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Eyewitness Testimony and the Paranormal

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 Things to beware of in 1997:
 Slow phasing out of the Constitution in favor of 'New World Order'
 ideals and 'One World Goverment' regime.
 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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