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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 was happening."

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 Markovsky’s studies of social networks and how groups and societies operate.

Markovsky can be reached at barry-markovsky@uiowa.edu or (319) 335-2490.