PSYCHOLOGY 110: Psychological Explanations of Paranormal Experiences

Term II 1998-99

Professor: Chris Wetzel

Office hrs: MF 10:20 - 11:30 2:00 - 3:00; TuTH 1:00-3:00

Office: 115 Clough

I. Course Description

The term the "paranormal" is broad and ill-defined; a list of potential paranormal topics can be found on pages 2-3. A major portion of the course will examine the "scientific evidence" for paranormal beliefs, with a heavy emphasis on the scientific method and what constitutes proof to scientists as compared to laypeople. You will be introduced to the notion of control groups, placebo effects, randomness, observational bias, logical difficulties with establishing the existence or non-existence of a phenomena, etc. This course takes a skeptical stance by trying to explain "away" the paranormal by using psychological theories or research findings. By the end of the semester, you should have the "critical thinking" skills to determine for yourself whether paranormal experiences merely represent "psychological phenomena" or are something supernatural.

In addition to the supernatural/natural issue, we will examine why people might want to believe in the paranormal, the subtle ways in which everyday experience may trick or induce us to believe, the ways in which media portrayals induce us to believe, and how people intentionally misrepresent themselves or other’s experiences (e.g., as frauds and con-artists) in order to trick us into believing.

Besides learning about the methodological tools of psychology, you will also learn how various subdisciplines of psychology have addressed paranormal experiences. Studying paranormal phenomena provides a good, general exposure to psychology and how it can be applied to everyday life. Research methodologists, statisticians, and psychometricians have identified a number of inferential/statistical errors that people make when interpreting experiences and even which parapsychologists have made in analyzing their data. Personality researchers have studied what types of people are believers and skeptics and what kinds of personality needs are fulfilled by belief or disbelief in paranormal phenomena. Cognitive psychologists have uncovered a dozen or so inferential errors which could lead to paranormal beliefs, as well as some memory biases which might lead to repressed memory syndrome, alien abduction, etc. Social psychologists have developed theories about persistence of belief after falsification, the need to believe in supernatural forces, and how everyday experiences can bias our perceptions. Behavioral psychologists have studied how people develop superstitious beliefs and behaviors. Neurologists/physiologists have identified brain processes that might explain deja vu, voodoo deaths, out of the body experiences, and even portions of alien abduction experiences. Finally, clinical psychologists have extended psychopathology to the realm of the paranormal, designating some paranormal beliefs as mild forms of delusional or magical thinking.

II. Course Requirements

1) Read the two major texts, Hines, T. (1988). Pseudoscience and the paranormal. Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, and Schick, T. & Vaughn, L. (1995). How to Think about Weird Things. Mountain View, CA.: Mayfield Publishing. In the schedule, these are abbreviated as "H" + the chapter number and "SV" + chapter number. On the academic volume, you will also read the "class notes" (abbreviated as "CN") which consist of materials I have prepared as well as some course materials from French (abbreviated as "F"), a British psychologist who teaches a course much like this one in the UK. We will read all of these materials at a rapid pace.

2) Write five "reading essays," the top 3 of which are worth 21% of your grade. In these essays, you will critically evaluate the readings, and/or apply them to your personal experience. Each essay should be no more than 250 words and can be as little as 100. These reactions should display a thoughtful, critical analysis of the reading; you will receive a handout on how to write the essays.

3) The four exams plus the final will be largely objective (a combination of multiple choice, short answer, and a few major essay questions). The top 4 exam scores constitute 40% of your grade.

4) Write a term paper (literature review) in APA style, worth 20% of your grade. You will pick a topic from the topics list and:

a) review the literature (scientific as well as popular press) on the existence of the phenomenon and the extent to which people believe it (e.g., surveys, including cross-cultural similarities)

b) present alternative or "normal science"explanations described in the literature

c) present the supernatural explanations

d) come to a conclusion about the validity of the paranormal phenomenon and the explanations for it, applying the SEARCH criteria and other concepts from the class.

5) You will perform simple experiments on yourself, participate in a few class demonstrations, hear guest speakers, and fill out belief/experience surveys in order to determine the impact of the course on your paranormal beliefs. Brief write-ups of 2 of these exercises will count 10% of your grade. A class contribution (participation) grade will count another 9%. Included in this grade will be pop-quiz grades and class attendance.

6) Because psychology is based on experiments involving humans, an important learning experience will participation in at least 3 hours of experiments as a research participant. After each experiment, you will complete a form which has you write a brief description of what you felt or thought about during the experiment and what your understanding of the purpose of the experiment is. Failure to turn in this written form (even if you have participated) will result in a course grade of incomplete. If you object to participating in research for ethical or religious reasons, there is an alternate activity to fulfill this requirement.

7) You should learn how to use email, the academic server, and a web browser so you can obtain information relevant to this course. All written work must be typed, and you might as well learn how to do it with a computer word processor. An "eliteraci" penalty is evoked when I find more that 3 spelling errors, 2 grammar errors, or more than 3 "typos" per page, and it will lower your grade by 1 letter grade. Their ain't gonna be no eliterat Rhoades studens in this corse! Learn to use the spell and grammar checkers.

8) You can earn extra credit in three ways. First, participate in or observe some paranormal situation/phenomena (some suggestions would be attending a seance, a faith healing, a psychic fair, a UFO talk, visiting a fortune teller, a hypnosis session with age regression, etc). You will write up a report of your experience, analyzing it with class concepts, proposing a scientific way to test or investigate the phenomena, or explaining why the people you observed believe what they believe. Each write-up is worth 1 point. A second means involves reading an alternative text, H.J. Irwin (1994). An Introduction to Parapsychology. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co. This text is much more positive and accepting of ESP than the Hines text. You would write a report [worth 4 points] comparing how Irwin presents and interprets data on the same topics as does Hines. The third way involves participating in extra research studies as a participant. These extra experiments are written up exactly like the required ones; and 2 extra hours of experiments earn you 1 point on the final course grade. The total of extra credit work can bump up your grade a maximum of 5 points or 1 grade step (eg. a B+ goes to an A-).

9) Work turned in late loses one grade step per day it is late (eg. A becomes A-). Exams may be made up with a legitimate excuse.

 

 

Possible Class and Research Paper Topics:

after death experiences

age regression

alien abduction

animal psychics - predicting natural disasters

astrology - predicting the future

astrology - distinguishing different personalities accurately

auras, palmistry, iridology, etc

cancer prone personality

channelling, demon possession, holy texts like Urantia

clairvoyance, mental telepathy

creationism

crop circles

deja-vu

demons (exorcism, ritualized satanic abuse)

devil's (Bermuda) triangle and other strange places

doomsday cults

dowsing

eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

faces - on the Moon, Mars, of famous people (Jesus, Elvis, etc) --pareidolia

facilitated communication with the autistic

fairies

faith healers - laying on of hands, shamans

ghosts, poltergeists

graphology

guardian angels

hemispheric syncronization techniques, right-left brain thinking, personalities, etc.

history repeats itself - Kennedy and Lincoln parallels, coincidences

hypnotism- is it an altered state? Can we be made to do things against our will?

lie detectors-polygraphs, pitch analyzers, etc

mass hysteria/panic

mind reading/telepathy

monsters -Loch Ness, Bigfoot, etc.--cryptozology

New Age therapies - crystals, orgone boxes, rapid eye movement, homeopathy, etc

Near death experiences

numerology

neurolinguistic programming

out of the body experiences

deja-vu

placebos

precognition, and the prophets (Nostradamus, Casey, Dixon, etc.)

psychokinesis

pyramids - their structure, healing powers, construction by aliens, etc

reincarnation, existence of past lives

religious icons/places/miracles-weeping madonnas, crucifixion stigmata, Lourdes, etc

repressed memory syndrome

subliminal perception and motivation

superstitious beliefs - black cats, ladders, etc

tarot cards, palm-reading, and tea leaves

therapeutic touch

time travel

Unconscious - does it really exist, was Freud right about it?

UFOs - what are they?

urban myths - alligators in the sewer, dead cats in old-ladies cars, etc

vampires

voodoo death, curses

witchcraft

yogi feats -stopping the heart, floating, survive being buried alive, etc

 

Schedule*

#

Day

Date

Reading

Topic

Assigment Due or Class Activity

1

W

1/13

-

Surveying the paranormal landscape; Major themes from psychology (CN1)

 

2

F

1/15

H-1

What is pseudoscience (CN2)

Complete pretests, read course information materials on academic volume

MLK observance day

3

W

1/20

F-1

More basic principles (CN2)

Write paranormal experience description (see instructions on academic volume)

4

F

1/22

H2,

Psychics and spirtualism (CN3)

 

5

M

1/25

F-2

Life after Death

Write childhood memory (see instructions)

6

W

1/27

H-3, F-3

Parapsychology (ESP) (CN4)

Essay #1 due

7

F

1/29

H-4, F-4

 Test of psychic powers

 

8

M

2/1

 

 

Exam 1: H1-4, F1-4

9

W

2/3

H-6

Astrology and go over exam

 

10

F

2/5

H-7

UFO's

Internet remote viewing experiment due

11

M

2/8

F-5

Alien Abduction (cn5)

 

12

W

2/10

H-8

UFO physical evidence

Essay #2 due

13

F

2/12

H-9

Strange Places

 

14

M

2/15

H-10

Psychic Healing

Childhood memory analysis due

15

W

2/17

F-6

Quack cures

Select term paper topic

16

F

2/19

H-11

Health cures

 

17

M

2/22

H-12, F-7

Miscellaneous oddities

Essay #3 due

18

W

2/24

 

 

Exam 2: H 6-12, F 5-7

19

F

2/26

SV-1

Weird things to explain

 

20

M

3/1

--

Go over exam + collective delusions

Random behavior exercise due

21

W

3/3

SV-2

Explaining the impossible

 

22

F

3/5

SV-3

Personal experience as truth?

Essay #4 due

Spring Break

23

M

3/15

SV-5

Knowledge, truth, and evidence

 

24

W

3/17

 

 

Exam 3: SV 1-3,5

25

F

3/19

SV-4

Is Truth Relative?

 

26

M

3/22

Peterson

How to investigate the paranormal

 

27

W

3/24

SV-6

Mystical Knowing

 

28

F

3/26

SV-7

Assessing miracle cures

Preliminary paper bibliography due

29

M

3/29

SV8 (187-210)

Is parapsychology a science and can it ever become one?

 

30

W

3/31

SV-9

Using the SEARCH criteria

Essay #5 due

Easter recess

31

M

4/5

SV-Ap.

Informal fallacies

 

32

W

4/7

 

 

Exam 4: SV 5,6-9,Ap + Peterson

33

F

4/9

 

go over exam

Complete post-tests

34

M

4/12

 

Discussion, debate

 

35

W

4/14

 

Guest speaker

 Annotated bibliography due

36

F

4/16

 

Video, debate

 

37

M

4/19

 

Guest speaker

 

38

W

4/21

 

Guest speaker

 Term Paper due

39

F

4/23

 

Discussion, debate

 

40

M

4/26

 

Guest speaker

Extra credit due

41

W

4/28

 

Video: the magic of belief

 

42

F

4/30

 

 

Most post-tests plus course evaluations

Friday, May 3, 8:30 am.

Final Exam

* This syllabus schedule is only a rough guideline. There will be many changes, and they will announced at least 24 hours before the day on which an assignment is due.