Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

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Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

Semester 1, Mondays 11am

BPS core topics: Individual Differences, Cognitive Psychology


What will be covered?

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). No previous knowledge of parapsychology is required. Each topic will be explored through studying a particular controversy (e.g., can mediums communicate with the deceased?) and considering its wider scientific and methodological implications (e.g., what are the challenges when trying to assess the accuracy of verbal statements?). Students will acquaint themselves with the main issues through short 'chunks' of narrated slides provided on Learn. Their depth of understanding will be developed by doing the key readings. Students will join with study partners to engage with interactive activities including practical demonstrations and discussion boards that will facilitate reflection upon the issues raised and help to consolidate understanding,

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, to be submitted by the 28th of October 2021)

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 2500 words; submission deadline Thursday 9th December 2021, 12 noon)

One answer from a choice of three topics set by the course organiser.  Prof Watt will give essay advice in the final week of the course. 

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.

Topics and Indicative Readings

Course introduction
Course organisation, and why bother studying parapsychology?
Key reading:
Watt, C. (2005). 2005 Presidential Address: Parapsychology’s contribution to psychology: A view from the front line. Journal of Parapsychology, 69, 215-232.

Topic 1: Foundations
Historical background, terminology, and research strategies (pros and cons).
Key reading:
Irwin, H.J. & Watt, C. (2007). An Introduction to Parapsychology. Fifth Edition. London:  McFarland. Introduction and Chapter 1.

Topic 2: Is there anybody there?
Methodological challenges when testing claims of communication with the deceased.
Key readings:
Pratt, J. G. & Birge, W. R. (1948). Appraising verbal test material in parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology, 12, 236-256.
O'Keeffe ,C. & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing alleged mediumship: Methods and results. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 165-179.
Kelly, E.W. & Arcangel, D. (2011). An investigation of mediums who claim to give information about deceased persons. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease199, 11-17.

Topic 3: Extra-Sensory Perception or Error Some Place?
The ‘ganzfeld debate’ – laboratory research investigating hypothesized telepathic abilities; collaborations with skeptics.
Key readings:
Hyman, R., & Honorton, C. (1986). A joint communiqué: The psi ganzfeld controversy. Journal of Parapsychology, 50(4), 351-364.
Bem, D. J., & Honorton, C. (1994). Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 4–18.
Milton, J., & Wiseman, R. (1999). Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin125, 387–391.
Storm, L., Tressoldi, P.E., & Di Risio, L. (2010). Meta-analysis of free-response studies, 1992-2008: Assessing the noise reduction model in parapsychology.  Psychological Bulletin, 136, 471-485.
Further reading:
Bem, D. J., Palmer, J., & Broughton, R. S. (2001). Updating the ganzfeld database: A victim of its own success? Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 207–218.

Topic 4: Psychokinesis (PK): Can people influence objects by thought alone?
Why PK research moved from metal-bending to random number generators, and the perils of participant fraud and publication bias.
Key readings:
Truzzi, M. (1987). Reflections on “Project Alpha”: Scientific experiment or conjuror’s illusion? Zetetic Scholar, 12(13), 73-98.
Bosch, H., Steinkamp, F., & Boller, E. (2006). Examining psychokinesis: The interaction of human intention with random number generators – A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 497-523. (also followed by commentaries)

Topic 5: Men who stare at goats. Methodological pitfalls to avoid when testing the hypothesis that people can detect when they’re being stared at.
Key readings:
Sheldrake, R. (1998). The sense of being stared at: Experiments in schools. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62(851), 311-323.
Colwell, J., Schröder, S., & Sladen, D. (2000). The ability to detect unseen staring: A literature review and empirical tests. British Journal of Psychology91(1), 71-85.
Schmidt, S., Schneider, R., Utts, J., & Walach, H. (2004). Distant intentionality and the feeling of being stared at: Two meta‐analyses. British Journal of Psychology95(2), 235-247.

Topic 6: Predicting unexpected future events. Why are passenger numbers lower on trains doomed to crash?
Key reading:
Cox, W. E. (1956). Precognition: An analysis, II. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 50, 99-109. Photocopies on reserve in Psychology library. Available online at:

Topic 7: Why believe? Origins and functions of paranormal belief.
Key readings:
Irwin, H.J. (1992) Origins and functions of paranormal belief: The role of childhood trauma and interpersonal control. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 85, 317-331.
Perkins, S. L. & Allen, R. (2006). Childhood physical abuse and differential development of paranormal belief systems. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194(5), 349-355.
Watt, C., Watson, S., & Wilson, L. (2007). Cognitive and psychological mediators of anxiety: Evidence from a study of paranormal belief and perceived childhood control. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 335-343.
Further reading:
Wiseman, R. & Watt, C. (2006). Belief in psychic ability and the misattribution hypothesis: A qualitative review. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 323-338.
Irwin, H.J. (2009). The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher’s Handbook. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.
Irwin, H.J. & Watt, C. (2007). An Introduction to Parapsychology. Fifth Edition. London:  McFarland. Chapter 15.

Topic 8: Paranormal experience, or Normal experience? The role of psychological factors in seemingly paranormal experiences. Case study: precognitive dream experiences.
Key readings:
Watt, C., Ashley, N., Gillett, J., Halewood, M. & Hanson, R. (2014).  Psychological factors in precognitive dream experiences:  The role of paranormal belief, selective recall and propensity to final correspondences.  International Journal of Dream Research, 7, 1-8.
Valášek, M., Watt, C., Hutton, J., Neill, R., Nuttall, R. & Renwick, G. (2014). Testing the implicit processing hypothesis of precognitive dream experience. Consciousness and Cognition, 28, 113- 125.

Topic 9: Replication matters. Replication issues in parapsychology. How the ganzfeld debate exposes limitations of meta-analysis. The need for study registration, and the surprising history of Registered Reports.
Key readings:
Watt, C.& Kennedy, J. E (2015). Lessons from the first two years of operating a study registry. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 173.
Watt, C., & Kennedy, J. E. (2017). Options for prospective meta-analysis and introduction of registration-based prospective meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 7:2030.
Wiseman, R., Watt, C. & Kornbrot, D. (2019). Registered reports: An early example and analysis. PeerJ 7:e6232
Further reading:
Utts, J. (1991). Replication and meta-analysis in parapsychology. Statistical Science, 6, 363-403.
Alcock, J., Burns, J., & Freeman, A. (Eds) (2003). Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal. (Can be found online in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, numbers 6-7; several useful articles).

Topic 10: Is the methodological revolution in psychology over, or just beginning? How Bem’s ‘Feeling the Future’ studies helped to trigger psychology’s replication crisis. What next for psychology?
Key readings:
Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407-425.
Kennedy, J. E. (2016). Is the methodological revolution in psychology over, or just beginning? Journal of Parapsychology, 80(2), 156-168.
Kennedy, J. E. (2017). Experimenter fraud: What are appropriate methodological standards? Journal of Parapsychology, 81(1), 63-72.
Further reading:
John, L. K., Loewenstein, G., & Prelec, D. (2012). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth telling. Psychological Science23(5), 524-532.
Wagenmakers, E. J., Wetzels, R., Borsboom, D., & Van Der Maas, H. L. (2011). Why psychologists must change the way they analyze their data: the case of psi: comment on Bem (2011). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(3), 426-432.

Resource list:




18/05/2020 - 10:15am