On the psychology of paranormal belief and experience
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The aim of the present dissertation is to contribute to the understanding of putative paranormal beliefs and experiences. The introduction provides a conceptual analysis of past research into the paranormal and establishes the rationale for our decision to focus on a specific type of paranormal experience – precognitive dreams. The dissertation evaluates several different hypotheses that have been proposed to account for such experiences. Chapter II describes an online dream precognition study testing the so-called psi hypothesis (Study 1). Participants (N = 50) collected details of their dreams over four weekly periods. Independent judges rated the similarity of the dream reports to randomly selected target and decoy video clips. Compared to the chance baseline of 50 hits out of 200 trials, the obtained 64 hits was significantly more than could be expected under the null hypothesis. However, based on a post hoc exploration of the data, we concluded that Study 1 yielded no evidence of any anomalous cognition within participants’ dreams. It did, however, illustrate the potential theoretical and methodological issues with the psi hypothesis and the way it is habitually assessed. Chapter III focuses on explanations of putative precognitive dreams in terms of unconscious cognition. Two studies test the hypothesis that precognitive dreams arise as a result of unconscious inferences about likely future events based on subtle cues from the environment perceived in the absence of awareness. Study 2 explores individual differences in implicit processing and their relationship to precognitive dream belief and experience. Participants (N = 50) completed the serial reaction time task as well as a series of questionnaire measures. Contrary to prediction, no relationship was found between precognitive dream experience – or belief – and implicit task performance. Following these null findings, Study 3 tested another prediction of the same hypothesis. Participants (N = 49) completed a modified change detection task. The modification allowed for assessing explicit and implicit change detection separately. The results of Study 3 did not support the hypothesis, as the measure of explicit change detection was not related to precognitive dream experience. They did, however, provide a conceptual replication of the findings of Study 2, since we again found no relationship between implicit detection and precognitive dream experience. On a large sample of participants (N = 672), Study 4, reported in Chapter IV, explores several demographic and sleep- and dream-related variables and their relationship with precognitive dream belief and experience. We hypothesised that precognitive dream experience is associated with erratic patterns of sleep behaviour. Consistent with this hypothesis, we found that a higher subjective frequency of precognitive dreams was associated with more nocturnal awakenings, higher dream recall, lower overall sleep quality, and a higher likelihood of using sleep medication. We also explored the demographic factors of precognitive dream belief and experience, namely gender, age and education. Women were more likely to believe in the reality of precognitive dreams as well as report experiencing them. And there was a negative relationship between completed years of formal education and the precognitive dream variables. Frequency of these experiences was positively related to age. Moreover, we predicted that both precognitive dream belief and experience would be positively related to the subjective importance ascribed to one’s dreams in general. We found support for this hypothesis. Finally, the study investigated the relationship between the belief in and the experience of precognitive dreams. Although, as could be expected, we found these two to be strongly positively related, we argued that this relationship is not sufficient to gloss over the conceptual distinction. In order to further develop our line of research, we identify a need for a new measurement tool addressing attitudes towards one’s precognitive dream experiences. Study 5, reported in Chapter V, concerns the development and validation of such a tool. A sample of people who reported having had a precognitive dream experience (N = 330) completed an initial 49-item questionnaire. After removing items with unsatisfactory psychometric characteristics an exploratory factor analysis coupled with exploratory structural equation modelling revealed a well-interpretable 5-factor structure with good internal consistency. Additional variables collected on the sample were subsequently used to test the validity of the derived subscales. Overall, the predicted relationships were confirmed by the analyses, which indicates both convergent and divergent/discriminant validity of the questionnaire. Importantly, we found that personal significance of one’s precognitive dreams was related to the frequency with which they are experienced. The final empirical chapter, Chapter VI, explores the relationship between precognitive dream belief and experience, their personal significance, and memory. Study 6 tested three hypotheses: earliest precognitive dream experiences would tend to date to a period of identity formation in one’s life; the vividness of the memory of this earliest experience would correlate with the frequency of precognitive dream experience; and this relationship would be accounted for by the personal significance ascribed to one’s precognitive dreams. All three hypotheses were supported. Finally, Chapter VII summarises the findings of the six studies conducted for this dissertation. We discuss our results in the context of the existing literature and highlight the main theoretical, methodological, and empirical contributions of our research. Directions for future research are also provided.