Why People Believe in ESP for the Wrong Reasons
by Sharon Presley
This article originally appeared in Independent Thinking Review, Vol. 2, No. 2
Extrasensory perception (ESP) is one of those “New Age-y” topics that stir up heated emotions on both sides of the fence. Skeptics practically turn apoplectic at the notion that such a phenomenon exists while New Age believers are equally adamant about its existence. The believers in ESP, however, are not just the readers of the latest P.T. Barnum story from the ilks of the National Inquirer. A survey of 1100 college professors found that 55% of natural scientists, 66% of social scientists, (excluding psychologists) and 77% of academics in the arts, humanities and education believed that ESP is either an established fact or a likely possibility. The figure for psychologists was only 34% (partly because we understand statistics better and are more aware of the cognitive processes that trick people into believing in ESP). So, in spite of a spate of books from Prometheus Press denouncing the belief in ESP, the debate is far from over.
A subject more interesting to me then whether ESP exists is why people believe in it. As a social psychologist, I am intrigued by the fact that even relatively sophisticated people accept ESP as a controllable, nonchance event, an interpretation which, at least on the surface of it, seems contrary to the natural laws that we generally accept as true.
There are, of course, individual personality characteristics that make some people more prone to accept beliefs without good evidence than others but more interesting from a critical thinker's point of view are the cognitive and social psychological effects that may influence even reasonable people to believe in ESP. For the purpose of this article, it is irrelevant whether ESP exists or not, since even if it does exist, many people may believe in it for the wrong (i.e., irrelevant, nonrational) reasons. The converse is also true, i.e., even if ESP does not exist, some people disbelieve for the wrong reasons (e.g., a knee-jerk, emotionally charged reaction from a skeptic who has not explored the scientific evidence on both sides).
Misperception of chance events
Misperception of chance events is one of the most powerful psychological phenomena affecting belief in ESP. Few people other than trained scientists and the mathematically sophisticated truly understand the nature of chance. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who have experimentally explored people's perceptions about chance, suggest that a number of cognitive psychological processes are going on.
One of the common ways, for example, that people in natural, nonexperimental settings come to believe in ESP is through the occurrence of a "confirming event." A friend in another city may die on the very same day that an individual is suddenly overcome with a fear of her death, or he may have a premonition that she is going to die. Because the coincidence is so striking and unusual, it is often interpreted as noncoincidental. How could such an unusual coincidence happen by chance, they ask? It must be ESP.
Coincidences, it has been argued, are as common as cornflakes but because we don't understand probability, we don't always recognize that unusual-looking events are in fact just coincidences. “People fail to appreciate," writes cognitive psychologist Thomas Gilovich, “how many chances they have to experience something coincidental.” While the odds of a particular coincidence may be extremely low, the odds of a set of equally remarkable coincidences is generally higher, a phenomenon he refers to as “multiple endpoints." For example, the probability of meeting your old high school teacher may be next to zero but the probability of meeting someone, anyone from your past, is much greater.
In his book, How We Know What Isn't So, Gilovich gives a powerful example of our misunderstanding of chance and coincidence. When the average person is asked to consider the probability of two people in a given group having the same birth date, most think it is unlikely. In fact, the probability is roughly 50-50 in a group as small as 23. When the group size is only 35, the probability increases to 85%.
Another good example of our misunderstanding of chance is provided in Michael Shermer's book, Why People Believe Weird Thing . In an ESP experiment he participated in, three person got s score of 8 right and three got 2. They were told that the average score was 5 and chance was between 3 and 7. Did the score of 8 constitute proof of ESP ability? The participants thought so. When Shermer pointed out that all the scores in fact reflected a normal bell curve distribution around an average of 5, i.e., the scores were all chance, the lecturer just went on talking about how to improve your ESP through practice.
One compelling psychological principle that accounts for our misperception of chance is a false notion of representativeness. Chance events that look like non-chance because they are sufficiently different from normal events can be hard to accept as coincidence. Premonitions of danger that seem to accurately “predict” the actual occurrence of the danger fall into this category since such premonitions are indeed rare events. Another example: if we toss a coin five times and it comes up in the sequence HTTHT, we accept it as normal chance. If we toss the coin five times and it comes up in the sequence HHHHH, we may think that such a sequence can't possibly occur by chance. In fact, in a honest coin toss, the probability of a head or a tail coming up each time is 50% for either. That means that the sequence HHHHH is statistically as likely as any other single combination. But because it is so striking and looks so different from the other combinations, people often assume it is nonchance.
Another similar misunderstanding of chance is the so-called gambler's fallacy or, as it is sometimes called, the " Monte Carlo fallacy." It's the idea that a long losing streak at the roulette wheel is sure to change soon or that a number that hasn't come up lately is sure to occur soon. But in an honest game, the probability of any given number coming up on the roulette wheel is the same every time. By chance any given number may come up in the next spin or it may not come up for days or weeks. All are equally likely. The poor gambler who accepts this fallacy may run out of money well before his or her "number" comes up!
A second principle discussed by Kahneman and Tversky is what they call "availability" or ease of bringing to mind. Those events that we judge as more likely to occur or that subjectively seem more real are the ones more easily brought to mind, recalled, pictured or imagined than those not so easily brought to mind. Events that look like occurrences of ESP-incidents that seem like telepathy or clairvoyance-are much more interesting to remember than all the times we may have thought something was going to happen and it didn't. Non-coincidences go unnoticed because they are not unusual. The unusual is easier to bring to mind and remember because it stands out.
As an example of this, in his discussion of ESP, psychologist Irwin Child cites the example of his experience with a "fast PK" (psychokinesis) machine. (The machine counts rapidly from one up, with a visual display of each number as it goes along. It either continues or stops by a random process). He reports that when he commanded the machine to stop and it did, he remembered this seemingly impressive event much more easily than all the times he said stop and it didn't.
Another variation of this phenomenon is the "fallacy of the positive instances." We remember confirming events but forget (or ignore) the disconfirming. Stereotypes continue to be perpetuated this way. If you, for example, expect Asians to be bad drivers, you may be more likely to remember the times you saw bad Asian drivers and forget the times you saw normal or good Asian drivers (as well as all the bad drivers of every other race and nationality!). So you continue to believe that Asian drivers are bad. The same happens with ESP. If you are inclined to believe in ESP, you are more likely to remember the events that seem like ESP and forget all the times your hunch didn't pan out.
Other Psychological Factors
There are also other psychological reasons, both cognitive and personal, why people may accept the idea of ESP. Most people tend to trust their own perceptions more than scientific evidence. This is basically another version of "availability." Our own perceptions seem much more real to us than abstract scientific data.
Another factor is social skills. We may pick up subtle nonverbal cues from another person, guessing what's on their minds because of subtle cues and/or our knowledge of that person. When the phone rings and we know who it is, the reason may be because we unconsciously know the times they're most likely to call. That, combined with the fallacy of the positive instances, means we may remember our confirming hunches and forget the times we were wrong about the phone.
For some people, believing in ESP fulfills some personal need. It may, for example, give them a sense of control in their lives that they otherwise lack. The degree to which you perceive that you have control over your life is a powerful variable that helps us understand many kinds of behavior. Belief that one's life is out of control is a factor in depression, abuse of spouses and children. In depression the perceived lack of control leads people to just give up and quit trying. In spousal abuse, trying to control others is an unconscious way of boosting pseudo-self esteem: Your life is out of control but you still have control over the kids or wife through fear and intimidation. Belief in ESP (or tarot or pyramid power or whatever) is a less extreme (and less damaging) way to believe that you have some kind of control over your life.
Gilovich also provides several suggestions. The main culprit, in his view, is favorable and uncritical media coverage. Shermer might very well agree. In his book, Shermer provides some eye-opening anecdotes from his experiences on TV talk shows. Though often brought on board as the token skeptic, he rarely gets in more than a few sound bites while the pro-ESP people get the lion's share of the time.
Gilovich also discusses what he calls the "will to believe." ESP suggests a greater reality that we don't understand, that seduces us with the "transcendental temptation," to use Paul Kurtz' term. It opens up the possibility of survival after death and implies that we all have undeveloped powers. Gilovich also points out that the skeptical perspective may sometimes be rejected because it appears to "lack elegance," i.e., skeptics can offer no clear-cut, unified explanation for reported psychic events while the believers in ESP have one simple explanation; "psychic power".
There are many things we know that aren't so. The existence of ESP is likely to one of them. Next time you're tempted to think your lucky hunch is ESP or you read about an “amazing” demonstration of ESP, apply a little critical thinking about the notions of chance and probability and you're more likely to be very unimpressed.
Child, Irwin. Humanistic Psychology and the Research Tradition, Chapter 8: Extrasensory Perception. John Wiley, 1973.
Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Reason in Everyday Life . Free Press, 1991
Rucker, Rudy. “Puzzles in Thoughtland: The Powers of Coincidence.” Science 85, February, 1985.
Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things. W.H. Freeman, 1997.
Tversky, Amos & Kahneman, Daniel. “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.” Science, vol. 185, 11224-31, 1974.
Sharon Presley, Ph.D. is a social psychologist.
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