Science and pseudo-science have always been huge controversial subjects. Till date there are many pseudo-scientific practices which are masked as scientific thoughts and marketed to the general public. In this literature review, I have analyzed the reasons behind pseudo-scientific inclination of an individual. To this extent I have tried to answer two main questions, which are,
- What are beliefs?
- What are experiential and rational thinking?
Firstly, for the purpose of this review, I define Science as evidence backed practices which can produce same results upon repeated tests. Generally, pseudo-science is literally translated as false science or fraudulent science but for this literature I have defined Pseudo-science as beliefs which cannot be proved by experiments in other terms, theories which cannot have consistent results upon repeated tests. There are many pseudo-scientific practices prevailing in today’s scenario, some of which are, (1) Paranormal activity, (2) Homeopathy medicine, (3) Extra sensory perception, (4) Astrology, (5) Religious and Spiritual beliefs. All these above are inclinations which a person develops in the journey of their lifetime. Some exhibit a very strong inclination to one or more than one of the above listed beliefs. The degree and the necessity of orientation to the above varies from an individual to individual.
In this review article, I have also summarized on one of the above beliefs, namely Paranormal activity. Through the article, I have tried to understand the processing that happens in the brain, for an individual, to form an understanding of a concept and converting that comprehensive knowledge to their own belief system.
What are beliefs?
Belief-unbelief symmetry hypothesis states that beliefs are something which has to be initially accepted in order to be understood. (Gilbert, 1991; Gilbert, Krull & Malone, 1990, as cited in Majima, 2015). It is simple to understand that all of us have certain belief system, some of which are genetically encoded in the DNA, but most of it are based on experience or what feels right according to an individual’s perspective. Even though people come from the same cultural background and social upbringing, it is often an interesting observation to find the difference in their beliefs. Even siblings and parents of the same family, share different beliefs which also goes to prove the depth of importance of personal understanding and inputs to form a belief system.
Epistemology certainly states that, if a person knows a proposition, then the same has to be believed by that person. This forms the qualitative or classificatory scale of belief system (Leitgeb, 2013). This implies that any information an individual possesses as a knowledge, will somehow find a pathway into the self-schema. Self-schemas, psychological mean a set of long lasting and stable memories that summarize an individual’s beliefs. Many small insights form the crux of the self-schemas which then becomes the belief system, and this is not a one-time process. Similar to learning being a continuous process, making new beliefs and adapting or breaking old beliefs are also a continuous process. Also, researchers show a person becomes less susceptible to suggestions when they are inconsistent with their own self-schema (Gibbons & McCoy, 1992, as cited in Hergovich, 2004).
A communicated belief is something a person develops in their learning process, something like comprehending a new hypothesis, and this hypothesis is considered as a ‘prior’. In such a case, if the prior is not backed up by evidence or proof, then once the person is exposed to sufficient proof, the existence of the prior will be gradually overruled by the evidence and it will become a part of their belief system (Pilditch & Custers, 2017). Such communicated beliefs (for example, it can be a belief in pseudo-sciences like paranormal activity or homeopathy medicine cure) may have a bias evidence integration because these beliefs interact with other strong motivations like self-preservation. Hence, the resulting belief may not be completely a communicated belief as it might not be backed by an evidence but could be enhanced by individual’s own personal and associative requirements (Pilditch et al., 2017).
Sometimes, beliefs are formed just by hear and say of certain things which might not be essentially evidence backed in which case, the belief is strong enough to bias evidence integration, and such things can be explained only by cognitive route (Pilditch et al., 2017). Research studies into cognitive biases have shown how individuals can misinterpret evidences and failures to adjust their understanding of beliefs. (Bar-Eli, Avugos, & Raab, 2006; Gilovich, 1983; Gilovich, Vallone, & Tversky, 1985; Tversky & Kahneman, 1971; Abbott & Sherratt, 2011; Dave & Wolfe, 2003; Dennis & Ahn, 2001; Rozin, Millman, & Nemeroff, 1986; Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, as cited in Pilditch et al., 2017).
Also, beliefs can either be qualitative in nature, like whether a person believes in something agnostically/wholly or it can be quantitative, in terms of assigning a numerical value to the strength of the belief on a scale of measure (Leitgeb, 2013). The foundation of an individual’s principles or value system largely depends on beliefs. It is due to existence of these believes, a person exhibits orientation towards pseudo-scientific theories.
What are experiential and rational thinking?
Experiential thinking is also defined as the gut instinct by many researchers. Individuals are often caught saying that they have an intuitive gut feeling about the situation they are in. On the other hand, rational thinking, is known as analytical thinking. It is considered as a logical decision made by an individual post consideration of various available options and analysis of facts and circumstances. The common cliché to both these thinking methods are thinking with the heart and thinking with the brain (Lindeman, 1998). The other terms defining these two ways of thinking are intuitive belief and analytical belief (Majima, 2015). Research has revealed that 80% of a human decision-making ability is attributed to the experiential thinking and only 20% attributes to the rational thinking. Due to the percentage of these attributes, it is considered difficult and time consuming for a person to change their experiential line of thinking as it is deeply embedded in their core values, whereas rational thinking is prone to changes, it adapts along with the wisdom a person gains in their lifetime (Lindeman, 1998). According to Pacini and Epstein (1999, as cited in Majima, 2015, pp: 556), “both rational and experiential thinking involve ability and engagement components”.
Some pseudo-scientific beliefs like astrology in particular, aligns with the feeling of self-positive values of an individual, as it always talks about pointers which every human will have an association with, the degree might vary but the connection will definitely exist (Lindeman, 1998). Due to this association of individuals to positive values and the emphasis of the same in astrology, many individuals invariably end up believing in the astrological predictions as an answer to all their miseries.
Education and literacy have little capacity to limit a person’s inclinations, it is often observed that educated people exhibit certain resistance to superstitious beliefs but are still vulnerable to non-paranormal pseudoscience (Majima, 2015). According to Majima (2015, pp: 557) “it is yet unclear whether culturally rooted cognitive styles, in particular, dialectical thinking, makes any difference in beliefs in paranormal and non-paranormal pseudoscience”. Individuals who are more willing to incline towards analytical reasoning will be less likely to propagate super natural beliefs (Pennycook, Cheyne, Seli, Koehler & Fugelsang, 2012). Therefore, it is safe to conclude that individuals with an analytic cognitive style would readily exhibit more capacity to overrule the acceptance bias and can easily reject or adapt to what they think as unwarranted ideas, regardless of whether they encountered it in the course of problem-solving, examining options in decision making, or considering the truth-value of ideas (Pennycook et al., 2012).
Paranormal activity, like the other pseudoscientific beliefs, is a widely researched field of study. Similar to all major pseudoscience beliefs, this inclination, also tends to be the outcome of intuitive thinking of an individual. Moreover, paranormal believers are vulnerable to the commit the conjunction fallacy, i.e., they tend to perceive co-occurring outcomes as more viable than compared to a singular outcome (Rogers, Davis & Fisk, 2009, as cited in Majima, 2015). They also generally tend to underestimate the probability of chance of events co-occurring; there is also the speculation of the connect between intuitive cognition and belief being stronger for these individuals (Majima, 2015). Also, the degree of belief increases with the suggestible nature of the person, resulting in the person believing an act or a stage performance as a proof of existence without much manipulation (Hergovich, 2004). This explains the mystery of illusions, a master illusion artist can make his audience believe in the trick by understanding the perception of brain and hence captivates the audience, and depending on the suggestible nature of the person the degree of his belief will vary. According to Gudjonsson (1987, as cited in Hergovich, 2004, pp: 367), “the term ‘suggestibility’ is used for a wide range of constructs which concern them- selves with human susceptibility, such as hypnotic suggestibility, interrogative suggestibility, sensory suggestibility or reactions to authority. The common core of these different constructs is that they all imply some sort of uncritical and non- volitional acceptance of a proposition or course of action”. The link between hypnotic suggestibility and belief in paranormal phenomena is a subject of speculation. Wilson & Barber (1978, as cited in Hergovich, 2004, pp: 376) suggest that, “fantasy-proneness may be the concept behind the link between these two constructs”. They also found that people with higher hypnotic suggestibility reported higher fantasizing thereby proving the theory.
Pennycook et al. (2012), in continuation with his prediction summarized that analytical cognitive style of thinking was negatively associated with religious and paranormal beliefs when demographic variables and cognitive abilities were controlled. Whereas, the current research shows that intuitive cognition mainly aligns with paranormal belief whereas, analytic cognition aligns with beliefs in both paranormal and non-paranormal pseudoscience (Majima, 2015). Also, paranormal belief is not generally associated with a weakness in probabilistic reasoning but it arises from a specific deficit which is again associated with perception of randomness i.e., misrepresentation of chance (Dagnall, Parker & Munley, 2007). The perception of paranormal experience has found to be catalytic in stimulating further beliefs even when none exist (Houran & Lange, 1996; Lange & Houran, 1997, as cited in Dagnall et al., 2007). It is also noted that once recipients observe a paranormal phenomenon, they naturally search for more such phenomenon. This may be the reason why the strength of the belief is directly proportional the number of subjective experience encountered. In summary, these findings conclude that individuals who believe in paranormal may actively search for evidences which will help them confirm their beliefs (Dagnall et al., 2007).
Teleological bias may be less with educated people but it is present none the less. This proves that literacy has very less role in a person’s beliefs. The tendency of a person to adapt to confirmation bias is called the experiential thinking and this cannot be changed easily. Some studies have shown that 80% of an individual’s decision making is based on the intuitive thinking in comparison to the analytical thinking.
Hence, no individual can strongly make a statement about not having any pseudo-scientific beliefs as it is a part of our intuitive thought process, and to a greater extent it is encoded in our DNA, it exists within us. The scale or degree of belief may vary from individual to individual but all of us are somewhere confirmation biased, where gut instinct takes over rational thinking.
Survival of the fittest is not only on mere physical strength it is also the intellectual instincts and the information passed down from generation to generation. These codes have been found to exhibit themselves as the so called ‘gut instinct’ or in scientific terms the experiential thinking patterns of the brain.
To a greater extent, our beliefs direct our thoughts. The need to question every belief by an individual is still in its nascent stages. There is a certain level of acceptance which each person exhibits because of the experiential thinking aspect. We can increase our amount of analytical or rational thinking proportion but still a major part of our decisions will fall back on the gut instinct.
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- Hergovich, A. (2004). The effect of pseudo-psychic demonstrations as dependent belief in paranormal phenomena and suggestibility. Elsevier B.V. 36. pp: 365-380. doi:10.1016/S0191-8869(03)00102-8
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- Lindeman, M. (1998). Motivation, cognition and pseudoscience. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 39. pp: 257–265. Blackwell Publishers: UK.
- Majima, Y. (2015). Belief in Pseudoscience, Cognitive style and Science Literacy. Wiley online Library. 29. pp: 552-559. DOI: 10.1002/acp.3136
- Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Seli, P., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2012). Analytic cognitive style predicts religious and paranormal belief. Elsevier B.V. 123. pp: 335-346. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.003
- Pilditch, T.D., & Custers, R. (2017). Communicated beliefs about action-outcomes: The role of initial conformation in the adoption and maintenance of unsupported beliefs. Elsevier B.V. 184. pp: 46-63. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2017.04.006