CONTACT: MARY GERAGHTY KENYON
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0011; fax (319) 384-0024
Release: June 13, 2001
UI professor offers explanation for paranormal beliefs
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Although they might not be quick to admit it, nine out
of 10 American adults believe in some paranormal phenomena, polls have shown.
New research from a University of Iowa sociologist demonstrates how people
may come to believe in something that seems absurd at face value.
Barry Markovsky, a UI professor of sociology, conducted an experiment on
the spread of paranormal beliefs. The research tested "social impact
theory," which suggests that behavior and beliefs are strongly affected
by the status, proximity, and number of potential influencers. Applied to
dubious claims such as astrology, alien abductions or reincarnation, the theory
shows that belief in such things can be transmitted like a virus through a
social system, even when the claim has no basis in fact.
In the experiment, subjects were told "some people believe pyramids
have mysterious powers to keep things fresh. For instance, the ancient Egyptians
used pyramids as tombs to preserve the bodies of pharaohs." Then subjects
were asked to judge the relative freshness of two bananas, one stored in a
box and the other stored in a pyramid-shaped container. In actuality, the
bananas were virtually identical and were always stored together.
When subjects made their judgments alone, they rated the two pieces of fruit
as equally fresh. However, in other conditions there was a confederate who
posed as a subject but actually was part of the study. Confederates always
rated the fruit from the pyramid as looking fresher, but otherwise made no
attempt to influence the real subjects.
When in the presence of a confederate, subjects believed they saw "pyramid
power" at work. The banana supposedly stored in the pyramid looked fresher
to them, and they confirmed this even after the confederate left the room.
The effect was even stronger when the subject believed the confederate was
a college professor -- a person of higher-status.
"They were seeing an effect that simply wasn't there," Markovsky
said of the subjects. "What they saw, and what they believed, were altered
by the confederate's social influence. Subjects weren't even aware that it
He said finding social support for belief in the paranormal -- something
that violates physical laws or scientific precedent -- can make an uncertain
person more comfortable accepting that such phenomena are real.
"Anytime a claim invokes some sort of mysterious force, social influence
may come into play," Markovsky said, adding that the theory can be applied
not just to paranormal beliefs, but also to some religious beliefs that may
seem illogical or implausible. "If you're unsure whether to believe what
you hear about the Bermuda Triangle, a haunted house, a faith healer, or a
weeping religious icon, all it takes to tip you one way or the other is knowing
what someone else believes -- especially if they're socially close to you
or have high status. You'll willingly adopt their beliefs as your own."
For this project, Markovsky collaborated with Shane Thye, a former UI graduate
student who is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of
South Carolina. The work grew out of Markovskys studies of social networks
and how groups and societies operate.
Markovsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (319) 335-2490.