Psychology of Paranormal Beliefs

Spring - 2018

PSYC 3160-A
Mon 6:00 - 8:50 pm, Hale Center 210


  Instructor: Stephen T. Paul, Ph.D.                          Office: 471 Nicholson
E-mail: Office Hours: M/W: 1:00 - 3:30
Phone:    (412) 397-5416. and by appointment.

What is wanted is not the will to believe but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite.
-- Bertrand Russell

Texts: [1] Smith, J. C. (2018). Critical Thinking: Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, 2nd Ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell. [978-1-119-02935-9]
[2] Keene, M. L. (1997). The psychic mafia. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
Overview: The formal study of human behavior (Psychology) has been around for less than 200 years. In this relatively brief time, the purview of psychology has become unmanageably vast. There are more sub-fields of psychology than could be represented in the number of classes typically needed to achieve an undergraduate degree. In addition, there are dozens of "fields" popularly believed to be related to the science of psychology, but which are not (e.g., astrology, biorhythms, speed-reading, channeling, subliminal self-help, psychic surgery, etc.). Such pseudoscientific topics are often lumped together with, or outright labeled as, "psychology" to the immense disservice of the true fields of psychology. This course will equip students with the means to distinguish nonscientific (pseudoscientific) from scientific claims as well as improve their critical thinking skills when it comes to evaluating claims regardless of source.
Web Site:
Readings: I expect that you will have done the readings before we meet in class to discuss them. When you read, take note of portions that you don't understand well, or that you might have questions about. In this way you will arrive prepared for class to discuss the material like a true scholar.
Title IX: One of my responsibilities as an instructor at RMU is to help create a safe learning environment in the classroom and on campus. Please note that I am required to report any information regarding sexual misconduct (including but not limited to: sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking). This is particularly important to me because sexual violence can undermine students' academic success. I want your performance in my class to reflect your ability, not your circumstances. If desired, you may speak to someone confidentially by contacting the RMU Counseling Center (412-397-5900 or They are located in Patrick Henry (lower level) and their office is open M-F from 8:30 am - 5:00 pm. If you prefer, you may also directly contact the RMU Title IX Coordinator, Dr. Yasmin Purohit, at (412) 397-5472 or email (see also Reports to law enforcement can be made to the Robert Morris University Police Department at 412-397-2424. You also have the option to contact the Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, ( at 215-656-8541.
Grading: About every 1-2 weeks, we will have a short exam covering some or all material presented to date. Exams will together make up 25 percent of your final grade. In addition, you will be responsible for researching and presenting a topic that is course-relevant (and has received prior approval from the professor). This class project will be presented via PowerPoint and should last between 10-15 minutes. This will constitute up to 20 percent of your final grade. In order to demonstrate that you are keeping up with readings, you should provide me with 250-word summaries plus 3-5 multiple-choice questions (with answer key) per chapter to comprise 20 percent of your final grade. Also, you will be completing a final comprehensive reflection paper (worth 15 percent of the final grade) summarizing your experiences in and reactions to the course. Detailed information about these requirements will be discussed in class and posted on the class website. Class participation will constitute the remaining 20 percent of your grade. I cannot stress enough the importance of your active participation in this class.

Assignment Percent of Grade
1) Weekly Exams 25
2) PowerPoint Presentation 20
3) Chapter Summaries/MC Questions 20
4)  Final Paper (about 4 pages)15
5) Participation 20
Plagiarism: Any form of academic dishonesty will not be tolerated in this course. Students are expected to do their own work. Any student caught cheating or plagiarizing material will receive no credit for that assignment (or exam). A second offense will result in failure of the course. Penalties for academic misconduct can be embarrassing, severe, and potentially costly.

All plagiarism incidents will be officially reported which may result in additional penalties.

Plagiarism is using someone else's work, ideas, or words without giving the author credit for using them. This can mean many things including downloading papers and/or paragraphs from the internet, using a friend's paper, inaccurately quoting or paraphrasing ideas or words from a text. In the academic community people earn their living through the use of their work, ideas, and words. Their reputations are built, in part, by others using their ideas and giving credit to the author. Therefore, you have the legal and ethical responsibility to cite their work properly.

Accommodation: Students eligible to receive learning support or physical accommodations must contact the Center for Student Success at 412-397-4342 to schedule an appointment with a counselor and to learn more about accommodation procedures. To receive accommodations in this course, arrangements must be made through the Center for Student Success.
UoPTDCT: Use of Personal Technologies During Class Time. The use of laptops, cell phones, MP3 players, or any other technology that serves to distract you (and/or your neighbors) from course content and delivery are prohibited. If you are caught using ANY of the above technologies during class time, you will be marked absent for that class. Should your electronic addiction become excessive (distracting to the professor and/or other students), you may be asked to leave.
Missed Assignments: In the event that you miss an in-class graded assignment you have one week from the date of the missed assignment to make arrangements with me to complete or make up that missed assignment. Failure to make arrangements with me to make up a missed assignment by the 1-week deadline will result in an unalterable zero for the assignment.
Objectives: Upon successful completion of this course, you will:
  1. Have a better understanding of the basic methods of knowledge acquisition, including strengths and weaknesses of each.
  2. Have a better understanding of what science can prove about paranormal claims.
  3. Have a basic understanding of many of the psychological phenomena that contribute to and support paranormal beliefs (e.g., placebo effect, ideomotor effect, cognitive heuristics, etc.).
  4. Recognize and appreciate the self-correcting nature of science.
  5. Recognize common fallacies that support irrational thought and behavior (e.g., confirmation bias, anecdotal evidence, need for certainty).
  6. Understand how operant conditioning contributes to superstitions.
  7. Better understand how to think more rationally about any claim.
  8. Know how to "bend spoons with your mind" (misdirection), how to talk with the dead (cold reading), how to "read minds" (deception), and how to predict stock market fluctuations with 100% accuracy (heuristics vs. algorithms).
Comment: The goals of this class do NOT include forcing you to change your current beliefs. Re-evaluate them, perhaps, but NOT necessarily to change them. Your final grade will not be determined by the degree to which your beliefs match or mismatch my own. I have great respect for students willing to participate fully in class; especially a class such as this. The practice of asking questions (even simple ones) or challenging even minor points results in a broader understanding of issues and reflects genuine interest in the topic and in one's education. Such qualities are associated with excellence in learning, and are correlated with success in college and beyond.
Grade Scale: The following breakdown will be used to determine final grades (based on overall percentage score earned by the end of the semester):

A    93.0 - 100 
B    83.0 - 86.9
C    70.0 - 74.9
A-    90.0 - 92.9
B-    80.0 - 82.9
D    60.0 - 69.9
B+    87.0 - 89.9
C+    75.0 - 79.9
F    0 - 59.9

Schedule: Provided as a general outline/ordering of what will be covered. The course web page is considered the official class syllabus. Any change (eliminations) in course requirements, re-organizations in topics to be covered, or whatever else (e.g., including but not limited to notes, assignment information, relevant links) will be posted on the official syllabus web page (i.e., HERE) and if possible, announced in class.

  Class Date Lecture Topic Reading Assignment
[Text Source: 1 or 2]
& MC Due
1 January 8 Introduction, course conduct, bias, etc. [1] Introduction no
January 15 Holiday: No classes.
2 January 22 Tolerance & Psychic Detectives [1] Chapter 1 & Chapter 2 YES
3 January 29 Sources of belief (Knowledge) [1] Chapter 3 & Chapter 4 YES
4 February 5 Ghosts [1] Chapter 5 & Chapter 6 YES
5 February 12 [1] Chapter 7 & Chapter 8
6 February 19 Laboratory Parapsychology [1] Chapter 9 & Chapter 10 YES
7 February 26 The UFO Experience [1] Chapters 11 & 12 YES
8 March 13 The Psychic Mafia [2] All Chapters no
9 March 19 Alternative Medicine [1] Chapters 13 & 14 YES
10 March 26 GUEST SPEAKER no
11 April 2 Conspiracy & Arguments from the Web Handout YES
12 April 9 Final Presentations I no
13 April 16 Final Presentations II no
14 April 23 Final Presentations III
15 April 27 [Fri] 6:00-8:00pm Special Topics: Loose Ends (This class only goes until 8:00 pm.) no