If there’s one thing the paranormal community has no shortage of, it’s self-proclaimed experts. Many have suffered under the long winded, unsupported meandering claims of these “Para-Con artists” (See what I did there?). Their hastily co-written self-published books, t-shirts, television shows, convention appearances, quack gadgetry and promotional photos represent them to a naive crowd of adoring fans while their unwillingness or ability to offer peer reviewed support for their fantastic (and often absurd) claims clearly defines them to the true thinkers of the community.
In June of 2015 research published in Psychological Science a journal of the Association for Psychological Science revealed that the more people think they know about a topic in general, the more likely they are to allege knowledge of completely made-up information and false facts. This is a phenomenon known as “over-claiming.” Part of the experimentation contained in the study involved testing whether individuals who perceived themselves to be experts in personal finance for example would be more likely to claim knowledge of fake financial terms. One hundred participants were asked to rate their general knowledge of personal finance, as well as their knowledge of 15 specific finance terms. Most of the terms on the list were real (i.e. Roth IRA, inflation, home equity), but the researchers also included three made-up terms such as (pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, annualized credit). The participants who saw themselves as financial experts were most likely to claim knowledge of the bogus finance terms (even when they were warned about them). The same pattern emerged for other domains, including biology, literature, philosophy, and geography. (Atir, S 2015)
While the study did not include paranormal research (for obvious reasons) it’s not hard to imagine the effect “over-claiming” has on those professing knowledge in this community. The world of paranormal investigation and research is filled with broad claims and ideas that have exceedingly little to no demonstrable support and those with a tendency to magically adopt expertise on these ideas can fill in the blanks and sell with confidence whatever conclusions make the most sense to them… and they certainly do.
Year after year thousands of people pay outrageous prices to fill the seats of convention halls and theaters, eager to listen to the latest and greatest players in the paranormal field. Unfortunately, quite often, the information they receive contains little to no substance in terms of research quality. Statements such as “Spirits can attach themselves to an object” or “Some spirits don’t like their photos to be taken.” are presented as fact with the presenter offering little to no research to support the claim.
I remember several years ago, sitting in an audience listening to a well-respected (and quite famous) demonologist/investigator. During the presentation the presenter told a story about a woman who was plagued by tremendous activity in her home. He went on to say that the woman had fallen into a deep depression and plainly stated “This malevolent spirit had attached itself to her and was slowly draining her energy, trying to take control”. I was astounded by what I was hearing. When the presentation was over the floor was opened up for questions and that was my opportunity to better understand.
I promptly raised my hand and spoke “I was wondering what research has been done to suggest that not only spirits exist, but that they can attach themselves to people and drain their energy?” without missing a beat the presenter replied “There have been a lot of documented cases over the years showing this, but unfortunately the scientists don’t want to take the time to learn for themselves.” Sensing a bit of agitation and an opportunity for clarity I countered “Well can you recommend a few published, peer reviewed cases that I could read?” Thinking for a moment, the presenter replied. “Well there are a few in my book. The case I spoke about today is a classic example.” It was clear that this “professional” researcher had no idea what published, peer reviewed research actually was. Realizing the futility of the conversation, I asked one final question. “How do you know that a spirit was causing that woman’s depression and not some other issue?” Unfortunately the reply I got was shocking, but not surprising. “We had already ruled out every other issue before coming to this conclusion. Psychologists gave her a clean bill of health… What else could it be?” And there it was… the smoking gun response “I don’t know what it is so it must be a demon”. How any psychologist worth his salt could give a woman with depression a clean bill of health beyond me, but then I wasn’t there and there is no properly documented record of the case.
The Earned Dogmatic Effect
What astounded me the most about this experience was that the audience was undeterred. After the questions were through, dozens of people lined up to buy his books and have their photos taken with this legendary investigator who’s self-proclaimed expertise has misguided people for decades. I can think of no other domain where such a fast path to notoriety is possible based on such an insubstantial foundation. However, many supporters of paranormal experts like the one mentioned find it easy to forgive a lack of scientific foundation in their claims. Many people approach paranormal study from a decidedly spiritual perspective and tend to seek experiences more than a foundation of knowledge claiming that hard Science often lacks an open mind.
Anyone would think that those with expertise (self-proclaimed or otherwise) in an area of study that deals with so many unknowns would at the very least offer the presence of an open mind, but a recent study presented in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tells quite a different perspective.
The research conducted at Loyola University in Chicago suggests that being an “expert” in anything can actually make you more closed-minded. The study found that people who perceive themselves to be experts tend to be less open to new ideas and alternative viewpoints. A character trait that does not sit well with a vocation in paranormal study (or the scientific community).
According to the study, social norms entitle experts to be more dogmatic. This Earned Dogmatism Effect was observed in five experiments. It emerged when using success (high expertise) and failure (low expertise) manipulations of test performance both within and outside the political domain. It also emerged when comparing participants who occupy a “high expertise social role”. (Ottati,V 2015)
It seems that in our society, we tolerate more forceful and dogmatic expressions of opinion when the speaker is an expert as opposed to a novice. Therefore when the situation makes us feel like we are an ‘expert,’ it activates these role expectations in our mind, and we feel more entitled to think in a dogmatic manner – in other words, we feel more entitled to dismiss, ignore, or disparage opinions and viewpoints that differ from our own opinion.
I have no doubt that we all have experienced (from both sides of the fence at one time or another) the effects of over claiming and earned dogmatic behavior. We are after all human. However, going forward as we continue our search of the unknown, either as teacher or student, it might not be a bad idea for everyone –especially these self-proclaimed kings of esoteric knowledge — to read up on what it means to show intellectual humility.
Atir, S., Rosenzweig, E., & Dunning, D. (2015). When knowledge knows no bounds : Self-perceived expertise predicts claims of impossible knowledge. Psychological Science. Retrieved from http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/07/14/0956797615588195.abstract
Ottati, V., Price, E., Wilson, C., & Sumaktoyo, N. (2015). When self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition: The earned dogmatism effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 61, 131-138. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103115001006