Sep 03 2015

Thinking Style and Paranormal Belief

One burning question that comes up in skeptical circles is whether or not people who believe in the paranormal, are highly religious, or are enamored of conspiracy theories think differently than skeptics. Obviously they have different beliefs, but the question is whether or not their brains function differently in some respects from people who are more rational and scientific.

It certainly seems as if this is the case, but being skeptics we understand the irony of relying on intuition to conclude that other people rely more on intuition. Fortunately we have some psychological research to shed light on this question, including a recent study I will discuss below.

First let me dispense with the obvious false dichotomy – we should not think of this question as if there are two distinct types of people. Psychological studies will often do this, but they are simply dividing a continuum down the middle, or are only considering people at either end of the spectrum.

All human traits that we can measure seem to vary in healthy individuals along a Bell curve, with most people being somewhere near the average value and progressively fewer people the further you get from the mean to either side. The distribution in the population is not always normal, and there are often demographic subpopulations, but generally speaking there is probably a Bell-like curve for any human trait.

This includes psychological traits as well. It therefore should not be a surprise that people vary according to their cognitive style as well. The extra added layer of complexity is that psychological traits are heavily influenced by culture and environment.

The cognitive trait we are discussing here is the continuum between an intuitive cognitive style and an analytical cognitive style. The former relies heavily on “gut feeling” and intuition when drawing conclusions, while the latter will break a question down and analyze it logically.

In reality everyone uses both intuitive and analytical approaches to questions, just to varying degrees. We all have intuitive reactions, but then will spend varying amounts of time and effort backing up those intuitions with careful analysis.

This also varies within an individual. In medicine, for example, doctors shift from analytical to intuitive strategies as they gain in clinical experience. Newly minted doctors don’t have enough experience to trust their intuition, and so rely more heavily on analytical approaches.

Intuitive vs analytical approaches also vary by situation. By putting time pressure on subjects, for example, you can force them to rely more on intuition because they don’t have the time for careful analysis.

Given all these variables, we can ask if different people will have a greater tendency toward intuition or analysis while trying to keep as many variables as possible the same. The research does support the conclusion that there are those who have a greater tendency toward intuitive cognitive style and others who have a greater tendency toward analytical thinking.

Not surprisingly, studies consistently show that analytical thinking is associated with a lower level of belief in religion and the paranormal. This is old news. The deeper question is why? Can we isolate the errors or biases in the intuitive thinking style that leads people to believe in things that are demonstrably not true. (I won’t spend time exploring the question of whether or not things like astrology or homeopathy are true in this article and just take it as a premise that has been adequately established in the more than a thousand other articles on this site.)

The task of isolating the specific factors that make intuitive thinkers more likely to believe in ghosts has not been as easy as it might seem. First, everyone has cognitive biases. This is an important lesson that I try to emphasize often – we all have cognitive biases. It’s just that some people take the time to analyze a question more deeply and not rely upon their biased intuition. This, of course, is a partial answer to the question of why intuitive thinkers believe more. But how does this specifically manifest when confronting a question?

One hypothesis is that intuitive thinkers are more likely to fall for specific fallacies. One fallacy in particular that has been studied is the conjunction fallacy. This is a probabilistic error – after describing Linda as someone highly concerned with social justice, you ask subjects whether it is more likely that Linda is a bank teller, a feminist, or a bank teller and a feminist.

Simple logic tells you (when you stop to think about it) that the conjunction of both traits has to be less likely than either trait alone. And yet consistently about 85% of respondents will say that Linda is more likely to be a bank teller and a feminist than a bank teller alone.

Researchers hypothesized that intuitive thinkers would fall for this fallacy more often than analytical thinkers, but at least one study showed this is not the case. Some fallacies are just too deep even for your average analytical thinker, it seems. This could mean that even if we have an analytical thinking style, we still are terrible on average when it comes to thinking about probability.

Now finally we come to the new study. Researchers Bouvet and Bonnefon did a series of three studies in which they exposed subjects to an uncanny experience involving either ESP or astrology. They found that those who scored more toward the intuitive end of the spectrum were more likely to come to a supernatural conclusion about their experience than those with an analytical (or what they call “reflective”) style of thinking.

For example, they provided a fake “Barnum” astrology reading for each subject. This consists of statements most people will recognize in themselves. They were asked to rate the accuracy of the reading, and also whether they believed it reflected the legitimacy of astrology. Both reflective and non-reflective thinkers thought the reading was accurate, but the reflective thinkers rejected the astrological interpretation. Prior belief in the paranormal did not predict this effect, only reflective thinking style.

This makes sense. Certainly believers use anecdotal coincidence as a primary source of “evidence” to support their beliefs. Meanwhile skeptics are more comfortable explaining uncanny events as mere coincidence or as being the result of biased perception. Even when it feels uncanny, we know logically that unlikely events become likely given enough time and opportunity.

Also I think we are bothered more by a “magical” explanation. It simply violates too much of our philosophical and scientific understanding of the world. Believers are not necessarily more scientifically illiterate – even highly educated individuals can be believers – but they are bothered less by apparent contradictions between their paranormal beliefs and logic and evidence. Perhaps they are bothered less because they reflect upon these conflicts less.


The psychological research shows a strong signal that believers in the paranormal and supernatural tend to be more intuitive thinkers while skeptics tend to be more analytical thinkers. However, there are many more factors to consider and we have just started to explore all the nuances of this question.

For me personally one question I have is whether or not skeptics are impressed less by supernatural ideas or simply reject them because they don’t stand up to analysis. I suspect here too people vary along a spectrum.

This is anecdotal, but after speaking to many many skeptics, there are those who report that belief in the paranormal or supernatural never had the slighted draw on their attention or emotions. They never believed, and cannot understand those who do.

Other skeptics report that they were believers at one point, and can fully understand the appeal of the supernatural, but rejected such beliefs after they learned logic and science.

We may be dealing with at least two separate variables here, and I suspect there are others. I think conspiracy thinking, for example, is its own phenomenon.

These are just my hypotheses after extensive observation. I await scientific analysis to sort out whether my intuitions are reliable.

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