How to Make a Paranormal Event Seem Believable

Frame the story as a prior skeptic, not a staunch believer.
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(Photo: jox1989/Flickr)

(Photo: jox1989/Flickr)

Can you read minds and murder goats with a simple glare? When you shut your eyes, are you occasionally treated to oracular dreamscapes? If you, at times, consider yourself more skilled than a mind-bending Jedi and more powerful than Miss Cleo, it might just be your lucky day.

Your friends probably cackle and call you an irrational lunatic when you tell them about all this hocus pocus. But fear not. There might just be a rhetorical solution to your telepathic malaise. Psychology has finally figured out how to increase the likelihood of persuading others of supernatural events.

It's all in the narrative framing. Just remember to say that before the enchanting event went down, you were staunchly skeptical.

People are more likely to believe what you're saying is actually attributable to the paranormal if you don't sound like an ignorant simpleton at the beginning of the tale.

Conveying this skepticism before telling an irrationally stupid story might make it more convincing, according to the results of a new Journal of Language and Social Psychology study authored by University of East London researcher Anna Stone. People are more likely to believe what you're saying is actually attributable to the paranormal if you don't sound like an ignorant simpleton at the beginning of the tale. "The declaration of initial scepticism suggests that the narrator behaves rationally in basing his or her beliefs on empirical evidence and so counters potential accusations of foolishness and gullibility or being swayed by too little evidence," Stone explains in the paper. "The presentation of the evidence that converted the narrator within the account itself offers the audience an invitation to go on the same journey from scepticism to belief along with the narrator."

Starting off the story with an admission of life-long faith in the bizarre doesn't increase credibility.

Stone designed a simple experiment to prove what had previously only been a vague qualitative assertion. Subjects read a description of either a precognitive dream (the narrator predicted and prevented a car accident) or a telepathic experience (the narrator thought "of an old friend Sally" and then learned about her hospitalization 30 minutes later) in three different conditions. In one, the narrator claimed to be skeptical of the paranormal before describing the event; in the second, the narrator said he or she didn't have any interest at all; and in the third, the narrator admitted to being a vehement prior believer. Then, the subjects were asked a series of questions about whether they thought the event described really was paranormal, "just a coincidence," or the product of narrator gullibility.

To gauge pre-existing beliefs about the paranormal, subjects also took the standard (and strangely titled) Australian Sheep Goat Scale (sheep are believers, goats are doubters). The undergraduate subject group, on average, was skeptical (the final results were statistically adjusted to incorporate this finding).

The skeptical condition significantly increased the likelihood that subjects would characterize the event as causally paranormal, even though the majority of the subjects rightly attributed it to coincidence.


(Chart: Journal of Language and Social Psychology)

So, when explaining your next UFO encounter, adopt an incredulous air at the beginning.