University of Delaware professor offers “paranormal perceptions” for spooky credibility

This Halloween, many will look for shrills and trills through ghost stories and visiting haunted sites looking for evidence of paranormal activity.

University of Delaware Professor Paul Brewer said the way stories are presented may determine how creditable you think it is.

Brewer recently did a study to determine what media messages convince audiences to believe the paranormal information they take in.

The study, published in the journal Science Communication, focused on how creditable the audience thought the paranormal investigator featured in the story was after reading a news article.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The experiment was done using 500 participants while Brewer was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

The study found that articles with more scientific-sounding facts and names of scientific equipment such as the electromagnetic field (EMF) detector, made people more likely to believe the story.

“We randomly assigned them to read one of four different stories,” said Brewer. “One story was about a criminal investigator with a classical criminal investigator approach talking about how he’s training to become a medium and he’s inspired by hearing strange bumps in the house that he grew up in, so nothing scientific about it. That story didn’t make people any more likely to believe in ghosts or haunted houses or any more likely to think that paranormal investigators were scientific.”

Brewer said another version of the story received a different result.

“This time around, the paranormal investigator was talking about his rigorous method and his EMS detectors, and, in other words, dressing it up with jargon and trappings of science,” said Brewer. “That version made people have more faith that the paranormal investigators were scientific and it made people believe in ghosts and haunted houses more.”

The same version was presented with an added paragraph from a professor saying that although it may be dressed up like science, it’s not really science.

“Adding that last paragraph at the end, wiped away any effect of the story,” said Brewer.

Brewer recently did a similar study about the ESP (extrasensory perception) and whether the audience believed in ESP and ESP research.

“Just like ghosts and haunted houses, the way the media cover that story influenced whether people believed that ESP researchers were scientific and whether they believed in ESP,” said Brewer.

Whether you’re an amateur ghost hunter or a paranormal skeptic, Brewer said the idea of the unknown is a big part of our pop culture and the perception of it, is up to you.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal