Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

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Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

Semester 1, Thursday 11:10am-1:00pm

BPS core topics: Individual Differences, Cognitive Psychology


This course aims to promote an appreciation of methodological issues in psychological research via case studies in parapsychology (the scientific study of paranormal beliefs and experiences). Surveys show that approximately 50% of the public report belief in the paranormal, and about half of these people say they have had a paranormal experience. What lies behind these beliefs and experiences? This course provides an introduction to the study of claimed anomalous experiences and paranormal beliefs through case studies of controversies in the field, and a consideration of the wider scientific and methodological relevance of this work.

What will be covered?

No previous knowledge of parapsychology is assumed, though some familiarity with statistics and scientific methodology is expected. Topics that will be covered in the course include: Methodological challenges when testing claims of communication with the deceased; Extra-sensory Perception or Error Some Place?; Replication and the surprising history of Registered Reports; Participant and experimenter fraud and error; Psychological factors in paranormal belief and experience; Wider methodological implications of studying claimed paranormal abilities.

How will it be delivered?

Each topic will be explored through studying a particular controversy in-depth. The wider scientific and methodological implications arising from these controversies will be considered. The material will be delivered online through short 'chunks' of narrated Powerpoint slides, interspersed with readings and other exercises to facilitate reflection and to consolidate understanding. Discussion boards will be used to allow students to check their understanding with one another and with the course leader.


What skills will be gained?

This course will help students to develop the following skills: listening, discussing and reading to acquire foundational knowledge of a new topic; learning how to think critically about knowledge claims; understanding methods that may be used to resolve or progress scientific controversies; organising and presenting an argument in writing, supported with appropriate evidence.  

Learning outcomes: 

1. Knowing parapsychology's terminology, recognising landmarks in parapsychology's history and reasons for the move towards laboratory-based research.

2. Understanding the strategies used by pseudo-psychics to simulate psychic abilities, recognising the psychological factors that underpin many of these, and thinking critically about how to test paranormal claims.

3. Knowing and understanding the principal methods employed for controlled laboratory testing of claims of anomalous information transfer or influence ('psi'), being able to identify the key meta-analytic reviews of this research, and understanding how and why these findings are debated.

4. Appreciating the methodological challenges involved in controlled tests of hypothesised anomalous communication or influence, recognising how these challenges often also apply to psychological research, and understanding ways to address these challenges.

5. Understanding the models that have been proposed to account for the development of paranormal belief and their limitations.


30% Mid-course MCQ test (40 items, 5 answer options; online, date and duration tbc)

Covering lectures and priority readings from weeks 1-5. The mid-term MCQ test is a summative assessment (so the mark will provide numerical feedback as to grade). Also, as the MCQ test is designed to assess foundational knowledge about the course topic, performance on the MCQ test will provide formative feedback as to whether students have a good grasp of the foundations or need to do some more study to consolidate knowledge and provide the necessary basis for more advanced parts of the course.  

70% End of course essay (max 3000 words; submission deadline tbc)

One answer from a choice of three topics set by the course organiser. The essay questions will be released in the final lecture of the course and Prof Watt will give essay advice during the final lecture. 

Relationship Between Assessment and Learning Outcomes

LO1: MCQs will assess knowledge of terminology and historical landmarks. Essay will assess understanding of parapsychology's scientific development.

LO2: MCQs will assess knowledge of the types of pseudo-psychic claims. Essay will assess understanding of challenges of testing claimants.

LO3: MCQs will assess knowledge of methods. Essay will assess deeper understanding of methodological issues in lab psi research, of the research database and meta-analytic reviews thereof, and limitations of the lab research literature.

LO4: Essay will assess the deeper understanding of wider methodological ramifications of parapsychological research and relevance to psychology and scientific endeavour more broadly.

LO5: Essay will assess knowledge of the models of paranormal belief development and understanding of the limitations of these models.

Reading resources

Indicative reading:

Hyman, R., & Honorton, C. (1986). A joint communiqué: The psi ganzfeld controversy. Journal of Parapsychology, 50(4), 351-364.

O'Keeffe, C. & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing alleged mediumship: Methods and results. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 165-179.  

Wiseman, R., Watt, C. & Kornbrot, D. (2019). Registered reports: An early example and analysis.PeerJ.  

Resource list:

18/05/2020 - 10:15am