There can be little doubt that the paranormal is accepted as real by the majority of the British public. A Daily Mail poll from 1998 put the figure at over 60%, and a more recent Reader's Digest Survey (2006) found that one in five percent of Britons claim to have seen a ghost and almost half have claimed to have read other peoples' minds. Most of the evidence put forward in support of paranormal claims is in fact very much weaker than indicated in media presentations.
However, for many people, the perceived general cultural acceptance of the paranormal reinforces their own personal experiences of ostensibly paranormal events. The challenge to those who adopt the working hypothesis that paranormal forces do not exist is to provide plausible non-paranormal accounts, supported by strong empirical evidence wherever possible, of the ways in which psychological and physical factors might combine to give the impression that a paranormal event had occurred when, in fact, it had not.
Explanations require the consideration of such factors as cognitive biases, anomalous psychological states, personality factors, developmental issues, the nature of memory, the psychology of deception and self-deception, and a range of other psychological variables.
Anomalistic psychology may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those which are often labeled "paranormal". It is directed towards understanding bizarre experiences that many people have without assuming a priori that there is anything paranormal involved. It entails attempting to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known psychological and physical factors.
While psychology, neurology, and other scientific disciplines are rich with explanatory models for human experiences of many kinds, these models are rarely extrapolated to attempt to explain strange and unusual experiences. The paranormal is here defined as "alleged phenomena that cannot be accounted for in terms of conventional scientific theories", although it is recognised that new discoveries in physics, biology, and other sciences may be of relevance in understanding anomalous experiences.
The definition of the paranormal adopted by those working in this area typically goes beyond the core phenomena of ESP, PK, and life after death, and includes such topics as belief in astrology, UFOs, dowsing, the Bermuda triangle, and so on. It should be noted that the aims of anomalistic psychology would still be valid even if the existence of paranormal forces were to be established beyond doubt because there is little question that most paranormal claims can be plausibly explained in non-paranormal terms.
Research within the Unit covers all topics within anomalistic psychology including (but not limited to):
- Cognitive biases related to ostensibly paranormal experiences
- Personality characteristics associated with paranormal belief and experience
- The development and maintenance of paranormal and related beliefs
- The functions of paranormal and related beliefs
- Altered states of consciousness
- Dissociative states, including dissociative identity disorder
- False memories
- Reality monitoring
- The psychology of deception and self-deception
- Placebo effects
- The psychology of psychic readings
- The psychology of superstition
- The psychology of coincidences
- Sleep-related disorders, including sleep paralysis
- Religious experiences and religious beliefs
- Critical evaluation of specific paranormal claims
- The media and the paranormal
Non-paranormal accounts for a range of ostensibly paranormal experiences including:
- Psychic readings
- Psychic healing
- Alternative and complementary medicine
- Out-of-body and near-death experiences
- Astrology and other divinatory techniques
- UFOs and alien abduction
- Ghosts and poltergeists
- Crystal power