Threesology Research Journal
Belief: A Three-Stage Model

Most undertakings (be they business, political, religious, etc.,) do not provide commentary directed towards the concept we call "belief"; whether such ventures are an internet web page inclined towards providing a serious and truthful account of personal experiences and interpretations with or without original thinking, or a scholarly attempt to "up the truth ante" with respect to the value of information being provided.

Scholarly attempts to justify educated assumptions based on supporting data, characteristically involve the adoption of consummately including the research "findings" of others that may or may not support one's own educated guesstimations because they provide an alternative view. A higher level of truth and honesty is presupposed to be achieved if a researcher provides a preponderance of data that (at least suggestively) supports the views being provided, particularly when a researcher also provides perspectives from the findings of those that may not directly argue diametrically against one's views, but at least provides alternative opinions; an action that is to be respected as the display of a forthright open-mindedness that remains receptive to information that may or may not lead to further reappraisals of a researcher's conclusions. In other words, if a researcher's efforts give the appearance of an attempt to be forthright and honest, their own views are provided with giving them the benefit of any doubt which might be entertained.

Typically, the general public, in a semi-conscious manner, equates the phrase:

"conclusion based on findings"

with an unalterable truth value instead of it as an "educated opinion;" little acknowledging, much-less realizing, that:

the "conclusion" refers to a statistical probability under given circumstances...

—with respect to the parameters of a particular type of experimental procedure.

While a researcher that earnestly wants to convey their findings in a atmosphere of (peer- reviewed/) honesty that is open to purposeful critique, will not only provide the perspective of those who are thought to support their conclusions, but those whose research may provide a different standard for interpreting the very same findings; because they accept the proviso of professional courtesy extended to them by other researchers who clearly understand that alternative standards for interpretation do not necessarily negate one's own. However, in contrast, the general public typically wants their beliefs to be accepted as forthright truth without documented supporting evidence in a not-too-critical (friends/family- reviewed) atmosphere, which at the very least could be used as a "what" confirmation about "why" they believe something is true for them based on their personal experiences, but is nonetheless presented, in many cases, as hearsay, even though it may be defined as common sense. For example, if a person is asked how many people in the world believe in God, they might say "most" or "all" people, with or without qualifying remarks to support their claims...yet no supporting data is supplied. While it may be "commonly occurring sense" (within their given social environment) to believe as they do, an atheist might say otherwise, whether or not they believe it. In other words, some people may lie to agree while others lie to disagree...this is their common sense that may go hand-in-hand with a male-centered cosmology that refers to God as a He and not a She or It.

In any respect, no matter what methodological approach is employed in gathering and displaying information, whether it is truth based on beliefs acquired in everyday encounters that most of us experience in generally the same way by using similar tools of discernment and definition, or specialized (scientific atmosphere) training as a "higher/different stakes" reputable researcher, a discussion involving "Belief" has value in all contexts with far reaching ramifications not only for the type of political system we promote, but the business philosophy we adopt, the religious tenets we aspire to practice, and how the young are educated for the purpose of directing the construction of a more purposeful and productive future for all of humanity...H.O.B.

The "Need To Believe"
Stanley Kruppner and Michael Winkler

Bertrand Russel (1921, 231) identified "belief" as "the central problem in the analysis of mind," and Gilbert (191, 107) observed that a proposition is "believed" when its meaning "is represented, coded, or symbolized in a mental system and when that symbolic representation is treated as if it was true." The concept of belief has obvious ramifications for topics described as "paranormal" because they are controversial (at least in Western societies), and even their adherents are likely to admit that they are elusive by nature, despite over a century of scrutiny by parapsychologists. For the purposes of this discussion, we will use the definition of "paranormal" proposed by Irwin (J. of the American Society for Psychical Research 87 [1993]: 1): they are hypothesized processes that in principle are "physically impossible" or outside the realm of human capabilities as presently conceived by conventional scientists.

Many parapsychological researchers object to the use of the adjective "paranormal" to describe the phenomena they investigate, preferring the term:

  1. "Parapsychological" if they fall into their investigative domain, or...

  2. "Psi" if the observations were made under conditions designed to eliminate ordinary sensory or motor explanations.

Some anthropologists add that what is considered "normal" in one society may be considered "paranormal" in another; the notions of "normality" and "paranormality" are social constructs and like similar constructs may interfere with reasoned discourse rather than clarify issues and advance human knowledge. We would not put aboriginal beliefs on an equal footing with operating principles obtained from Western scientific inquiry. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that members of the Northern African Mundati tribe, among others, do not differentiate linguistically between "natural" and "supernatural" attributes; for them, "magic" is as "real" as anything else in the world (Ripinsky-Naxon, The Nature of Shamanism [Albany; SUNY Press, 1993], 23). With this caveat in mind, we will attempt to discuss the "need to believe," using terminology from that we have found useful and informative. One of these terms is "attitude."

An "attitude" can be defined as a predisposition or orientation to respond favorably or unfavorably toward a class or category of objects, events, or people. This predisposition may reflect a psychological and/or physiological "set," i.e. a readiness to act (Zusne and Jones 1989, 229). The cognitive or conceptual component of an attitude is often referred to as a "belief," a concept, view, or perspective that someone considers to be true or false, valid or invalid, appropriate or inappropriate, effective or ineffective. For example, many people "believe" that such phenomena are not possible and that reports of their occurrence can invariable be explained in terms of other mechanisms. Individuals on either side of this controversy may arrive at their beliefs through what Pratt (The Psychology of Religious Belief [New York: Macmillan, 1907] 235) calls "credulity," i.e., the acceptance of external authority. Other avenues to belief in "paranormal" phenomena are through personal experiences felt to be valid, an examination of the empirical literature on the topic, "hunch" and intuition, and/or logical assessment—any of which may be highly disciplined forms of inquiry or seriously flawed in some manner.

the emotional or affective component of an attitude often is referred to as the "feeling tone" that preceded or accompanies a belief and that often is inseparable from it. Ripinsky-Naxon (Nature of Shamanism, 8-9) suspects that the earliest human societies had a shared set of emotional experiences that gave their lives meaning, rather than a set of beliefs. Once the latter became codified, they offered explanations for naturally occurring phenomena; if the explanations were verified, the beliefs accrued power. In the case of "paranormal" experiences, a believer may feel powerful if he or she is in control of an alleged psychic capacity or technology, or anxious if a victim of it. the nonbeliever may ridicule the effectiveness of these alleged capacities or technologies, feeling intellectually superior to believers and even scornful of them.

The behavioral or action component of an attitude denotes the "activities" in which a person may engage as a result of a given belief. A believer in the "paranormal" may read one type of literature and a nonbeliever a different type. Sometimes "attitude" and "belief" are used as synonyms, but this usage tends to ignore the emotional and behavioral components that often assume critical importance. The the phrase "need to believe" implies that there is an underlying affective component in many beliefs; it further implies that a belief is reflected in the believer's activities that can be observed by outsiders.

A Three-Stage Model

We propose that the "need to believe" can be productively understood and studied in terms of a three-stage model that focuses on those factors that predispose, activate, and maintain a belief. A person or group may be predisposed to accept a belief as true for several reasons. Their sense of identity may be rooted in a familial or cultural belief system (i.e., a pattern of beliefs, mythology, or world view); a family's belief in their professed magical powers may be central to their identity, e.g., "Every woman in our family has demonstrated 'second sight.'" But another group's identity may demand that these "powers" be dismissed as illusory, e.g., "Nobody in this family has ever had any dealings with the fortune telling crowd." A belief may be central to someone's psychological defenses; some people would never entertain the possibility of "paranormal" phenomena because such a belief would challenge the safeguards that they had built up against such "nonsense" during medical school or graduate training. Others may have spent several years attempting to rationalize their hedonistic lifestyle, eventually adopting a militant belief against such "paranormal" aphorisms by their religious group, e.g., "everything works out for the best for those who love the Lord"; as a result, they may tend to reframe tragic events as "punishments," "challenges," or simply as evidence that "God works in mysterious ways."

In a similar fashion, governments have routinely used indoctrination and propaganda to predispose its citizens toward accepting certain "paranormal" beliefs that will ensure that they pay taxes, obey laws, and fight enemies, e.g., "This is our manifest destiny," "We are the chosen people," "God is on our side."

And let us not forget that governments frequently resort to providing double-standard public perceptions; such that it is alright to describe one situation as a Ponzi or Pyramid scheme that affords it a lawful "duty" to be the first to have its hands in the till of the defined-as-such ill-gotten gains, yet (at least in the U.S.,) it's own usage of the same "truth-belief" methodology permits an accept practice of the same when applied to the Social Security System and an Electoral College. In other words, they are but variations of Ponzi/Pyramid activities... H.O.B.

Need satisfaction, wish fulfillment, and existential concerns may also influence one's "need to believe." One person may adopt a belief in "past lives" to forestall apprehension about his own demise or to assuage the loss of a loved one. Someone else may find that she enjoys the attention gained by ridiculing astrology columns, tabloid stories about UFOs, and advertisements for dowsing rods. Irwin (J. of the American Society for Psychical Research 87 [1992]: 1) reported a survey of Australian undergraduates indicating that "to some degree, paranormal beliefs are generated in response to traumatic events of childhood and that a function of these beliefs is to engender a sense of control over the social world."

There may even be genetic and psycho-neurological predispositions for the "need to believe"; not only may twins reared apart share physical and behavioral characteristics and similar psychological test scores, they may also share specific political, religious, and ideological beliefs as measured by standardized questionnaires (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal, and Tellegen, Science 250 [1990]: 223); indeed, Lykken's (Psychophysiology 19[1982]: 361) data suggest, to him, that the genetic influence on beliefs and attitudes "is considerable." Levin (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 11[1984]: 343) has posited that certain beliefs are "the result of natural selection"; creatures who can detect the thoughts and feelings of human and nonhuman fellow creatures have an "evolutionary advantage" over those who can not, because they are able to more correctly predict what their fellow creatures will do. Persinger (Neurophysiological Bases of God Beliefs [New York: Prager, 1987]) had hypothesized that parapsychological, religious, and mystical experiences often are associated with concurrent microseizures in the temporal lobes, and has produced data in which a variety of temporal lobe signs, some of which may be genetic, are positively correlated with these experiences. Persinger's psychoneurological explanation is one that needs to be considered when studying predisposing factors to what he calls "the God belief." This conjecture was given empirical support by McClenon's (J. of the American Society for Psychical Research 88 [1994]: 118) cross-cultural survey in which he found dissociative faculties and related traits to be more closely associated with reports of anomalous experience and beliefs in "paranormal" capacities than either religiosity or scientific training.

Given that they are many predisposing reasons for the "need to believe," how are these beliefs activated? A child home alone might have been predisposed to believe in ghosts as a result of viewing television thrillers and listening to tales told by family members, when the sound of strange noises in the cellar or the sight of shadows in the attic activates this belief and gives it substance. An obnoxious adolescent may be predisposed to obtaining recognition by whatever means possible when she discovers that bullying and taunting a new classmate who is a member of a minority religious sect provides instant notoriety. An adult may harbor a misogynist proclivity; when a neo-pagan coven begins to hold meetings in a nearby town, he may find an outlet for his prejudices and rail endlessly about "devil-worshiping witches." Another activating factor is persuasion by significant others; a student who is agnostic on the subject of extrasensory perception might be convinced one way or the other by a charismatic professor or a domineering roommate. In addition to personal experience, opportunities for attention or self-expression, and persuasion, coincidence, and misattribution may activate a belief. One person's attitude toward praying may turn favorable when an initial petition for money is followed by the chance discovery of cash on the sidewalk; another person's incipient belief may be forever derailed when a prayer for financial solvency is followed by the rejection of a bank loan. Beliefs can also be activated physiologically either by excitation of the nervous system (e.g., drumming, dancing, drugs, the in rhythmic repetition of stimuli) or by sensory deprivation. (Sargant, British J. Of Psychiatry 115 [1969]: 505); both techniques have been reported in political and religious indoctrination. Even when not the results of deliberate manipulation, the activation of beliefs often has detectable physiological concomitants.

Once activated, how is the "need to believe" maintained? A person may continue giving money to a "faith healer" who has been exposed as fraudulent, and whose deception has received extensive media publicity; nevertheless, he continues to send in donations because his self-image will not allow him to consider that the funds have been ill used. Intermittent reinforcement may also operated; after years of buying lottery tickets with only paltry returns, a person may not conceive of stopping because she believes that "that someday my luck will turn." The lack of critical thinking is another reason that beliefs are maintained past the point where they are defensible. The documentation is over-whelming that Earth is not flat, that astronauts actually have walked on the moon, and that antibiotics are helpful medical interventions; yet there are groups who reject the data because they have never learned how to verify propositions handed down by their family or religious group and evaluate their presumptions. Peer pressure is effective in maintaining beliefs; a teenager might join a racist, violence-prone gang because his or her friends are members and continue membership even when it leads to destruction of property or other criminal activities.

Belief Systems

A belief or system of beliefs may or may not be maintained permanently. Descartes insisted that comprehension must precede belief, but Laughlin, McManus, and d'Aquili (1990, 227-28) claim that the term "belief" represents only the introductory level of knowledge about oneself and the environment. They refer to the second level of knowledge as "understanding," the state at which belief begins to make sense as a result of direct experience. Material that was once nominal may take on deeper meaning; information that was once accepted in a perfunctory manner may be felt emotionally; a rote recitation may be fleshed out with examples, applications, and exceptions. (As for Descartes's postulate that understanding precedes belief, it is not unusual for religious cult members to insist they "believe" any number of dogmas that they do not "understand" and that appear in books they have never read.) In this regard, so-called literalists regard beliefs to be isolable items in thought with a distinct propositional content. So-called ascriptionalists, by contrast, claim that outside observers ascribe belief and other intentional states (Levin, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 44 [1984]: 343)

The third level of knowledge is labeled "realization"; at this level, the belief is now concrete instead of abstract, is reflected upon rather than intellectualized, and is constantly verified by activity, and is revised or altered if challenged by these activities. Piaget (The Origins of Intelligence in Children [New York: International Universities Press, 1952], 410) uses the term "assimilation" to describe the way that experiences are interpreted, reframed, or denied to maintain one's beliefs, and the term "accommodation" to describe how the belief is altered (and even distorted) to fit the new experiences. An individual might believe in "out-of-body experiences" but discover that his lover is very much opposed to the concept. He could accommodate his belief, and even distance himself from it, to defuse the conflict with his lover, or he could modify his feelings toward his lover to protect his belief, even severing the relationship if necessary. It is customary for these processes to operate together; one's involvement with life experiences implies both an assimilation to prevailing beliefs and an accommodation of those beliefs. Sometimes a belief system breaks down completely and what Erikson (Identity [New York: Norton, 1968]) calls a "crisis" occurs as the individual or group scrambles desperately to maintain its identity or gorge a new one.

Kripper (Altered States of Consciousness and Mental Health, ed. Ward [Los Angeles: Sage, 1989]) interviewed thirty-nine spiritistic healing practitioners in Brazil to determine how they received their "call." Their accounts varied, ranging from family tradition and community influences to evocative dreams and unusual illnesses. In some cases, a sudden "incorporation" of a "spirit guide" was the activating influence, while for others it was reading a seminal book by Allan Kardec or some other spiritistic author. One of the persons interviewed was dona Marta Gallego whose circle of friends and her attendance at colorful healing ceremonies favorable disposed her toward mediumship in Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian spiritistic religion. Her decision to become a medium was activated by vivid dreams and visions, and she began an arduous program of training. Dona Marta's status as an Umbandista medium was maintained by the praise she received from clients who claimed they had been helped by the information purportedly obtained from the "spirit guides" dona Marta "incorporated" while in altered states of consciousness.

Dona Marta engaged in extensive study to better understand her mediumship and to be even more responsive to her clients. Her realization as a medium was marked by offices and honors. But dona Marta's constant examination and evaluation of her faith led her to question such practices as the occasional sacrifices of small animals and birds, as well as feeling uncomfortable with the "immature" entities she sometimes was called upon to "incorporate." Dona Marta attempted to assimilate these experiences, trying not to get too deeply involved with the tortuous memories of the spirits who "spoke" through her, often describing their lives as humans. She tried to accommodate her belief system to rationalize the necessity of the bloody sacrificial scenes she witnessed, as well as the accompanying incessant, frenetic drumming. Despite these attempts, dona Marta faced an "identity crisis" that was only resolved when she switched her allegiance to Kardecismo, a spiritistic religion based on the writings of Allan Kardec, a nineteenth-century French spiritualist. As a Kardecist, she was only called upon to incorporate "higher" spirits; she attended worship services at which classical music was played and where blood offerings were absent. Dona Marta won even greater renown as a Kardecist medium and established her own healing center, creating opportunities for clients to be advised regarding diet and healthy living habits as well as spiritual practices, and where an active community outreach program offered medical assistance and day-care services.

For people who seek the assistance of healers, physicians, and psychotherapists, the "need to believe" can be an asset or a hindrance to their recovery. Positive expectations can facilitate therapy just as the "placebo effect" can potentiate recovery from illness. Neurotransmitters can be activated by belief, and hope can evoke salubrious effects. However, people who are predisposed to react uncritically can be taken advantage of by fraudulent practitioners. In 1988, James Randi, the renowned magician, trained an artist to pretend that he occasionally "channeled" an entity named "Carlos." With his dramatic flair and flamboyant messages, "Carlos" obtained massive media coverage in Australia. Even after a television program announced the hoax, many people devoted to "Carlos" refused to believe the exposure (Sagan, Parade Magazine, December 4, 1994). Randi has exposed a number of "faith healers" in the United States; once again, a number of faithful devotees refuse to discard their belief. Once a person predisposed to accept a belief system makes a commitment, that belief may well maintain itself despite arguments and evidence to the contrary.

The utility of our three-stage model is also borne out by a study of people claiming to have had UFO experiences (Spanos, Cross, Dickson, and DuBreuil, J. of Abnormal Psychology 102 [4993]: 624). The forty-nine individuals who reported UFO sightings, "abductions by aliens," and the like were "disposed to esoteric beliefs in general and alien beliefs in particular" before their UFO experiences. In comparison with two control groups, the UFO experiments showed no group difference on temporal brain love liability, on indexes of hypnotizability, and actually attained higher scores on several measures of psychological health. However, they held significantly more exotic beliefs than did the control subjects. Even though there were no group differences on tests of fantasy and imagination, those with "strong propensities toward fantasy production were particularly likely to generate such experiences." In this instance, the subjects' esoteric belief systems may well have predisposed them to the UFO experience, whether the activating factor was an actual alien visitation or, as the authors suggest, a sleep-related incident. Maintaining factors for UFO experiments are easy to come by; periodicals and organizations abound where "abductees" can communicate with other participants in "sightings" and reinforce each others' beliefs.

Our model also can be applied to studies of religious commitment. For example, Loewenthal (1986) reported that the religiously committed individuals he investigated explained their beliefs in terms of family background (what we would call a "predisposing" factor), inspirational experience (what we would call an "activating factor"), purpose of life, and need for security (what we would call "maintaining" factors, admitting inevitable overlaps). The non-religious individuals in Lowenthal's study preferred such explanations for religiosity as "brainwashing," unquestioning attitudes, and the need for security.

The "need to believe" is especially crucial in developing countries and among traditional peoples where day-by-day survival is often a critical issue, and where a satisfying world view must come to terms with the stark realities of poverty, hunger, and disease. Western theorists may scoff at the multiple realities depicted in the world views of these societies but Laughlin et al. (1990, p. 226) remind them that the Western belief system is also a construct, a set of entertainments, a collection of credos, and often an impediment to appreciating native cosmologies, altered conscious states, and other ways of knowing. Feinstein and Krippner (Personal Mythology, Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1988) point out that there are "personal mythologies" as well as cultural mythologies. It is often difficult to falsify these mythic belief systems or to find veridical evidence to confirm or refute them; nonetheless, it can be determined whether they are functional or dysfunctional in service of a person or a community's values and goals.

The belief systems found in indigenous cultures and among ethnic groups in some developing countries need not be romanticized to accord them respect. While some of these societies provide a remarkable balance between genders, others treat women as disposable property; female circumcision (which involves severing the clitoris and both sets of vaginal labia) is still widely practiced in some of these societies as a ruthless means of controlling female sexual behavior. For every tribe that strives to live in peace and harmony, one can be found that practices internecine violence, incessant thievery, or child abuse—in each case fulfilling injunctions consistent with the culture's mythology (Edgerton, Sick Societies [New York: Free Press, 1992]). The doctrine of "cultural relativism," an examplar of modern science, rationalized these practices, declaring that they must be "adaptive," but more recently a number of anthropologists have insisted that humanistic values and moral judgments need not be relinquished when conducting cross-cultural inquiry within a mythological perspective. In line with this body of thought, we would consider a community's world-view maladaptive when it can not maintain a viable social system. In a similar fashion, one or more of an individual's beliefs may be maladaptive. Hubrus, or pride, doomed more than one character in Greek mythology; dysfunctional beliefs regarding gender roles, racial stereotypes, and ethical codes have sabotaged countless marriages, business opportunities, and political careers.

"Magical Thinking"

When considering the utility of personal and cultural world views and mythologies, it is inevitable for "magical thinking" to enter the discussion. Zusne (1985, 689) has defined "magical thinking" as the tendency to accept explanations of natural phenomena that are at variance with those of (Western) science and to think in accordance with those explanations. We find this definition a valiant but culture-bound attempt to describe a complex phenomenon, but would propose that "magical thinking" could better be defined as the tendency to engage in cognitive activity that attributes effects to causes that are indiscernible by means of sensory perception, technological measurement, or logical inference of the type sanctioned by a given community. This definition, for example, would eliminate consideration of gravity from "magical thinking"; it can not be seen but it can be measured. Our definition would apply to an attribution of one's misfortunes to "invisible enemies" whom nobody else can see or hear. What if the individual involved lived in a culture where there is a consensus on covert forces that are felt to play an important role in daily life? The logic of that culture may well support the attribution of hazards to occult, even "magical" forces, but the individual involved could not be considered immature or pathological in terms of his or her prevailing cultural mythology.

Carpenter (Thong, Carpenter, and Krippner, A Psychiatrist in Paradise [Bangkok: White Lotus, 1993, 162]) recalls a conversation with a Balinese healer who informed him that the prime sources of disease were evil spirits and the imbalances created by faulty performance of ritual functions. Carpenter retorted that bacteria and viruses were the culprits. As the native practitioner was not familiar with these entities, Carpenter described them as invisible blob-like creatures that enter the body through air, water, and food, multiplying rapidly and wreaking havoc. Smiling, the healer looked Carpenter in the eye and with all sincerity, said, "These, my son, are evil spirits." Ridington and Ridington (History of Religions 10 [1970]: 49) add, "Surely we do not believe that savages imagine nonexistent worlds because of their poor understanding of physical reality...The three Worlds of a shamanic cosmology are not geographical places but internal states of being represented by a geometric analogy. The shaman does not fly up or down, but inside to the meaning of things."

Piaget not only remarked on the similarities between the thinking in naive societies and children's reasoning but borrowed from the anthropologists such terms as animism and participation. but in spite of the ample opportunities to misperceive cause-effect relationships, members of native societies and developing children are far from dysfunctional in following their daily routines (Zusne 1985,692). In an attempt to understand these and related phenomena, Zusne and Jones (1989, 239-41) constructed the World View Scale, focusing on the "tender-minded, intellectualistic, idealistic...rationalists" and the "tough-minded, naturalistic, skeptical...empiricists." Because neither the rationalists or the empiricists showed robust correlations with direct measures of belief in "paranormal" phenomena as measured by the Belief in the Paranormal Scale, they doubled the number of items, adding fourteen items on "magical thinking" i.e., the Magical Ideation Scale), seven of them representing superstition (misattribution of causation) and seven representing reification of subjective experience.

These items did not correlate with what a factor analysis of data collected from 725 individuals had identified as "subjective" or "objective" questions on the World View Scale, but did correlate highly with a third factor” a "need for understanding." The highest scores on the Magical Ideation Scale were obtained by those who scored in the middle of the "subjective-objective" continuum; those at both ends of the continuum rejected superstitious beliefs. Zusne and Jones (1989, 240-41) suggested that the high scorers on the Magical Ideation Scale may be "trying to solve the age-old problem of reconciling the subjective and the objective, understanding the world and oneself from both viewpoints." They further proposed that this dilemma is the one faced by the famed U.S. psychologist William James who "sought a philosophical solution in pragmatism," a view that neither reduced the world to matter nor sees it in purely idealistic terms. It takes a James not to succumb to the lure of magical thinking [despite] his explorations in Psychical research...It was James (1956, 9) whose essay on the "will to believe" emphasized the role of "passion and volition" as well as intellect in determining which beliefs "lay a claim on our action."

"Magical thinking" and what Zusne and Jones term "the need for understanding" may account for a variety of human attitudes that have been formulated through disciplined inquiry. While discussing psychotherapy, Dawes (1994. 222-23, 237) observes that "there have been no direct studies by psychologists of why people hold unjustifiable belief in their expertise...These needs and beliefs do not stand up to rational or empirical scrutiny, but there they are...Many people harbor a deep intuition that 'certain things will work out'—like the intuition that 'what goes around comes around.' This intuition simply exaggerates the degree of predictability, order, and justice in the world. Life might be more manageable if the world were just, but that doesn't make it just." Zusne and Jones (1989, 261) are careful to elucidate that "magical thinking" does not cause psychopathology but can become associated with it because the nature of some disorder facilitate "magical thought." On a societal level, "magical thought" can be held responsible for the Inquisition's execution of hundreds of thousands of alleged witches, the sacrifice of unknown numbers of victims in pre-conquest Meso-America, and the murder by some African tribal chiefs of anyone thought to possess powers of sorcery that could be used against them. On the other hand, various Egyptian and Chinese rulers made rational decisions to bury alive large numbers of workers who had built pyramids and underground tombs because they possessed knowledge of the locations of hidden treasures and the routes by which they might be appropriated.

A sizable number of other investigators have attempted to construct scales to measure belief in "paranormal" topics. In one of the more ambitious of these projects, Tobacyk and Milford (J. of Personality and Social Psychology 44 [1983]: 1029; Tobacyk, A revised Paranormal Belief Scaled [Ruston: Lousiana State University, 1988]) collected a pool of sixty-one items that, when factor analyzed, produced seven factors: traditional religious belief, psi belief, witchcraft, superstition, extraordinary life forms, spiritualism, precognition. The largest factor accounted for less than 18 percent of the variance, leading to the conclusion that the structure of "paranormal beliefs is multidimensional." On the basis of this analysis, they developed a twenty-six item, seven-point scale instrument; a critical review by Lawrence (Proceedings of the 27th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association [Durham, N.C.: Parapsychological Association, 1984]) held that a more accurate factor selection criteria could reduce the instrument's factors to four: traditional religious belief, psi belief, witchcraft, superstition. Grimmer and White (J. of Psychology 124 [1992]:357) developed a questionnaire of forty-six "paranormal" phenomena (from "acupuncture") to "water divining") and administered it to 836 Undergraduates. The largest factor (labeled "obscure") accounted for 10 percent of the variance; the other factors were termed popular science, alternative treatments, "para-therapies," functional psi (e.g., clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis), and structural psi (e.g., astral projection, psychic centers, psychic energy). Again, a multidimensional structure of these beliefs emerged, contrary to earlier researchers who claimed to have identified a single, generalized trait of "supernaturalism."

The Role of Disbelief

William James (1956, 18, 26) discussed the "will to abstain from belief," pointing out that putting off a decision until "all the evidence is in" is itself a choice, the decision that it is better to risk the loss of truth that the possibility of being in error. Bertrand Russell (1921, 249) claimed that disbelief is more complex than "a wholly unreflecting assent." Psychological research tends to support the notion that doubt is less quickly developed than belief; the ability to deny propositions is one of the last linguistic abilities to emerge in childhood (Gilbert 1991, 110). Milton (J. of Personality and Social Psychology 58 [1994]: 756), in research with college students, found that his subjects ere likely to take the words of others at face value even when it was clear that the speakers were not voicing their own feelings. In other words, doubt is an acquired trait.

Disbelief in psi phenomena has been linked with a variety of personality variables and behaviors (e.g., Brink, Parapsychology Review 9, no. 4[1978]: 22; Irwin, J. of the American Society for Psychical Research 87 [1993]: 1), but there is little evidence that "disbelievers" are either more or less mentally healthy than "believers." However, one investigator (Tobcyk, Psychological Reports 57 [1985]: 844) found that so-called superstitious religious beliefs were liked with greater alienation and anomie, but the same researcher reported that most traditional and nontraditional religious beliefs demonstrated this linkage. In one study, a symbolic approach to religion was found to correlate positively with marital happiness, while a literal approach was associated with marital discord; an anti-literal approach showed no significant correlations (Hung and King, J. for the Scientific Study of Religion 10 [1978]: 229-56). On the whole, persons who report experiences they consider "mystical" are both happier and psychologically healthier than those who report no such experiences (e.g., Greeley, The Sociology of the Paranormal [Los Angeles: Sage, 1975]).

There is a parapsychological literature supporting the proposition that "believers" or "sheep" make higher scores on psi tests that "disbelievers" or "goats" (Schmeidler, J. of the Society for Psychical Research 40 [1959]: 63-72), and that the belief system of the experimenter can affect psi results differentially ((Millar, European J. of Parapsychology 2 [1978]: 304-32). Both findings are provocative but lack consistent repeatability and predictability. In the meantime, "sheep" are more likely to rate a conjurer's effects as "paranormal" while "goats" correctly perceive them as magic tricks (Wiseman, Proceedings of the 24th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association [Durham, N.C.: Parapsychological Association, 1991]). The two groups have been found to perform differently on a wide number of other tasks, and it has been suggested that they "need to believe" on the part of "sheep" is responsible for this difference. Wiseman and Smith (Proccedings of the 37th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association [Durham, N.C.: Parapsychological Association, 1994]) made two direct tests of this hypothesis, both of which refuted it; instead, differences in cognitive style appeared to lead each group to interpret the same stimuli in radically different ways. In a related study, Black more (Proceedings of the 27th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association [Durham, N.C.: Parapsychological Association, 1994]) tested the "probability misjudgment" hypothesis, i.e., that people whose judgements are prone to be inaccurate will tend to attribute chance coincidences to "paranormal" causation. The hypothesis was not confirmed on the basis of an analysis of over six thousand replies to newspaper questionnaires. The only difference between the two groups was that "sheep" were more likely that "goats" to claim a statement was true of themselves; Blackmore conjectured that this trait might make "sheep" more likely to find statements given by a "psychic reader" to be accurate and meaningful.

Chinn ;and Brewer (1992) inquired as to how students respond when they encounter scientific information that contradicts their belief systems, discovering that their responses mirror those of the scientific community. They might

  1. ignore the anomalous data,
  2. reject the data,
  3. exclude the data from their belief system,
  4. hold the data in abeyance,
  5. reinterpret the data while retaining their beliefs,
  6. reinterpret the data and make peripheral changes in their beliefs,
  7. accept the data and change their belief system.

Chin and Brewer have presented examples from both research with students and from the history of science, e.g.:

  • psychologists generally ignore claims for the existence of ESP

  • the meteor impact theory of mass extinctions was originally ignored by palentologists

  • and students sometimes ignore information in science texts that contradicts their existing schemas.

When anomalous data are rejected, the most common grounds are:

1.) methodological error e.g.:

  • astronomers originally rejected Galileo's data, claiming that they were telescope artifacts

2.) random error e.g.:

  • geologists rejected continental drift theory's close fit between continental outlines, concluding it was "simply chance"

3.) fraud e.g.:

  • Lord Kelvin branded X-rays a "hoax"

Data are declared to be outside the domain of theory by students who often segregate what they learn in science classes from the personal theories about how the "real world" operates and by astronomers and physicist who knew that the orbit of Mercury contradicted the prevailing theory but incorrectly assumed there would "eventually" be a solution within the Newtonian framework. Piaget has presented many examples of children who reinterpret evidence to avoid giving up a favored belief, or who make peripheral theory changes. Actual change in a belief system is demonstrated by the shift of phlogistion theorists to Lavoisier's oxygen theory and by classroom experiments in which participation in chemistry experiments resulted in a theoretical shift within a brief period of time. Chinn and Brewer used the term "entrenched beliefs" to describe those that are "deeply embedded in a network of other beliefs," noting that these are the ones an individual is least likely to surrender, especially if they are ontological (i.e., beliefs about the fundamental properties and categories of the world).

Some writers assert that disbelief and skepticism are actually inimical to one's mental health. In The Iceman Cometh, the American playwright Eugene O'Neill took the position that illusions are necessary for human survival. Taylor (Positive Illusions [New York: Basic Books, 1989]) echoed this stance, stating that "being realistic" is not as important in maintaining mental health as is having "positive illusions." However, Taylor's data reveal links between optimism and positive outcomes that do not involve illusions because they pertain to actual behavior and experience. Taylor quotes, with approval, Thomas Edison's dictum on perspiration being more responsible for success than inspiration and Lee Iacocca's motto, "Decide what you want to achieve, and then work tirelessly to achieve it." What it comes down to is that belief must be mediated by effort to be effective (Dawes 1994, 273). In addition, it is important to note that several studies on religious belief and mental health have been conducted; Batson and Ventis (The Religious Experience [New York: Oxford University Press, 1982]) examined fifteen separate studies that found that "extrinsic" orientation (i.e., religion as a means to another end such as status or power) was negatively related to their definition of mental health while "intrinsic" (i.e., religion as an end in itself) and "quest" orientation (i.e., religion as a search for meaning) were related to such aspects of mental health as self-acceptance, open-mindedness, flexibility, and freedom from worry and guilt. When questionnaires for 105 U.S. college students were analyzed, it was found that those reporting "transcendent and psychic experiences" tended to have a greater overall sense of meaning in life (Kennedy, Kathamani, and Palmer, Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association [Durham, N.C.: Parapsychological Association, 1994]).

At what point does a belief in "paranormal" causation become detrimental? Phillips (Lancet 342 [1993]: 1142) studied the death certificates of about twenty-eight thousand Chinese-Americans, matching this information with Chinese Astrological notations of the birth year that links each element (wood, earth, fire, water, metal) with specific bodily organ systems. Earth, for example, relates to the lymphatic system, and persons born in "earth years" and who contracted lymphatic cancer died almost four years sooner than "non-earth" patients with the same disease. But when the death certificates of abut four hundred thousand Euro-Americans were examined, no such relationship was found, suggesting that the belief in Chinese astrology was the crucial factor. Support for this hypothesis came from a subsequent finding that the effect was greatest among Chinese-Americans born in China and living in Chinese communities in the United States. These data are reminiscent of corroborated cases of "voodoo death" (Cannon, American Anthropologist 4 [1942]: 169); however, there is no documented case of someone dying from such a "hex" if they did not know that it had been uttered.

Belief and disbelief in "miracles" raises special issues in this discussion. If miracles are event that conflict with laws of nature (Grey, Skeptical Inquirer 18 [1994]: 288), their consideration rests outside the domain of scientific parapsychology, which is committed to scientific method and a natural explanation of the phenomena it investigates. Indeed, a belief in miracles is often coupled with a hostility toward parapsychology, especially on the part of religious fundamentalists who accuse them of fostering demonic manifestations or intruding into areas that science has no right to investigate. Skepticism regarding purported miracles is a trait shared by critics of parapsychology and many of the parapsychologists they criticize, not realizing there are commonalities that often go unrecognized.

The "Need to Believe" and the "Need to Know"

The quest for meaning is a common experience shared by all human societies. It permeates all human behavior, from the sexual to the mechanical to the highly symbolic (Ripinsky-Naxon, Nature of Shamanism, 10). It is often listed as a basic human need along with physiological and emotional needs (e.g., Masserman, J. of Contemporary Psychotherapy 20 [1990]: 155), and may be based in brain structure and physiology (Dennis, J. of Reality Therapy 8 [1989]: 39), serving an evolutionary function (Levin, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 44 [1984]: 343). Yet, as Sargant (British H. of Psychiatry 115 [1969]: 505) observed, "it can not be sufficiently emphasized that matters of the greatest faith to some people may be quite untrue to others." Many people throughout the millennia have been prepared to die for their beliefs, through both nobility and gullibility. Sargant further pointed out that people are suggestible, thus are always the prey of others with a much firmer faith than their own "however ridiculous or ill-balanced it may turn out to be." If human beings were not so suggestible, they would not have been so frequently "carried away by beliefs into actions which appear so nonsensical and horrible to future generations." And yet the paradox remains that without a belief system, the problem of living becomes one of extraordinary difficulty for everyone. "We have to believe in something, to have some purpose in life, however bizarre the life of faith may turn out to be now or later."

William James (1956, 9) insisted that they human mind is inherently active rather than passive, thus individuals constantly choose between "hypotheses," e.g., "anything proposed for our belief." People's "willing nature," including fears, hopes, passion, and prejudices, determines which hypotheses are "dead" and which are "alive." For example, what is often called the "Just world hypothesis" holds that the environment is a just and orderly place where persons generally get what they deserve. Research on this belief indicates that it affects individuals' reactions to such seeming "injustice" as the innocent suffering of others (Lerner and Miller, Psychological Bulletin 85 [1978]: 10-30). A multi-disciplinary approach to the psychology of belief, such as that proposed by Liddon (1989), is badly needed to carry out James's project, which science neglects at it own risk. We would suggest that this line of investigation also determine for which individuals and under what circumstances the "need to know" preempts the "need to believe," even providing enough meaning in its own right so that the construction of belief systems are put in abeyance until enough data have been collected to either allow a belief to be adopted, to demand a "leap of faith" to resolve the issue, or to provide the alternative of adopting an ambiguous, agnostic stance concerning crucial life concerns.

Given that the "need to believe" is ubiquitous as well as inevitable, and given that many beliefs are not amenable to verification or falsification, what is the antidote to adopting and maintaining belief systems that are dysfunctional and ineffective? We regard it as ironic that many people who rail against the reification of subjectivity appear to reify "reason" in its place. For us, the division of thinking and emotion is a false dichotomy, as is the separation of critical, logical thinking and creative, intuitive thinking. At its best, critical thinking is intuitive as well as logical; it deals with inference as well as with analysis, with discovery as well as with criticism, with self-reflection and self-monitoring as well as with deduction and reasoning. Helping a student or pupil to express thoughts and sentiments clearly, articulately, profoundly, and fairly can be one of the most joyful experiences in teaching at any educational level (De bono 1985). But students of any age employ different observational styles and various ways of knowing; yet there are many avenues to informed decision making, and all of them can be informed by critical analysis, skepticism, and sound judgment.

We propose that the development of thinking skills, now virtually ignored on the global education scene, be instituted by those educational systems that are motivated to stem the tide of belief systems gone amok in a world shattered by factionalism, provincialism, and parochialism. three sets of skills need to be implemented: micro-skills, macro-skills, and establishing values and priorities. For example, advancing selfish, egocentric goals is a value decision, but it can easily interfere with an accurate perception of the available information. the ability to foresee consequences is an important aspect of establishing priorities; the desire for immediate gratification can be driven by the intellect, the passions, or both, but so can the determination to bypass short-term considerations for long-term satisfactions (Ruggiero, Teaching Thinking Across the Curriculum [New York: Harper & Row, 1988]).

  1. Micro-skills range from information retrieval through computer data banks or reference books, to keen observation through the bodily senses.

  2. Macro-skills cover such areas as:

    1. dialectical thinking (using the clash of opposites to stimulate thought)

    2. dialogical thinking (using the exchange of ideas to provoke cogitation), argument analysis, deductive problem-solving, and inductive problem-solving (often using analogies and hypothetical reasoning).

  3. Values and Priorities would embrace empathy, humility, and perseverance, as well as intellectual honesty and courage.

These three categories often work together; detective stories can be utilized to demonstrate how micro-skill (the detective's keen observation of dialects and clothing styles), macro-skill (his or her inductive reasoning), and prioritization (the subsequent prevention of a horrendous crime) can work together in critical thinking.

These three sets of skill can be supplemented by six additional sets that take experience and common sense into account. Emotional coping helps to handle problems accompanied by stress. Behavioral coping enables people to handle life's challenges effectively. Categorical thinking facilitates decision making when a quick decision is necessary; however, if one is rigid and uses simplistic categories, the decisions might be foolish rather than wise. These three sets of skill can assist people to ignore small problems, to avoid premature judgments, and to foresee future outcomes. they may help individuals avoid "magical thinking" in which unrealistic belief systems are depended upon to attain success, and "over-generalizing" in which an earlier method of coping is applied to a new situation that might have little in common with the initial situation.

In analyzing an argument or a stated belief, students need to ask at least five questions:

  1. For what position is the person arguing?
  2. What reasons are offered for accepting his or her point of view?
  3. What are the stated premises or assumptions behind these reasons?
  4. How well are these premises or assumptions supported?
  5. Given this information, how well do the stated reasons support the argument.

If the argument is felt to be invalid, one might ask why the proponent is making the argument. This task may bring empathy and intuition into the analytic process. Thinking skills need not stress negativity and skepticism to the exclusion of the ability to be creative and constructive; a young person who can discriminate between a toad-stool and a mushroom, or between a garter snake and a rattlesnake, has learned something that might have life-saving potential. Such common children's questions as "Why is the sky blue?" and "Why can't pigs fly?" deserve thoughtful answers. Levine (Adolescent Psychiatry 7 [1979]: 41) found that young people have a basic need for "something intense to believe in" and a study of young Canadians who had joined cults revealed that a "search for meaning in their lives" was the core determinant in their choice (Levine and Salter, Canadian Psychiatric Association J. 21 [1976]: 411).

It is inevitable that choices will be made and belief systems will be adopted; we suggest that these constructions can be made on the basis of disciplined processes in thinking, feeling, observation, and/or intuition. the introduction of rigor into belief formulation may even give "the need to know" a higher priority than "the need to believe." Critical thinking is not an activity that needs to be limited to scientists; individuals and groups can conduct "experiments" in living, attempting to make their decisions by means of informed choice rather than on the basis of impulsive reactions or authoritarian strictures that have been blindly accepted. The quest for knowledge, although never complete, can be a satisfying adventure of the human enterprise and can bring together people from disparate backgrounds to share their views in discourses marked by cooperation and teamwork rather than dogmatism and adversity.

Kurtz (1992, 9) suggests that a critical examination of value affirmations and claims to knowledge can be applied in daily life and to all fields of endeavor. However, skepticism does not mean nihilism; free and open inquiry encourages both individuals and groups to use their intelligence to work through common concerns (325). Tracing the social implications of this stance, he points out that those societies that are "open" tend to have less duplicity and cruelty than those that are closed and dogmatic. Wilson (1987, 36) also extols the development of "creative intelligence" and cites examples of it neglect. In particular, he contends that the boundaries between debunking and blind faith tend to blur and even become indistinguishable at certain levels. For example, an extremely materialistic scientist may hold rigid belief structures as may the religious fundamentalist, both tending to lack healthy self-doubt while failing to see the limitations of their own belief systems. Furthermore, Wilson urges lay-people and scholars alike to be skeptical not only of their beliefs but also of their disbeliefs, constantly checking and re-checking their world view in an effort to refine and even to change it. He has described this method of introspection as "the new agnosticism," which entails not only utilizing methods of critical thinking and skepticism when forming beliefs, but also acknowledging that individuals must be "skeptical about their very own skepticism." Given that scholars and lay-people alike have a strong propensity to affirm rather than disconfirm their existing beliefs, it is often uncomfortable and rather unpleasant to acknowledge that one's own beliefs and thoughts need always be open and susceptible to legitimate criticism and even refutation. This epistemological ambiguity can lead to affirming either one's beliefs or one's disbeliefs” whichever prevents a threatened restructuring of existing schemas and maps of the world. Moreover, the "need to believe" fuels the efforts of far too many advocates of the "paranormal," the "need to disbelieve" does the same for far too many debunkers.

When the discourse turns to "paranormal" events, there are many issues on which serious parapsychologists (i.e., members of the Parapsychological Association and/or the Society for Scientific Investigation) and their critics can agree. Both would distinguish "parapsychological experiences" (which are a phenomenological reality) from "paranormal processes" (a term, with conjectural loadings, often used to explain the experiences). Whether or not these experiences are better explained by "normal" or "paranormal" mechanisms is a matter deserving scientific investigation; in the meantime the frequency with which they are reported in different parts of the world is a proper topic for scientific investigation (McClenon, J. of the American Society for Psychical Research 88 [1994]: 118; Ross and Joshi, J. of Nervous and Mental Disease 180 [1992]: 357).

Neither group would advocate the uncritical acceptance of purported "healing" techniques and "psychic development" programs for whose effectiveness there is no empirical evidence. Most people in both groups would avoid the claims that psi phenomena have been either indubitably demonstrated or unequivocally debunked. Parapsychologists object to their field being labeled "Pseudo-science," "pathological science," or "paranormal science," preferring such terms as "unconventional science," "unorthodox science," "heretical science," or "proto-science." Their critics object to such assumptions-loaded parapsychological terms as "extrasensory perception" and "psychokinetic energy." The use of more neutral terms, e.g., "psi gamma" (for ESP), "psi kappa" (for PK), and/or "anomalies" (for psi and other phenomena with unknown explanations or mechanisms) would be more likely to facilitate discourse and cooperation.

Gould (Natural History [March 1983]: 22-28) admonished, "The enemy of knowledge is irrationalism, not religion." We might add that the "need to know" and the "need to believe" are only adversarial if discourse does not follow the rules of courtesy, fair play, and mutual respect. The "need to believe" is part of the human condition. but that need can be addressed by investigative methods that circumvent dogma and bias, and employing inquiry in ways that enhance human discourse, not stultify and encumber it.


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Gilbert, D.T. "How Mental Systems Believe." American Psychologist 46 (1991): 107-19.

James, W. The Will to Believe and Others Essays. New York: Dover, 1956.

Kurtz, P. The New Skepticism. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992.

Laughlin, C.D., Jr., J. McManus, and E.G. d'Aquili. Brain, Symbol and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Consciousness. Boston: New Science Library/Shambhala, 1990.

Liddon, S.C.The Dual Brain, Religion, and the Unconscious. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus books, 1989.

Loewenthal, H. "Factors Affecting Religious Commitment." Journal of Social Psychology 126 (1986): 121-23.

Russell, B. The analysis of Mind. New York: Macmillan, 1921.

Wilson, R.A. The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science. Phoenix, Ariz.: Falcon Press, 1987.

Zusne, L. "Magical Thinking and Parapsychology." In a Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology, edited by P. Kurtz, 685-700. Amerherst, N.Y.: Prometheus books, 1985.

Zusne, L., and W.H. Jones. Anomalistic psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking. 2nd ed. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1989.

The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, Edited ©1996 by Gordon Stein, Ph.D., Pages 441-454: Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York; ISBN 1-57692-021-5 (hardback).

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Herb O. Buckland