents were not in any sense “crazy” or mentally ill. All three of the conditions addressed are those that many people in the normal population experience at subclinical levels. These were normal people, yet their proclivities in these regards made them particularly susceptible to beliefs and perceptions of a paranormal or supernatural type. Since normal people in their everyday lives are not typically subjected to psychological analysis of their subclinical tendencies, we are faced with an interesting fact: anybody could be the person who sees Bigfoot or a space alien emerging from his UFO. The unfortunate individual who sees such a thing is vanishingly unlikely to know of the psychological quirks that rendered the given observation—or rather its interpretation—possible.
Why do we characterize such a person as unfortunate? This is a critical point, more important than it may at first appear. If searching for Bigfoot, looking for the Loch Ness monster, or delving after little green men from the planet Grak were merely a pleasant diversion, an excuse to hike in the woods and deserts or to buy a really good telescope, there would be little reason to extend scientific anathema to these concepts. These ideas obviously don’t elevate the level of scientific discourse; but beyond that, for most people, what’s the harm?
Unfortunately, these ideas can prove harmful. Much of the evidence is anecdotal or derived from popular sources, but it appears that an encounter with the perceived paranormal can be a life-damaging if not life-destroying experience. Social, marital, and economic harm can readily accompany the obsessive interest of a “contactee” whose life, relationships, and career are derailed by the conviction that “the truth is out there.” The author alone has known intelligent individuals whose lives of semi-employment and solitude have resulted at least in part from the search for nonexistent beings from beyond; none of this is necessary, for the simple reason that we now understand what brings human beings, with human nervous systems, to paranormal perceptions and beliefs. We can now demonstrate, using well-established methods of experimental psychology, that the human mind is perfectly capable of constructing the beliefs and the perceptions that frequently lead to a profitless search for the creatures of the Twilight Zone. We hope these findings will help lead intelligent, educated individuals to pursue the genuine mysteries of neuroscience, zoology, and astronomy to the exclusion of the useless pursuit of the phantoms that reside in the interstitial spaces of our infinitely inventive minds.
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