by Sharon Presley
This article originally appeared in Independent Thinking Review, Vol. 2, No. 2
Extrasensory perception (ESP) is one of those New Age-y' topics that stirs up heated emotions on both sides of the fence. Skeptics practically turn apoplectic at the notion that such a phenomenon exists while New Age believers are equallyadamant about its existence. The believers in ESP, however, are not just the readers of the latest P.T. Barnum story from the ilks of the National Inquirer. A survey of 1100 college professors found that 55% of natural scientists, 66% of social scientists, (excluding psychologists) and 77% of academics in the arts, humanities and education believed that ESP is either an established fact or a likelypossibility. The figure for psychologists was only 34% (partly because we understand statistics better and are more aware of the cognitive processes that trick people into believing in ESP). So, in spite of a spate of books from Prometheus Press denouncing the belief in ESP, the debate is far from over.
A subject more interesting to me then whether ESP exists is why people believe in it. As asocial psychologist, I am intrigued by the fact that even relatively sophisticated people accept ESP as a controllable, nonchance event, an interpretation which, at least on the surface of it, seems contrary to the natural laws that we generally accept as true.
There are, of course, individual personality characteristics that make some people more prone to accept beliefs without good evidence thanothers but more interesting from a critical thinker's point of view are the cognitive and social psychological effects that may influence even reasonable people to believe in ESP. For the purpose of this article, it is irrelevant whether ESP exists or not, since even if it does exist, many people may believe in it for the wrong (i.e., irrelevant, nonrational) reasons. The converse is also true,i.e., even if ESP does not exist, some people disbelieve for the wrong reasons (e.g., a knee-jerk, emotionally charged reaction from a skeptic who has not explored the scientific evidence on both sides).
Misperception of chance events
Misperception of chance events is one of the most powerful psychological phenomena affecting belief in ESP. Few people other than trained scientists and themathematically sophisticated truly understand the nature of chance. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who have experimentally explored people's perceptions about chance, suggest that a number of cognitive psychological processes are going on.
One of the common ways, for example, that people in natural, nonexperimental settings come to believe in ESP is through the occurrence of a"confirming event." A friend in another city may die on the very same day that an individual is suddenly overcome with a fear of her death, or he may have a premonition that she is going to die. Because the coincidence is so striking and unusual, it is often interpreted as noncoincidental. How could such an unusual coincidence happen by chance, they ask? It must be ESP.
Coincidences, it has beenargued, are as common as cornflakes but because we don't understand probability, we don't always recognize that unusual-looking events are in fact just coincidences. People fail to appreciate ," writes cognitive psychologist Thomas Gilovich, how many chances they have to experience something coincidental.' While the odds of a particular coincidence may be extremely low, the odds of a set of equallyremarkable coincidences is generally higher, a phenomenon he refers to asmultiple endpoints." For example, the probability of meeting your old high school teacher may be next to zero but the probability of meeting someone, anyone from your past is much greater.
In his book, How_ We Know What Isn't So_, Gilovich gives a powerful example of our misunderstanding of chance and coincidence. When...