Psychology of the Skeptic

Psychology of the Skeptic:
What's the rubber duck cure?

Stephen T. Paul
Robert Morris University

The following essay presents issues related to the formation, retention, and changing of beliefs. Emphasis is placed on beliefs classifiable as paranormal, however, it is expected that the data and interpretations also pertain to more mundane beliefs. The basic concept of belief is explored, paranormal beliefs are briefly defined, then the research issue is outlined. Essentially, one of the ultimate goals of the author (and one that is not achieved here) is to discover the mechanisms responsible for a reversal (or change) in relatively strong beliefs. Two belief surveys are presented (a pilot survey and its revised version) along with some preliminary data.


take for gospel
things that are
- Piet Hein

I. Confidence and Belief

      What do you believe?

      Take a moment and list from five to ten things that you know (believe) to be true. Don't think too hard, I just want to make a point. Here are eight things that I believe are true (note that my thinking may be tainted due to repeated exposures to scientifiction):

  1. My name is Stephen T. Paul.
  2. I am married.
  3. There are five fingers (digits) on each of my two hands.
  4. I have one sister and no brothers.
  5. I am (was) not adopted. That is, I know, and was raised by, my natural parents.
  6. This planet (Earth) is where I was born.
  7. The Earth orbits the Sun.
  8. Everything that is alive, will die (my variation on "what goes up...").

      I would argue that I am positive that each of the above are (as of this writing) true. Surely I could lose a finger later in the day, but right now, I know that each of the above items are absolutely and without doubt true. Certainly you share a similar confidence about all of your items.

      Now, what exactly do we really mean by saying that we know something to be true absolutely and without doubt? "Belief" is not an easy thing to quantify, but my first response would be to say that it means I am 100 percent certain of each of my list items (sometimes putting numbers into these things makes them seem more scientific, and hence, more accurate). But really, before you estimate your certainty values, look again at each of your list items. Jot down at least one thing that would have to be true, no matter how unlikely you believe it may be, in order for you to be less certain of (or reverse) each particular belief.

      For my first item, it occurs to me that for most of my life, I recall hearing people call me by some variant of "my" name. I have seen my birth certificate (it's in my file cabinet at home). My social security card, etc. all have that name. How could it not be my name? Well, as it happens, my father is driving out to see me tonight. As wildly unlikely as it may seem, there is, I suppose, a really slim chance he could reveal to me that he and my mother were attempting to avoid the authorities when I was born (witness relocation?) and had to forge papers and create new identities. As a result, my real name, Furgus Finkleton, was kept secret and a new name was used (perhaps they couldn't decide between two first names so just decided to give me both). This, and variations on this theme, seems very unlikely to me. Nonetheless, it does require that I admit to exagerating slightly about my confidence in my belief. It isn't really 100 percent, it must be much closer to 99.99999999 percent.

      Item number two: Actually, we ended up moving from New Hampshire to Kansas just days after getting married. Maybe some important document wasn't completed correctly and the form we needed to fill out was lost in the mail shuffle between Plaistow (NH) and Lawrence (KS). Consequently, our marriage was never legally completed.

      To be honest, I can't think of how to weaken my belief in having ten wigglies on my hands.

      Regarding item four, well clearly, I could very well be wrong about having only one sister. My belief in this is supported only by a lack of evidence. I never actually came right out and asked my mother if she'd had any other children (I assumed I'd have heard about it). Come to think of it, I can ask my father if he's fathered any other Finkletons. But then, he might believe not and still be wrong. Maybe the mother of his love-child kept it a secret. Yikes, on the one hand, I really can't have 100 percent confidence in this belief. On the other hand, there isn't any reason to feel that it isn't true.

      I don't want to labor the point too much more but I do want to emphasize a between-the-lines point from my last paragraph. Many of our beliefs are not built on evidence, but on a lack of contrary evidence. In fact, psychologists have noticed that humans tend to seek evidence to support their beliefs much more often than they seek evidence to prove that their own beliefs are faulty. This is called a (the) confirmation bias.

      If I could change only one thing about human nature, I wouldn't mess with love, hate, greed, etc., I would try to kill the confirmation bias.

      When I asked you to come up with a few things that you knew for certain were true, I doubt that you listed any things that would turn out to be false (although I bet out of a million people doing this, there'd be a couple that would turn out to be false). If pressed to do so, you probably could come up with a list of 200 things that you believe to be true. I would be willing to bet that you would be much less certain of the last 20 or so items as compared with your first 20 items. I am very certain that it would be easier to come up with examples of the evidence you'd need in order to reverse your beliefs in these items as compared with the first items.

      One thing I hope you have realized is that, if you can get past the religious associations with the word "belief," our beliefs represent most (perhaps all) of our personal knowledge base. The take-home message from this first section, then, is simply that beliefs are not certainties, yet we tend to treat them as such - possibly because they are really almost all that we have.

II. Paranormal Beliefs

I saw a man pursuing the horizon

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
     "It is futile," I said,
     "You can never - "

     "You lie," he cried,
And ran on.

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

      There are probably many who will argue that this section should be much longer. However, I don't want to spend too much time defining and defending the term "paranormal" as it isn't really all that important to the main point of this essay. I will merely default to the standard definition approach and apologize to those whom I might offend for using their treasured belief as an example of a paranormal belief (e.g., therapeutic touch, astrology, dowsing, ESP, psychic surgery, auras, remote viewing, etc.). Let me also send apologies to the many people I didn't get the chance to offend by pointing out that their beliefs should also be considered paranormal.

      The term paranormal can be interpreted as referring to anything that is above or beyond whatever would typically be considered normal. In other words, not normal. Literally, "para" is Greek for "beside." This category of events is generally determined as including anything currently unexplained (or unexplainable) by science. By necessity, then, it seems clear that when it comes to explaning events, science should get first crack. If science should fail to explain it, then a tentative label of paranormal should be used. Why "tentative?" Because everyone knows that science is always producing fresh new ideas and ways to learn about the world. Therefore, it might very well turn out that something tentatively labeled as paranormal today may be easily explained by science tomorrow. Whereas the para-fields, in stark contrast to truly scientific fields, do not come up with fresh new approaches - ever. Most paranormal explanations and beliefs should be dead (and many have tried to kill them), but they pop up again every few years like the "undead" of horror movies (or bright yellow rubber duckies).

      Unfortunately, "science" isn't always allowed first (or second, etc.) crack at explaining events unless they are relatively mundane events. This is probably the case for a number of reasons worth exploring (although I do not plan to do much of that exploring here). Not as many people are qualified to do scientific investigations as think they are. As a result of well intentioned but pseudo-scientific busybodies, the "scientific evidence" that accumulates in favor of, or even against, unusual events is crap. For most of the rest of us, well, science not only sounds like a difficult thing to do, but it also sounds expensive. (It even begins with a letter that looks almost like an American dollar sign!) It shouldn't be surprising then that we are pretty willing to believe almost anything we hear if it is couched in scientific jargon (cf. Shermer, 1997). This brings me to my list of knowledge (belief) sources, their limitations, and their strengths.

III. Belief Sources

      It would be an oversimplification to say that much of what we know about our world comes directly or indirectly from what our sensory systems reveal to us. But, as long as you recognize that this is an oversimplification, I'd just like to move on with that as a given starting point.

      Charles S. Peirce outlined what he believed to be the four main sources of knowledge or truth (cf. Kerlinger, 1973): (1) Tenacity, when something has always been "known" to be true. How do we know that it's bad to go swimming just after we eat? Our parents told us, and their parents told them, etc. (2) Authority, when someone that should know, tells us what is so. This includes people you trust to tell the truth (e.g., parents, teachers, public figures, scientists, etc.). (3) Intuition, when we just "know" something to be true (e.g., the gut feeling we get when we first meet someone and instantly trust or distrust them). (4) Science, or the methods we use to conduct good science that result in evidence that may be verified by other scientists, etc.

      I'd like to flesh this list out a bit more and include three additional sources of truth/belief/knowledge: (5) Sense Experiences, "seeing" is believing; (6) Logic, as when we tend to think in terms of "if this is true, then that must be true." and (7) Emotion, when we know something because it would be distressing to believe otherwise.

      Below, I've reordered the belief-sources a bit and given a paranormal belief example for each. Also, I've also provided at least one strength and weakness for each source (surely there are more of each).

Belief Source (reordered from above)
1)Tenacity: "It is bad luck to break a mirror."
    - Strength: Often, in order for a belief to persist across generations, it has withstood the test of time and may very well be true.
    - Weakness: Tenacious beliefs are rarely challenged, so false beliefs may persist for quite some time any way.
2)Intuition: "This place gives me the creeps." or "I have the distinct impression that someone, or someTHING, is watching us."
    - Strength: Just because we don't know the source of a bit of knowledge, doesn't mean that it is a false bit of information. It is likely that our intuitions derive from associations with past experience. For the most part (but not always) our past experiences are good predictors of future experiences under similar circumstances.
    - Weakness: Intuitions can be faulty. If a person wearing clown makeup gave us a terrible scare when we were little, we are likely to get "bad vibes" from a clown at the local carnival. We aren't likely to test to see if our suspicions were correct (or incorrect).
3)Authority: "A famous astronaut says that he saw a UFO and that's good enough for me! After all, if anyone would know an extraterestrial spacecraft when they saw one, it would be a fellow space traveller!"
    - Strength: Usually, and as long as an authority figure is speaking from within their area(s) of expertise, the information provided is likely to be true. Also, experts provide us with short-cuts to knowledge about our world.
    - Weakness: It can be difficult to remember (or know) what a person's expertise may be. Also, humans have a tendency to assume that expertise and intelligence are the same thing. If a brain surgeon (who must be very intelligent) tells me that a particular type of computer (car, furnace, swimming pool, etc.) is an excellent one, I may be more willing to believe it because I give that person the benefit of the doubt, "Well, he's smarter than me, so he must know more about computers (cars, furnaces, pools, etc.) than me." So when an expert in zoology tells me that the laws of physics demand that life after death is a sure thing, it may be less likely that I'd question such a statement than if my brother who flunked algebra told me the same thing. This is despite the fact that neither is an expert in physics.
4)Emotion: "I was so relieved when the psychic told me that my cat Donald is ok and that he forgives me for putting him to sleep."
    - Strength: Emotions are powerful forces that affect our behaviors and contribute to more lasting memories (of both the things we want or NEED to remember, and unfortunately, some things we wish we could forget).
    - Weakness: Emotional beliefs are very difficult to give up when they are wrong.
5)Logic: "If we can't think of a natural explanation of that strange event, then it must be due to something paranormal!"
    - Strength: If used correctly, logic can be a powerful problem solving tool.
    - Weakness: Few are capable of using logic correctly. For example, most of my students believe that the following conclusion is logical as it follows from the premises given: "All friendly ghosts look like people hidden beneath luminous white sheets, Casper looks like a child (person) beneath a luminous white sheet, therefore, Casper is a friendly ghost." Compare that "logical" progression to the same one containing different information: "All UFO's have flashing lights, my computer has flashing lights, therefore my computer is a UFO." Also, the conclusions we draw even if our logic is impecable, are only as good as the validity or truthhood of our premises.
6)Sense Experiences: "I saw the devil face in the fire for myself!"
    - Strength: Does not rely on the faulty memories or reports of others. If others can experience the same thing, it can be considered a fairly good source (but see weaknesses).
    - Weakness: Senses can be fooled without our knowing it. Our senses are relatively limited in detecting energy compared with the potential energies that could be detected (e.g., via technology). Yet, interestingly, people routinely claim to be able to see (hear, detect, converse with, and so on) things that our technologies are unable to register.
7)Science: "Many, if not all, orbs (sphere-shaped blops of light that appear in photos and are believed by some to be spirits) are simply reflections of light through the particles of dust (or dew) in the air or on the camera lens, etc."
    - Strength: Observations can be replicated; Faulty conclusions are much more likely to be corrected over time.
    - Weakness: The methods of science cannot be applied to all domains or questions (yet).

      The above table is not meant to imply that beliefs derive from single sources. Obviously, it would be silly to argue that any belief can be pegged to just one source. Many of our beliefs share emotional, logical, and intuitive components (etc.) depending on the circumstances of their birth. For instance, I expect that I'd be much more likely to have an emotional resistance to giving up a belief from an authority figure if that belief had been given to me by a loved one as compared with some person being interviewed on television. The point of this listing of sources and some of their strengths and weaknesses is to emphasize the reliability (or better, the UNreliability) of many of our sources of belief. At the very least, these strengths and weaknesses should be taken into account whenever you assess the potency of your belief or want to judge the likelihood of someone else's claim(s).

IV. Rubber Ducks

      Many times have I heard or read about the famous "unsinkable ducks" of the paranormal world. In fact, I embarrassed myself in front of Ray Hyman by mis-attributing the source of this idea to James (The Amazing) Randi when Dr. Hyman visited Mississippi State University a few years ago. (I'm not so sure anymore that it was a real misquote, or at least, I suspect I may not be alone in attributing the quote to James Randi.) The basic idea is that many people, no matter what the evidence against their belief, continue to cling to and defend their belief. That is, their beliefs are unsinkable like the little yellow rubber duck toys you can get for your bathtub. Push down or discredit a claim and it pops up again some time later.

      It is this "unsinkability" idea that intrigues me. People are not stupid, but they can sure do a lot of stupid things. There is an extraordinary academic literature out there that describes and demonstrates the many foibles of human thinking. I can cite recent research articles that attempt to explain why people believe odd things, why they persist in holding to ideas that are simply not true, why people believe their false recollections, and so on. The literature is weak, however, on accounting for the processes or mechanisms that contribute to changes in belief. One area that comes close is the field of pursuasion. There is a vast corpus describing the techniques of getting people to do, say, behave, and believe what you want. However, this isn't exactly what I'm interested in. My interests are in the processes that result in a person changing their own beliefs.

     In a NOVA video ("Secrets of the Psychics" hosted by James Randi), James Randi has a conversation with Ray Hyman concerning the psychological needs of people who persist in believing paranormal claims despite a lack of evidence to support the claim, or worse, evidence that contradicts such claims! Why do these folks dislike the braying of skeptics? Dr. Hyman offers a psycho-economics answer. He points out that skeptics have nothing of sufficient value to these people with which to replace their cherished belief. Who wants to replace the warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing that you are one of the few dowsing experts in your state (or home town, etc.) with the skeptics' belief that you really have no such powers? It's a cold world that skeptics live in. Or, at least it must seem that way to many of those who live on the non-skeptical side of the fence.

     Let me briefly describe three different people and the behaviors they engaged in due to their rather bizzarre beliefs:

  1. This first individual believed that the powers of his mind could be enhanced considerably by taking a certain health food vitamin (lecithin capsules) that would raise the levels of choline in his brain and make him super-smart. He got this idea from an article written in Omni Magazine (May, 1979). In preparation for his upcoming SAT exam, rather than study, he purchased a large brown bottle of lecithin gel-caps. The recommended dosage on the side of the bottle was 3-4 pills a day. Clearly, he reasoned, if 3-4 pills a day are recommended merely for health purposes, the dosage required to turbo-charge his mind must be much greater than that. He prescribed for himself a regimen of about 6 capsules every hour for six hours (an initial test of the potential effectiveness of the mind drug). Although unusually larger than the aspirin pills he'd taken in the past, these lecithin jelly-pills were actually pleasant tasting and easy to swallow. They also happened to have some sort of oil or fat based liquid center. The only testament to the enhanced mental effects of lecithin is his inability to forget the three days of rapid and unpredictable colonic cleansing he experienced.

  2. Individual number two entertained the idea that there might be a shortcut to physical prowess. He raced as a profesional cyclist for many years and, with the exception of drugs and steroids, tried virtually anything touted as performance enhancing. Nothing worked (except the usual and more strenuous methods of practice and physical training).

  3. This last person I'm using as an example worked as a professional psychic in order to pay for his college expenses. He studied, read about, and practiced the methods of psychic devination in order to provide his customers with genuine and accurate readings. No doubt he occasionally marveled at his divine gifts. That is, until a friend of his challenged him to break the rules and give his customers readings that were the exact opposite of what he would normally have told them. To his shock and surprise, this change in technique did not affect the perceived accuracy of his psychic readings according to his clients.

     Each of the three people above are now very skeptical individuals (super-skeptics?). Their beliefs were challenged, and consequently their beliefs were changed. It isn't obvious to me what "better" belief was exchanged for their "warm and fuzzy" belief. What is clear to me is that their strange beliefs, which were strong enough to influence their behaviors, were changed. These people were not "rubber duckies."

     What makes a person a "rubber duck" or not? Is it that we are all sinkable or unsinkable under the right set of conditions? These are the questions that interest me right now.

Survey of Beliefs (a pilot)

     My first attempt at this survey (n = 88) was not a very good one. I shamefully admit that I knew better at the time but rushed anyway to get the questionnaire together before the semester ended. In my opinion, it turns out to have been mostly a waste of my time. Although some of the data appear to be interesting, interpretations must be tentative given the survey faults (see below).

     Problems with the survey are fairly obvious and I will not spend much time discussing this version of it. I will, though, describe the bigger flaws and assure you that they were addressed in the revised version.

  • Items were all written in the same "direction." That is, the survey comes across as a very biased list of questions. Ideally, I should have reversed the phrasing of some of the items to decrease the likelihood that responses would fall into predictable patterns. Although the second version has about an equal number of positive/negative phrased items, to be safe I should create a second version of the survey so that I have both versions of each item being asked (e.g., "There IS such a thing as ghosts" in one version of the survey and "There is NO such thing as ghosts" in the other version of the survey).

  • Some of the items were either poorly written, too complicated to be included, or, as a result of the above problem, participants must not have understood some of the items. See especially the responses to item number 29 concerning the orbit of the Sun around the Earth!

  • Some of the items were conceptually redundant or simply not enough is known to take a strong stand on the truth or falsehood of the claim (e.g., items 1, 18, and 19).

     Nonetheless, it is worth noting that there was a great deal of similarity in the means of many of the items shared between versions of the survey. See, for example, the following items listed by old/new item numbers (note that R denotes a reverse-scored item): 7/7, 8/8, 12/12R, 14/14, 17/17R, 23/21, 32/30, 33/31, and 35/33. If you click here, you will be taken to the original survey which also contains a summary of the data for each item.

Survey of Beliefs (revised)

     This survey (which you can take yourself) was constructed as a first attempt at estimating the degree to which students (etc.) are skeptical about certain beliefs (facts?). Do they think critically about certain claims, or, do they blithely accept them without much question?

     A scale that supposedly measures "belief" is a tricky thing. For example, while a score of zero may seem like a good definition of "super skeptic," in a pragmatic sense, I'm not so sure that this approach is the best to use for all of those who take this survey.

     In the present case, a score of ZERO would presumably represent the most skeptical (and perhaps close-minded) of possible scores. Whereas a score of 280 would reflect the least skeptical (and perhaps as close-minded) of possible views.

     But consider: Wouldn't an open-minded skeptic, if they have never thought of (or heard of) one of the above claims, have to provide "NOT SURE" as their most skeptical (and honest) answer? This would have the effect of raising their score by 4 points. In fact, imagine a very ignorant, but skeptical (open minded), response to each question. The result of answering "NOT SURE" to all questions would yield a score of 140.

     So how can we interpret your score? Well broadly, and until I get more data, we will have to be satisfied with a simple comparison of your score to what others have reported (see below). It would probably be more informative to examine responses to each question (if interested, see this page).

     So far, I have given this survey to 82 students (all at the end of the semester). The overall findings are that scores range between 13 and 123, with an average score of 110.6. I will periodically update the data I receive via the web survey.

     Although I do not have enough data to form any strong conclusions, as you can see below, the breakdown of scores does vary as a function of the course from which these data were taken. I'd very much like to know how stable these scores are by getting retests from the same students prior to their graduations (1 to 4 -or more- year intervals).

Psychology of
Paranormal Beliefs

Future Plans

      Ultimately, I would like to expand this to include not only the sources of paranormal beliefs, but their lifespans. That is, what contributes to their longevity, what are the ideal conditions for their spreading, and, what kills them.


      Kerlinger, F. (1973). Foundations of behavioral research. New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston.

      Shermer, M. (1997). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York: Freeman.

      Vyse, S. A. (1997). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. New York: Oxford.