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Eyewitness Testimony and the Paranormal

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Eyewitness Testimony
and the Paranormal


[Richard Wiseman is the Perrott-Warrick Senior Research Fellow at the
University of Hertfordshire, College Lane Hatfield Herts., ALlO 9A8,
UK., researching parapsychology and deception; Matthew Smith is a
research assistant at the University of Hertfordshire; Jeff Wiseman is a
freelance writer who assisted in the experiments.]

(The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 19, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1995, Copyright 1995 by
the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
Paranormal, 3965 Rensch Road, Buffalo, NY 14228, published quarterly
with a membership/subscription rate of $25/yr.)


Much of the evidence relating to paranormal phenomena consists of
eyewitness testimony. However, a large body of experimental research has
shown that such testimony can be extremely unreliable.

For example, in 1887 Richard Hodgson and S. John Davey held seances in
Britain (in which phenomena were faked by trickery) for unsuspecting
sitters and requested each sitter to write a description of the seance
after it had ended. Hodgson and Davey reported that sitters omitted many
important events and recalled others in incorrect order. Indeed, some of
the accounts were so unreliable that Hodgson later remarked:

        The account of a trick by a person ignorant of the method used
        in its production will involve a misdescription of its
        fundamental conditions. . . so marked that no clue is afforded
        the student for the actual explanation (Hodgson and Davey 1887
        p. 9).

In a partial replication of this work, Theodore Besterman (1932) in
Britain had sitters attend a fake seance and then answer questions
relating to various phenomena that had occurred. Besterman reported that
sitters had a tendency to underestimate the number of persons present in
the seance room, to fail to report major disturbances that took place
(e.g., the movement of the experimenter from the seance room), to fail
to recall the conditions under which given phenomena took place, and to
experience the illusory movements of objects.

More recently, Singer and Benassi in the United States (1980) had a
stage magician perform fake psychic phenomena before two groups of
university students. Students in one group were told that they were
about to see a magician; the other group, that they were about to
witness a demonstration of genuine psychic ability. Afterward, all of
the students were asked to note whether they believed the performer was
a genuine psychic or a magician. Approximately two-thirds of both groups
stated they believed the performer to be a genuine psychic. In a
follow-up experiment the researchers added a third condition, wherein
the experimenter stressed that the performer was definitely a magician.
Fifty-eight percent of the people in this group still stated they
believed the performer to be a genuine psychic!

These studies admirably demonscrate that eyewitness testimony of
supposedly paranormal events can be unreliable. Additional studies have
now started to examine some of the factors that might cause such
inaccuracy. Clearly, many supposedly paranormal events are difficult to
observe simply because of their duration, frequency, and the conditions
under which they occur. For example, ostensible poltergeist activity,
seance phenomena, and UFO sightings often occur without warning, are
over within a few moments, take place under poor lighting or weather
conditions, or happen at a considerable distance from observers. In
addition, some people have sight/hearing deficiencies, while others have
observed these phenomena under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or when
they are tired (especially if they have had to wait a relatively long
time for the phenomena to occur).

It is also possible that observers' beliefs and expectations play an
important role in the production of inaccurate testimony. Different
people clearly have different beliefs and expectations prior to
observing a supposed psychic - skeptics might expect to see some kind of
trickery; believers may expect a display of genuine psi. Some seventy
years ago Eric Dingwall in Britain (1921) speculated that such
expectations may distort eyewitness testimony:

        The frame of mind in which a person goes to see magic and to a
        medium cannot be compared. In one case he goes either purely for
        amusement or possibly with the idea of discovering `how it was
        done,' whilst in the other he usually goes with the thought that
        it is possible that he will come into direct contact with the
        other world (p. 211).

Recent experimental evidence suggests that Dingwall's speculations are

Wiseman and Morris (1995a) in Britain carried out two studies
investigating the effect that belief in the paranormal has on the
observation of conjuring tricks. Individuals taking part in the
experiment were first asked several questions concerning their belief in
the paranormal. On the basis of their answers they were classified as
either believers (labeled "sheep") or skeptics (labeled "goats").
[Gertrude Schmeidler, City College, New York City, coined the terms
sheep and goats.]

In both experiments individuals were first shown a film containing fake
psychic demonstrations. In the first demonstration the "psychic"
apparently bent a key by concentrating on it; in the second
demonstration he supposedly bent a spoon simply by rubbing it.

After they watched the film, witnesses were asked to rate the
"paranormal" content of the demonstrations and complete a set of recall
questions. Wiseman and Morris wanted to discover if, as Hodgson and
Dingwall had suggested, sheep really did tend to misremember those parts
of the demonstrations that were central to solving the tricks. For this
reason, half of the questions concerned the methods used to fake the
phenomena. For example, the psychic faked the key-bending demonstration
by secretly switching the straight key for a pre-bent duplicate by
passing the straight key from one hand to the other. During the switch
the straight key could not be seen. This was clearly central to the
trick's method; and one of the "important" questions asked was whether
the straight key had always remained in sight. A second set of
"unimportant" questions asked about parts of the demonstration that were
not related to the tricks' methods.

Overall, the results suggested that sheep rated the demonstrations as
more "paranormal" than goats did, and that goats did indeed recall
significancly more "important" information than sheep. There was no such
difference for the recall of the "unimportant" information.

This is not the only study to investigate sheep/goat differences in
observation and recall of "paranormal" phenomena. Jones and Russell in
the United States (1980) asked individuals to observe a staged
demonstration of extrasensory perception (ESP). In one condition the
demonstration was successful (i.e., ESP appeared to occur) while in the
other it was not. All individuals were then asked to recall the
demonstration. Sheep who saw the unsuccessful demonstration distorted
their memories of it and often stated that ESP had occurred. Goats
tended to correctly recall the demonstration, even if it appeared to
support the existence of ESP.

In addition, Matthew Smith in Britain (1993) investigated the effect
that instructions (given prior to watching a film containing a
demonstration of apparent psychic ability) had on the recall of the
film. Individuals were split into two groups. One group was told that
the film contained trickery; the other group was told that it contained
genuine paranormal phenomena. The former group recalled significantly
more information about the film than the latter group.

All of the above experiments were carried out in controlled laboratory
settings. However, another recent study suggests that the same
inaccuracies may exist in a more natural setting, namely the seance

Many individuals have reported experiencing extraordinary phenomena
during dark-room seances. Eyewitness claims that objects have
mysteriously moved, strange sounds have been produced, or ghostly forms
have appeared, and that these phenomena have occurred under conditions
that render normal explanations practically impossible.

Believers argue that conditions commonly associated with a seance (such
as darkness, anticipation, and fear) may act as a catalyst to produce
these phenomena (Batcheldor 1966).  Skeptics suggest that reports of
seances are unreliable and that eyewitnesses are either fooling
themselves or being fooled by fraudulent mediums.

The authors carried out an experiment in the United Kingdom to assess
both the reliability of testimony relating to seance phenomena, and
whether paranormal events could be produced in a modern seance. We
carried out our experiment, titled "Manifestations," three times.
Twenty-five people attended on each occasion. They were first asked to
complete a short questionnaire, noting their age, gender, and whether
they believed that genuine paranormal phenomena might sometimes cake
place during seances.

A seance room had been prepared. All of the windows and doors in the
room had been sealed and blacked out, and twenty-five chairs had been
arranged in a large circle. Three objects - a book, a slate, and a bell
had been treated with luminous paint and placed onto three of the
chairs. A small table, the edges of which were also luminous, was
situated in the middle of the circle.  Two luminous maracas rested on
the table.

Following a brief talk on the aims of the project, the participants were
led into a darkened seance room. Richard Wiseman played the part of the
medium.  With the help of a torch, he showed each person to a chair,
and, where appropriate, asked them to pick up the book, slate, or bell.

Next, he drew participants' attention to the table and maracas. Those
participants who had picked up the other luminous objects were asked to
make themselves known, and the "medium" collected the objects one by one
and placed them on the table.

He then pointed out the presence of a small luminous ball, approximately
5 centimeters in diameter, suspended on a piece of rope from the
ceiling. Finally, he took his place in the circle, extinguished the
torch, and asked everybody to join hands.

The medium first asked the participants to concentrate on trying to move
the luminous ball and then to try the same with the objects on the
table. Finally, the participants were asked to concentrate on moving the
table itself. The seance lasted approximately ten minutes.

Clearly, it was important that some phenomena occurred to assess the
reliability of eyewitness testimony. The maracas were therefore
"gimmicked" to ensure their movement during the seance. In the third
seance the table was also similarly moved by trickery. Finally, we also
used trickery to create a few strange noises at the end of each seance.

All of the un-gimmicked objects were carefully placed on markers so that
any movement would have been detectable. After leaving the seance room,
the participants completed a short questionnaire that asked them about
their experience of the seance.

No genuine paranormal phenomena took place during any of the seances.
However, our questionnaire allowed us to assess the reliability of
participants' eyewitness testimony.

Would participants remember which objects had been handled before the
start of the seance? As the maracas were gimmicked, we had to ensure
that they were not examined or handled by anyone. Nevertheless, one in
five participants stated that they had been. This was an important
inaccuracy as observers are likely to judge the movement of an object
more impressive if they think that the item has been scrutinized

This type of misconception was not confined to the maracas. In the first
two seances, the slate, bell, book, and table remained stationary.
Despite this, 27 percent of participants reported movement of at least
one of these. In the third seance the table was gimmicked so that it
shifted four inches toward the medium, but participants' testimony was
again unreliable, with one in four people reporting no movement at all.

An interesting pattern develops if the results are analyzed by
separating the participants by belief. The ball, suspended from the
ceiling, did not move at any time. Seventy-six percent of disbelievers
were certain that it hadn't moved. In contrast, the same certainty among
believers was only 54 percent. In addition, 40 percent of believers
thought that at least one other object had moved, compared to only 14
percent of disbelievers. The answers to the question "Do you believe you
have witnessed any genuine paranormal phenomena?" perhaps provide the
most conclusive result for the believer/disbeliever divide. One in five
believers stated that he or she had seen genuine phenomena. None of the
disbelievers thought so. This would suggest that while we are all
vulnerable to trickery, a belief or expectation of paranormal phenomena
during seances may add to that vulnerability.

The results clearly show that it is difficult to obtain reliable
testimony about the seance. Indeed, our study probably underestimated
the extent of this unreliability as the seance lasted only ten minutes
and participants were asked to remember what had happened immediately

Although a minority of participants believed that they had observed
genuine paranormal phenomena, it does not seem unreasonable to assume
that these individuals might be the most likely to tell others about
their experience. Our results suggest that many of their reports would
be fraught with inaccuracies and it might only take a few of the more
distorted accounts to circulate before news that "genuine" paranormal
phenomena had occurred became widespread.

In short, there is now considerable evidence to suggest that
individuals' beliefs and expectations can, on occasion, lead them to be
unreliable witnesses of supposedly paranormal phenomena. It is vital
that investigators of the paranormal take this factor into account when
faced with individuals claiming to have seen extraordinary events. It
should be remembered, however, that such factors may hinder accurate
testimony regardless of whether that testimony is for or against the
existence of paranormal phenomena; the observations and memory of
individuals with a strong need to disbelieve in the paranormal may be as
biased as extreme believers. In short, the central message is that
investigators need to be able to carefully assess testimony regardless
of whether it reinforces or opposes their own beliefs concerning the
paranormal. Accurate assessment of the reliability of testimony requires
a thorough understanding of the main factors that cause unreliable
observation and remembering. Research is starting to reveal more about
these factors and the situations under which they do, and do not, occur.
Indeed, this represents part of a general movement to increase the
quality of the methods used to investigate psychic phenomena (Wiseman
and Morris 1956). Given the important role that eyewitness testimony
plays in parapsychology, understanding observation is clearly a priority
for future research.


Batcheldor, K. J. 1966. Report on a case of table levitation and
associated phenomena. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 43:

Besterman, T. 1932. The psychology of testimony in relation to
paraphysical phenomena: Report of an experiment. Proceedings of the
Society for Psychical Research, 40: 363-387.

Dingwall, E. 1921. Magic and mediumship. Psychic Science Quarterly, 1
(3): 206-219.

Hodgson, R., and S. J. Davy. 1887. The possibilities of mal- observation
and lapse of memory from a practical point of view. Proceedings of the
Society for Psychical Research, 4:381-495.

Jones, W H. and D. Russell. 1980. The selective processing of belief
disconfirming information. European Journal of Social Psychology

Smith, M. D. 1993. The effect of belief in the paranormal and prior set
upon the observation of a 'psychic' demonstration. European Journal of
Parapsychology; 9:24-34.

Singer, B. and V A. Benassi. 1980. Fooling some of the people all of the
time. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Winter:17-24.

Wiseman, R. J. and R. L. Morris. 1995a. Recalling pseudo-psychic
demonstrations. British Journal of Psychology: 86:113-125. _______.
1995b. Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants. Buffalo, N.Y.:
Prometheus Books.

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