Examining the personality and other beliefs of paranormal believers in two distinct subgroups

The purpose of this study was to examine the correlates of paranormal belief, specifically in regard to personality type and also to examine the level of belief in two samples (A Level students aged 16-19 and parents aged 30-50), the academic achievement of believers and if religious believers also have a higher level of paranormal belief. We found that paranormal believers are more likely to have a higher level of Eysenck’s neuroticism trait and higher levels of both intrinsic and extrinsic religious belief. There was a significant negative correlation between exam grade and paranormal belief, but there was no significant difference in level of belief between the two groups. The results of this study give us some indication as to why differences in level of belief of paranormal phenomena occur, and other beliefs they are likely to have, and what form possible further research in this area may take.

Introduction

Personality and trait theory was one of the major focuses of individual differences psychologists during the 20th Century. Eysenck (1947) identified two (later three) personality traits which he theorised were the basis for all human behaviour and interaction. These traits were extraversion (how confident and outgoing a person is), neuroticism (how they are affected by emotional circumstances) and psychotisism (added to the theory in 1952) (how vulnerable a person is to psychosis). Eysenck also designed a series of tests for use in identifying which traits an individual possesses, the last being the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (Eysenck & Eysenck 1975, revised Eysenck, Eysenck & Barrett 1984).

The EPQ is one of the most frequently used personality measures. It has been studied, validated and tested hundreds of times, it is available in many different languages, in versions suitable for children and in both short and long scale.

Eysencks theory has been drawn upon in much subsequent theories, most notably Costa and McCrae’s (1985) “Big Five”, which draws upon his traits of Extraversion and Neuroticism, and adds three more traits. Eysenck (1992) argued that two of the other traits they identified (agreeableness and conscientiousness) are sub-traits measured by psychotisism, and openness is a sub trait of Extraversion.

The field of parapsychology is the study of apparent paranormal phenomena and experiences (Irwin 2004). To be specific it is the study of phenomena that is unknown or unexplained by orthodox science. This may range from the existence of ghosts, poltergeists and apparitions to extra sensory perception and out of body experiences. As expected, the field is often met with derision by some mainstream scientists. In recent years due to the popularity of television shows such as Most Haunted parapsychology has come to the attention of the general public.

Such television shows are very popular, with the most popular Most Haunted having spawned thirteen series, numerous spin offs, live events and even stage shows, armed with night vision cameras, a Ouija board and other spiritualist paraphernalia, and a film crew, presenter, producer resident psychic/medium and parapsychologist, many of its fans consider it to be genuine evidence and serious investigation into paranormal occurrences, while others find it harmless fun and entertainment, and other still tasteless fakery and deception. Indeed, most of the PHD research undertaken by Ciaran O’Keefe (Most Haunted’s resident parapsychologist) focused on why people perceive locations to be haunted, as has a lot of research undertaken by well known British Psychologist  Richard Wiseman (Wiseman et al. 2003, Wiseman and Watt 2004). It is from this question of why some people believe in the paranormal and reportedly experience seemingly paranormal phenomena that this study is based.

Level of Belief

Why some people believed in the paranormal and why others remain sceptical is of great interest to psychologists. Previous studies have found levels of belief in the paranormal differ depending on the sociomarginal group, age, gender, socioeconomic group and ethnicity of the subject. Research into age has found paranormal beliefs to be stronger in young adults than in the elderly (Emmons and Sobal 1981). When compared to religious belief, the same study found no correlation between age and religious belief (the same results found by Tobacyck, Pritchard and Mitchell 1988), but other research (McAllister 1988) has found an increase in religiosity in older generations. Tyson (1982) examined the type of people who visit astrologers and found 30-39 year olds to be the highest percentage of attendees.

Paranormal Belief and Religious Belief

Regarding research examining a link between religious belief and belief in the paranormal; the research seems to show that the relationship is dependent on what the particular form of paranormal belief is examined. For example, in one study by Tobacyk and Milford (1983) religious belief was found to correlate positively with belief in precognition and witchcraft, but negatively with spiritualism with no significant difference with other forms of paranormal belief (including superstition). Clarke (1991) found a positive correlation with psychic healing and a negative with UFO’s, while Hilstrom and Strachan (2000) found a negative correlation between religion and nearly all forms of paranormal belief. Tyson (1982) found importance of religious belief (such as found in intrinsic religious believers) to be a major indicator of whether someone would visit an astrologer, with low scorers being more likely to.

Intelligence and Paranormal Belief

Trying to measure the intelligence of paranormal believers has taken various forms. Some studies have used IQ tests, whereas others have used core knowledge violations or academic achievement. Musch and Ehrenberg (2002) found paranormal believers have lower cognitive abilities than believers. Lindeman and Aarnio (2006) discovered paranormal believers are more likely to demonstrate ontological confusion (misunderstandings about the nature of existence) than non believers, however Dagnall, Parker and Munley (2007) found paranormal beliefs not to be the result of weaknesses in probabilistic reasoning, but to a persons perception of randomness (specifically if they misrepresent chance). Hergovich and Arendasy (2005) examined whether critical thinking was linked to the belief that experiences were the result of the paranormal and found critical thinkers less likely to believe an event was a paranormal experience and Roig, Bridges, Renner and Jackson (1998) found believers in religion, superstition and precognition to have a higher degree of irrational thinking. Aarnio and Lindeman (2005) found that university students were less likely to believe in the paranormal than vocational students, and in the university sample psychology and medicine students had a lower level of belief than education and theology students. Genovese (2005) examined the thinking styles of teachers in the USA and found teachers with disorganised thinking styles had the highest level of belief. Hergovich (2002) found a higher level of suggestibility in paranormal believers and Haraldsson (1985) found people who were more susceptible to interrogative suggestibility to have a higher level of belief in witchcraft. Level of education may also be important, with Peltzer (2003) finding a higher level of paranormal belief in secondary school students compared to university students (however, it is not clear if this is a result of age or level of education). However, Tyson (1982) found a higher proportion of well educated people visiting astrologers than less educated.

Personality and Paranormal Belief

Studies examining the link between personality type and paranormal belief have had similar results. Williams, Francis and Robbins (2007) found a positive correlation between neuroticism and belief in the paranormal in adolescents. Rogers et al (2006) found that people who have difficulty coping in emotional circumstances (as people with neurotic personalities do) have a higher level of belief in the paranormal. Maltby (1999) examined personality and religious belief and found intrinsic religious belief ( how personal a persons religion is to them and to what extent they live as true to it) is negatively correlated with psychotisism. Wiseman and Watt (2004) questioned the validity of comparing negative superstitions with emotional instability, suggesting that further research needed to take into account both positive and negative superstitions (positive superstitions were defined in the study as relating to good luck such as carrying lucky charms and negative relating to bad luck such as breaking mirrors) to gain better understanding of the subject. Wiseman et al (2003) found that people who are already anxious (as neurotic personalities often are) and expecting to encounter paranormal phenomenon are more likely to do so than those who are more relaxed. This study also supported the results found by Wiseman et al (2002) in that people who already believe in ghosts are more likely to assume unexplained phenomena to be the result of a haunting. Roig, Bridges, Renner and Jackson (1998) found a significant correlation between paranormal belief and an irrational thinking scale (which included subscales measuring worrying, rigidity, problem avoidance, demand for approval and emotional irresponsibility) and Wolfradt (1997) found superstitious belief to be a major predictor of anxiety traits. Rattet and Bursik (2000) examined if there a link between paranormal belief and extraversion, and found no significant correlation. However, they did find people who actually report precognitive experiences to be more extraverted than those who have never done so, while Lester (1992) found a significant negative correlation between psychoticism and belief in life after death (including traditional religious beliefs and ghosts), and Haraldsson and Houtkooper (1991) found psychotisism negatively related to high performance on ESP tests.

 

In this study we shall examine level of paranormal belief and compare it to academic achievement, religious belief (both intrinsic and extrinsic) and personality type (based upon Eysenck’s trait theory) in two groups – teenagers aged 16-19 and parents aged 30-50. I hypothesise that a) high paranormal believers will have a lower level of academic achievement; b)high paranormal believers will also have a higher level of religious belief; c) high paranormal believers will have higher neuroticism scores; and d) the parent group will have a higher level of paranormal belief than the teenager group.

 

 

Method

Participants

This project involved 115 participants, in two samples: 66 16-19 year olds students and 49 people aged between 30-50 years of age with at least one child. All participants were gave informed consent before the study commenced and parents of under 18’s received letters beforehand allowing them to refuse to allow their child to take part in the study. If no refusal was given, presumptive parental consent was assumed in accordance with BPS guidelines. The participants comprised of 37 males (17 in the student sample and 20 in the parent sample) and 65 females (19 in student sample, 26 in parent sample). The remaining 13 participants did not supply their gender. Group one were comprised of A Level Psychology students from a local college of further education. Group two were parents of local Scout and Brownie Guide groups.

Materials

Participants were given a participant information sheet and a consent form along with three questionnaires (the consent form also included a section where participants were asked to provide their GCSE/O Level Grades). Under 18’s were also given a letter to give to their parents before hand to allow them to withdraw their child from the study. The three questionnaires used were a Short Scale Revised Eysenck Personality Questionnaire  (Eysenck, Eysenck and Barrett 1985), an amended Age Universal I/E Religious belief scale (Gorsuch and Venable 1983, Maltby and Lewis 1996) and a Belief in the Paranormal Scale (Musch and Ehrenberg 2002). Following the study the participants were given a debrief sheet. (All materials can be found in the appendices.)

Procedure

Participants were asked to take part in the study and given a pack containing the information sheet, consent form and the three questionnaires. They were given full, age appropriate informed consent and informed of their right to withdraw at any time. Participants aged under 18 had been given a letter to give to their parents informing them of the study the week before it commenced. Participants were asked to fill in the questionnaires, answering all questions honestly. Following the completion of the questionnaires participants were given a debrief sheet containing more information about the study and contact details of the researcher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Results

The primary purpose of this study was to examine any link between personality type and paranormal belief, particularly Eysenck’s Neuroticism trait. We also set out to examine differences in level of belief between the two samples, and if level of belief bore any relation to traditional religious belief (both intrinsic and extrinsic), the academic results of participants (GCSE/O Levels) and the other two traits identified by Eysenck (extraversion and psychotisism).

N.B. All figures reported are rounded to two decimal places. Original calculations and SPSS output sheets can be found in the appendix.

Before the data were analysed, it was checked to ensure it was complete. If a participant failed to answer more than three questions on any particular measure (or did not answer them in the correct format) the data was deemed unusable and not processed.

Paranormal Belief

Mean Standard Deviation Standard Error Median Range
PBS 23.96 8.8 0.82 24 35

 

 

 

 

 

Graph 1

Personality Type- Neuroticism, Extraversion, Psychotisism

Mean S.D. S.E. Median Range
N 6.23 3.3 0.3 6 12
E 8.3 3.42 0.32 9 12
P 2.2 1.64 0.15 2 6

 

 

Graph 2


Graph 3

 

Graph 4


Religious Belief – Intrinsic and Extrinsic

Mean S.D. S.E. Median Range
RI 2.17 3.35 0.31 0 16
RE 5.62 4.58 0.43 4 20

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graph 5

Graph 6

 

Academic Results

Before data was calculated each grade was assigned a numeric value from 1 to 6 (1 being equal to a grade E while 6 equalled a grade A*). The mean grade was then calculated and it is this number that we shall examine. Participants who reported grades of a different qualification (i.e. A Level, Bachelors, etc.) were discarded. Out of the 115 participants 66 reported grades while 49 failed to do so (10 student participants and 39 parent participants).

 

Mean S.D. S.E. Median Range
Grade 4.22 0.77 0.9 4.2 3.17

 

Graph 7

 

Following the descriptive statistical analysis, inferential statistical analysis was carried out on the data. A Pearsons r partial correlation was carried out to demonstrate significance, followed by a correlation on each sample.

 

 

 

 

 

Paranormal Belief and Personality Type

Partial Correlation Student Parent
N 0.216(Significant at 0.05 level) 0.183 0.256(Significant at 0.05 level)
E 0.05 0.154 -0.067
P 0.171(significant at 0.05 level) 0.227(Significant at 0.05 level) 0.102

 

Paranormal Belief and Religious Belief

Partial Correlation Student Parent
RI 0.264(significant at 0.01 level) 0.332(Significant at 0.01 level) 0.198
RE 0.31(Significant at 0.01 level) 0.369(Significant at 0.01 level) 0.233

 

Paranormal Belief and Exam Grade

Partial Correlation Student Parent
Grade -0.209
(Significant at 0.05 level)
-0.179 -0.442

 

 

 

 

 

Level of Belief

Correlation
PBS 0.091

 

Graph 8

From these results we can conclude that there is a link between paranormal belief and personality (specifically in regards to Eysenck’s neuroticism and psychotisism traits), religious belief (both intrinsic and extrinsic) and academic achievement due to significant correlations being found. No significant correlation was found between paranormal belief and extraversion, nor was there a significant difference in level of belief between the two groups.

 

 

 

Discussion

In the introduction we put forward four hypothesis that we would examine in this research. These were: a) high paranormal believers will have a lower level of academic achievement; b)high paranormal believers will also have a higher level of religious belief; c) high paranormal believers will have higher neuroticism scores; and d) the parent group will have a higher level of paranormal belief than the teenager group.

Our results show that hypothesis A can be accepted as a correlation found a significant difference in the GCSE/O Level results of believers to non-believers. Hypothesis B can be accepted as high paranormal believers had a significantly higher level of both Intrinsic and Extrinsic religious belief. Hypothesis C can be accepted as high paranormal believers also had a higher score on the neuroticism trait. Hypothesis D can be rejected as the parent group did not have a significantly higher level of paranormal belief than the student group. We shall now examine each of these hypotheses in turn, beginning with the ones that were the main focus of this piece of research.

As stated in the introduction, the main purpose of this project was to examine any link between paranormal belief and personality types, specifically Eysenck’s trait theory. We correlated each one of the three traits and found no significant correlation between high levels of paranormal belief and extraversion. We did however find a significant positive correlation between high scores on the PBS and high Neuroticism and Psychotisism scores scores. Interestingly though, when examining the two samples separately, the neuroticism correlation was only present in the parent sample, and the psychotisism correlation only found in the student. This supports the hypothesis put forward at the beginning of this research and also previous research studies, such as Williams, Francis and Robbins (2007) and Rogers et al (2006). Before we can consider the implications for this research we must examine what “paranormal belief” is. The PBS used in our study had questions regarding ESP, telepathy, precognition and life after death. It is therefore a fairly specific scale of paranormal belief, focusing mostly on one area (“special abilities” people believe they may possess) and not a generalised examination of belief in the paranormal, yet the inclusion of a second are of paranormal belief (life after death) means it is not so specific it can be taken as not to give a generalised overview of a person’s paranormal beliefs. If other factors of paranormal belief had been included it may have given a dramatically different result if more “out there” beliefs were included amongst the “every day” ones currently used. Several questions of the scale also focus on an individual’s own experiences with the paranormal. Therefore a slightly sceptical person, who thinks they may have had a telepathic moment of a precognitive dream, may score higher than a full believer who has never experienced these things. Of course we must question just how likely this is considering a believer in paranormal phenomenon is far more likely to interpret a coincidence as a case of paranormal occurrence than a sceptic.

According to Eysenck’s trait theory, people with a high level of neuroticism will have difficulty coping in emotional situations, be more anxious, irritable and depressed. Why then should people who have a higher level of paranormal belief be more likely to have this trait? One possibility in regards to life after death is that it is a form of coping. Neurotics have difficulty coping with emotion so bereavements, an already difficult time, may be even more difficult for them. Perhaps the belief that after death our loved ones are still there, they exist as spirits or come back in cases of reincarnation are a comfort. In regards to belief in ESP (and possessing it), it may be possible that neurotics who are anxious and have low self esteem may wish to be special and so believe themselves to posses such abilities. Perhaps they are worried about being “mad” after a strange experience so internalise it as a case of telepathy, when a more emotionally stable person could just put it down as a strange coincidence. Perhaps they also believe that ESP is linked to communicating with the dead, and that psychic mediums can put them in contact with their loved ones again, in a similar thought process to our first explanation.

Before we move on to the next hypothesis we shall briefly examine the possibility that such powers do exist and that people with a high level of neuroticism are in fact somehow more in tune with underlying paranormal abilities than people who are more emotionally stable. When Eysenck first proposed the trait, he explained its existence from a biological perspective. Research has indeed shown that there are physiological differences in the brains between low and high neuroticism scorers. Perhaps it is because of one of these differences that neurotics are more sensitive to real life psychic phenomenon. Studies have found higher levels of ESP (Dean & Nash 1967, Carpenter 1971 and Johnson and Nordbeck 1972) when a subject is physiologically aroused. Perhaps the feelings of guilt, anxiety or stress that neurotics are more likely to feel leads them to have heightened abilities during these times.

Paranormal belief and Religious belief are two quite similar systems of belief. Both are based in the “supernatural” and have major themes of life after death, special abilities and even being able to predict the future. Our study found a significant correlation between high levels of paranormal belief and high levels of both extrinsic and intrinsic religious belief, however when comparing the two samples individually, said correlation was only significant in the student sample. Intrinsic and Extrinsic religious belief were first proposed and measured by Allport and Ross (1967). A persons intrinsic level of religion is how personal a persons religion is to them and to what extent they live as true to it, whereas extrinsic religion measures to what extent the person belongs to the religious group. We would therefore assume that because of the similarities in faith and similar patterns of belief that there would be a significant correlation between a persons intrinsic religious belief and paranormal score. However, we have also found a significant correlation between extrinsic belief and paranormal score, suggesting that both forms of religion are linked to paranormal belief levels.

The suitability of the I/E scale however can be called into question for this research question. Maltby and Lewis (1996) concluded that the scale is suitable for both religious and non-religious samples. However, several concerns were raised during this research. Firstly, atheist/non-religious participants raised several concerns about how they could not answer the questions/did not understand their meaning. Secondly, several agnostic participants scored higher than religious participants on the extrinsic scale because they answered “Not certain” instead of “No”. Thirdly, the scale only seems to measure belief in Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). In the case of one participant, they scored low on the scale, but left a comment on their questionnaire saying they were highly religious but the questions did not reflect their religion, in this case it was a New Age religion focusing on similar concepts to Buddhism and Wicca.

It is to compare the levels of belief that two samples were chosen. Our first sample, A Level Psychology students under 20 were selected because they may have a more critical outlook on life, but also have narrow life experience, based on lack of work, life, family/relationship experience. The second group, people aged between 30-50 with children were selected to provide a contrast to lack of experience. The careers, family relationships and responsibilities of this group may give them a different perspective on the existence of paranormal phenomenon. There is however the worry of a confounding variable presented by this group. While it can be safely assumed Psychology students would have an interest in and be open minded to taking part in research, the parent group may have not felt comfortable taking part but not wanting to say anything, may have been more likely to answer in a socially desirable manner or may even have not seen the importance of research and answered the scales given randomly. Our results found no significant difference in level of belief between the two groups, so this hypothesis has therefore been rejected. We shall examine later potential further research in this area.

The final hypothesis we examined was that paranormal believers would have a lower average GCSE/O Level grade than non-believers. This hypothesis was decided on because of the earlier research into intelligence and paranormal belief. Even though we found a significant correlation, it was not present when correlations on the separate groups were employed. This may possibly be because the measure used was ridden with several methodological problems, which we shall now discuss. Firstly, as the results section had shown it was an under reported piece of data. Only 57% of participants completed this section on their questionnaires, the majority being in the student group (only 10 participants out of the 49 in the parent group did so). There may be several different reasons for this. Several participants misunderstood what was asked of them and either did not put down the correct qualification (several gave degree results, A Level results or vocational qualifications), put down the number of qualifications but not grades, or the subjects but not grades. Some participants in the parent group also answered “None” (Because of the wide variety of backgrounds the parent participants were drawn from, it is possible that several did not have any qualifications when leaving school), whereas others just left the question blank (again, this mostly occurred in the parent group). For those who did not report their grades it may have been a result of not being able to remember them, not seeing the importance of reporting them, or simply embarrassment. Because average scores were used, someone with fewer (or one) good qualifications may have scored similar to someone with lots of good qualifications, meaning that we may also not have had an accurate measure of someone’s academic ability for this research.

Before we move on to avenues of other research, there were several general methodological issues raised by the research. There were a few completed questionnaires which had to be discarded before analysis could take place as the participant either did not answer the tests in the correct fashion for analysis (one participant answered the EPQ by writing “sometimes” or “maybe” as answers to several questions, took it upon themselves to change questions in such a way their actual answers were unusable, or left too many questions blank for their results to be accurate. A potential way of rectifying this would be to reiterate during the instructions the method in which the participant must answer the questions and emphasise the importance of answering all questions correctly.

Our results and conclusions open up several other interesting possibilities for further research. We shall examine each of these in relation to the four hypothesis that were the focus of this research.

Firstly, there are several possibilities for further research for the main research aim: personality type and paranormal belief. One may be to compare individual sub factors of paranormal belief to the three Eysenck traits. Using individual scales we could compare participant’s belief in ghosts and haunting, psychic mediums ESP, UFO’s, strange creatures, etc. to how they score on the EPQ. We may be able to identify individual links between the specific beliefs and the traits and identify which beliefs are most prevalent. It may also be interesting to compare level of belief to other trait theories such as Costa and McCrae’s Big Five, which has similar traits (such as neuroticism) but also additional ones. Further research could also be undertaken to examine the role of psychotisism and paranormal belief. (which was found to be significant in the student sample).

Level of belief between two groups could also be examined. Further research could be undertaken to examine differences between A Level students and vocational students, Psychology students and arts students, students and non students at the same age to see if there are differing levels of paranormal belief. We could also examine the 30-50 parent group for any differences. Compare parents to non-parents, university graduates to non-graduates, parents with one child to parents with more than one child, parents of young children to parents of grown up children. In both of these groups there are endless possibilities for further research comparisons, each one could reveal fundamental differences in levels of belief based upon life experiences which could aid our understanding in what leads to paranormal belief as well as allowing us to infer further information from what we have seen in the results of this study. We could also compare the level of individual paranormal beliefs (as discussed in the previous paragraph) to our existing samples to see if there are any specific differences in types of belief.

Academic achievement and paranormal belief is a subject that requires much further research, made more difficult by the under reporting found. One way to improve this would be to give all participants our own measure of academic ability, perhaps based upon an existing school assessment test. The difficulties of this would be fatigue effects, the students having an unfair advantage to the adults as they would have more recent experience in these tests. Another possibility is to just score on English, Maths and Science, as they are the three compulsory (and often considered) “core” subjects. While we may have the same problems with members of the parent group who do not possess these qualifications, it may reduce a number of the other possible reasons why participants did not report these grades. To reduce the embarrassment factor we could also assure participants of anonymity and the importance of reporting the information. To reduce the misreporting of information (wrong qualifications, only number of passes, and only the subjects) we could rephrase the question so it is clear to participants which information we require. Another possible interesting avenue of research could be comparing previous qualifications (i.e. seeing if students with a higher art grade have a higher level of paranormal belief than students with a high science grade, etc.).

To conclude, the purpose of this study was to examine any link between paranormal belief, personality type, religious belief, academic achievement and examine differing levels of belief among two samples – A Level students studying psychology, aged 16-19 and parents aged 30-50. Our results found that high paranormal belief scorers are also more likely to score high on Eysenck’s neuroticism and psychotisism traits on a personality test, have higher levels of both extrinsic and intrinsic religious belief and are more likely to have lower exam grades than non-believers. However, we did not find any significant difference between the two groups.

 

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to the staff and students at Gorseinon College, Swansea and the parents and leaders of 1st Loughor Brownies and 1st Loughor Scout Group, Swansea for taking part in this research.

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