Exploring the Links Between Paranormal Belief and Stress

Image via Bellava G on Unsplash.com

In Fall of 2020, I had the privilege of taking the Cognitive Science course at California College of the Arts, taught by Professor Kacey Ballard. The primary objective of this course was to design and conduct a research study, culminating in a report and presentation documenting our findings.

Our research topic was the potential correlation between one’s level of belief or disbelief in the paranormal and their average level of stress.

This project took place over the course of 15 weeks and was conducted by myself and three other students, all of whom are Interaction Design majors, as well: Jiyeon Park, Philip Joo, and Dewen (Derek) Zhang.

You can view our presentation here and read our report here.

What is the Paranormal?

We are using an official definition of the term “paranormal,” which means, “denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.”

Paranormal: denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding

We became interesting in exploring this topic further due to its relation to the field of Cognitive Science. We wondered how some people can look at their surroundings and believe they see an apparition, while others see nothing, or while some may hear a noise or get the intuitive sense that there’s someone else present, even when they appear to be alone.

Our team represented a range of beliefs on the subject, which made coming to consensus on a hypothesis difficult, but it was invaluable in assuring that everyone’s individual biases were being checked and not interfering with the study.

Why Study Stress?

Our differing perspectives on the paranormal inspired us to explore the connection between paranormal belief and one’s stress level. Some in our group felt that perhaps people’s perception of alleged paranormal activity is induced by higher levels of stress, which causes them to overanalyze situations of feel paranoia that makes them imagine things that aren’t really there.

On the flip side, some team members, including myself, had another thought on the matter. We proposed that perhaps people who believe in the paranormal are more open-minded to non-scientific and “unexplainable” phenomena, which demonstrates a greater ability to remain calm in stressful situations (like being confronted with something strange).

We proposed that perhaps people who believe in the paranormal are more open-minded to non-scientific and “unexplainable” phenomena, which demonstrates a greater ability to remain calm in stressful situations…

Our Hypothesis

A high level of belief in the paranormal indicates an increased level of openness to the unknown, which leads to a lower level of stress among paranormal believers.

Previous Studies

We sought to ground our research by familiarizing ourselves with existing work in the field. To do this, we chose four scientific papers to analyze closely. Here are our main takeaways:

  • People with low Emotional Intelligence had some type of coping strategy and more belief in the paranormal. (Rogers, P., Qualter, P., & Gardner, K., 2006)
  • Main challenge in this field of study, the lack of defined and generally accepted measures of religiosity/spirituality, and personal beliefs. (Agorastos, A., Demiralay, C., & Huber, C. G., 2014)
  • Emotionality and openness to experience corresponded positively while conscientiousness and IQ corresponded negatively with the paranormal beliefs. (Betsch, T., Aßmann, L., & Glöckner, A., 2020)
  • There is a difference in the way individuals complete perceptual decision making and visual attention tasks, and it is the biases in these processes that inform one’s paranormal beliefs. (Van Elk, M., 2015)

Methods

We used two surveys created with Google Forms to gather our data. The main purpose for the survey being delivered in two parts was simply to minimize the amount of time that participants needed to spend on the survey in one sitting. Since we were using two existing scales — one to evaluate one’s level of belief in the paranormal and another for assessing one’s level of stress in the past month — there were quite a lot of questions that needed to be answered.

We weighed the drawbacks and benefits of splitting the survey into two parts. While doing it in two parts might mean losing some people who do the first, but don’t come back to do the second, it might be the best option considering that people may also be too busy to do all of the questions in one sitting.

Participants

We wanted to recruit as many participants as possible to ensure that we had enough data to draw meaningful and credible conclusions at the end of the study. At the same time, it would be necessary to screen some people out. Since the scale we were using to assess one’s level of paranormal belief is predicated on a Western understanding of what constitutes the “paranormal,” this would not be an appropriate tool for assessing the beliefs of people from non-Western countries. The team of researchers that I was part of was very diverse (with all four of us being able to contribute detailed cultural understandings of four different countries), so we recognized the importance of being mindful of people’s varying cultures and beliefs.

The team of researchers that I was part of was very diverse … so we recognized the importance of being mindful of people’s varying cultures and beliefs.

In all, our surveys were answered by 157 people. The majority of these respondents were college students, but a significant portion were not. All age groups from age 18 to people in their 70s were represented in our study.

Initially, we disseminated the surveys by sharing it out to our personal networks and by posting it on social media (e.g. Instagram, Slack). We managed to gather a decent number of responses through this, but we wanted to be more certain that our results were reliable, so we needed more participants. As students, we were able to share the link around our college and send out email invitations to tons of students to explain our project and ask them to participate.

This was very successful, and we managed to get many more responses.

Survey Design

Part 1

The first survey was 38 questions and used two pre-existing scales to evaluate paranormal belief and stress level. We used the Revised Paranormal Belief Scale to determine participants’ level of belief in the paranormal (RPBS, 28 questions) and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS, 10 questions) to determine their recent level of stress. Here is a bit about each of the scales that we incorporated into our study:

Revised Paranormal Belief Scale:

  • Defines paranormal beliefs as falling into seven categories
  • Traditional Religious Belief, Psi Phenomena, Witchcraft, Superstition, Spiritualism, Extraordinary Life Forms, and Precognition
  • Value Scale of 1 to 7 (1 = Strongly Disagree / 7 = Strongly Agree)
  • Defines a numerical value that represents participant’s level of belief in the paranormal

Perceived Stress Scale:

  • Measuring the frequency rate of participant’s feelings or situations
  • Value scale of 1 to 6 (1 = never / 4 = Very often)
  • Adding scores from each of the 10 PSS questions is used to define each participant’s general stress level

Part 2

The second survey was also intended to inform our understanding of each participant’s level of belief in the paranormal. We thought that it was one thing to present someone with an abstract concept, like “ghosts do/do not exist,” but it was another thing completely to actually present them with evidence. We wanted to show photos and videos that allegedly show paranormal activity to see how people would judge them — whether they would opt for a scientific explanation or a paranormal explanation. Here are some extra details:

  • Some of the evidence presented has been officially debunked by scientific explanations, others have been exposed as hoaxes, and others have yet to be refuted
  • Value scale from 1 to 5 (1 = Not Paranormal / 5 = Definitely Paranormal)
  • Their score here, taken with their score on the RPBS, would show us their level of belief in the paranormal

We wanted to determine whether a participant is more likely to use a scientific explanation (a score of 1 or 2) or a paranormal explanation (a score 4 or 5) with the evidence of an unknown phenomenon → This would show us each participant’s level open-mindedness to the “unexplained” and the paranormal.

There was one final component being studied in the survey. We became interested in whether or not one’s paranormal beliefs correlate with their general affect. We became aware of some stereotypes as we conducted our secondary research into the matter of paranormal beliefs; namely that some more extreme paranormal believers can be classed as crazy, obsessive, or paranoid. Some people seem think that these people are consumed by negativity — distrust of science and the factual world around them and always assuming there’s something hidden or unknown.

However, we could also see the argument the other way: paranormal skeptics are quick to dismiss things that conflict with their present knowledge. Does that mean that this indicates a higher level of general pessimism and negativity in their lives? To judge this, we used an existing scale called the International Positive and Negative Affect Scale (I-PANAS-SF, 20 questions):

  • The scale consists of 20 words describing emotions and asks each participants to rate the strength of each words → Participant’s overall mood based on the frequency of emotions within the last month
  • This defines two scores from this portion of the survey → one’s level of positive affect and their negative affect

Results

Belief Groups

Based on the responses we received for the RPBS and our own selection of paranormal photos and videos, we were able to get a numerical value for each person’s level of paranormal belief. With this, we were able to categorize participants into four groups:

  • Strong Skeptics
  • Moderate Skeptics
  • Moderate Believers
  • Strong Believers
Participants were sorted into groups based on their level of paranormal belief

The minimum score possible for this part of the survey was 26 (extreme skeptic) and the highest score possible was 182 (extreme believer). Here is how each category is defined:

  • Strong Skeptics = 65 or lower
  • Moderate Skeptics = 66 to 103
  • Moderate Believers = 104 to 143
  • Strong Believers = 144 or more

Here is the average score of each group. In this graph, a higher score equals a higher level of belief in the paranormal, while a lower score indicates a greater amount of skepticism toward the paranormal.

The groups were defined based on the score the participant got on the RPBS and our second survey

Analysis

The results from our initial survey indicated that there is no significant correlation between one’s level of belief in the paranormal and level of stress. The groups in order of least stress to most stress were:

  1. Strong Believers
  2. Moderate Skeptics
  3. Moderate Believers
  4. Strong Skeptics

The average levels of stress are similar among both groups of skeptics and Moderate Believers, with less than a 2 point difference between them.

There was a noticeable decrease in average stress level among participants in the Strong Believer category, with a score that drops almost 2 points. However, we believe that we could possibly attribute this lower score to the fact that this group had the fewest participants.

Our hypothesis seemed to be partially validated by the scores of the Strong Skeptics and Strong Believers, but the scores of Moderate Skeptics and Moderate Believers appear to invalidate the claim that stress level and paranormal belief are correlated. If the hypothesis was proven, Moderate Skeptics would have reported a higher level of stress compared to Moderate Believers, which was not the case.

We found the average level of stress for each category of participants

The results from the second survey also indicate no significant correlation between level of belief in paranormal phenomena and one’s positive affect. The groups in order of lowest level of positive affect to highest level were:

  1. Moderate Skeptics
  2. Moderate Believers
  3. Strong Skeptics
  4. Strong Believers

The score reported by Strong Believers was significantly higher than all others, which would seem to suggest that this aspect of our hypothesis had been proven; however, the high score of Strong Skeptics and low score of Moderate Believers once again invalidates it. Had it been correct, Moderate Believers would report a higher score than Strong Skeptics, indicating a greater positive affect.

We did observe a positive correlation between level of belief in paranormal phenomena and one’s level of negative affect. Among our participants, level of negative affect increased as level of belief in the paranormal increased. The groups in order of lowest level of negative affect to highest level were:

  1. Strong Skeptics
  2. Moderate Skeptics
  3. Moderate Believers
  4. Strong Believers

Those with a lower level of belief in the paranormal reported feeling a lesser intensity of negative emotions than those with a greater amount of belief in the paranormal. This disproves an aspect of our hypothesis, as we expected these results to be reversed to indicate that a higher level of paranormal belief correlates with a less negative affect.

We calculated the average levels of positive and negative affect for each group

Constraints and Limitations

One factor that may have affected our results was the difference in number of participants in each category. The number of people in the Strong Skeptics, Moderate Skeptics, and Moderate Believers categories were all similar, but there were much fewer Strong Believers who took part in our surveys.

There may also be other life factors outside of the variables we tested that contribute to high or low levels of stress and positive and negative affect, such as work or school obligations, personal relationships, and the like. Ideally, conducting this study with more participants from the most underrepresented group, the Strong Believers, would create a more definitive set of results.

One final thing that influenced overall participation in the study was the warning that we provided to participants before taking our second survey. This was the survey that showed photos and videos of purported paranormal activity, and some early respondents voiced some concerns to us after taking the survey. They expressed discomfort and unease about some of the things that were shown, so we thought it best to provide a content warning for the rest of the respondents. This was most certainly the only ethical way to handle the situation, and it probably resulted in some people being too scared to take the second survey even though the took the initial survey. In the end, we did get more respondents on the first survey compared to the second.

Why It Matters

Had our hypothesis been proven, the results could have had important implications when it comes to the ideal ways of understanding the world and managing stress. Here are our recommendations based on our findings:

Our recommendations based on our findings

Our research, indicates that while paranormal believers do not seem to possess any distinct toolset which makes them less susceptible to strong perceptions of stress, they are also not afflicted by stress at a greater intensity than paranormal skeptics. Our results do appear to counter the popular perception that increased stress is a cause of paranormal experiences and beliefs.

The data we collected implies that we should shift our opinion of people with strong paranormal beliefs and de-stigmatize holding these views, as these beliefs are too complex to be explained away by high stress levels. Participants in our surveys likely had valid personal reasons to hold their views, whether they are backed by scientific evidence or not, perhaps owing to their religious or cultural backgrounds.

Further, we should approach others with views that we do not understand with more empathy — rather than writing paranormal views off as being triggered by intense stress, we must recognize that different people will assess unknown phenomena differently without passing premature judgments.

Further, we should approach others with views that we do not understand with more empathy…

In Conclusion…

So while there is a difference in the way that skeptics and believers judge strange situations, neither method seems to correlate with any exceptionally high or low level of stress or positive affect. With that being said, it is time for us to fix our biases towards paranormal beliefs and the people who hold them.

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