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Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers

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Illusory face perception, a tendency to find human-like faces where none are actually present in, for example, artifacts or scenery, is a common phenomenon that occasionally enters the public eye. We used two tests (N = 47) to analyze the relationship between paranormal and religious beliefs and illusory face perception. In a detection task, the participants detected face-like features from pictures of scenery and landscapes with and without face-like areas and, in a rating task, evaluated the face-likeness and emotionality of these areas. Believer groups were better at identifying the previously defined face-like regions in the images but were also prone to false alarms. Signal detection analysis revealed that believers had more liberal answering criteria than skeptics, but the actual detection sensitivity did not differ. The paranormal believers also evaluated the artifact faces as more face-like and emotional than the skeptics, and a similar trend was found between religious and non-religious people. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than
Skeptics and Non-believers
TAPANI RIEKKI*, MARJAANA LINDEMAN, MARJA ALENEFF, ANNI HALME and
ANTTI NUORTIMO
Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Division of Cognitive Psychology and Neuropsychology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
Summary: Illusory face perception, a tendency to nd human-like faces where none are actually present in, for example, artifacts
or scenery, is a common phenomenon that occasionally enters the public eye. We used two tests (N = 47) to analyze the relationship
between paranormal and religious beliefs and illusory face perception. In a detection task, the participants detected face-like
features from pictures of scenery and landscapes with and without face-like areas and, in a rating task, evaluated the face-likeness
and emotionality of these areas. Believer groups were better at identifying the previously dened face-like regions in the images
but were also prone to false alarms. Signal detection analysis revealed that believers had more liberal answering criteria
than skeptics, but the actual detection sensitivity did not differ. The paranormal believers also evaluated the artifact faces
as more face-like and emotional than the skeptics, and a similar trend was found between religious and non-religious people.
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
INTRODUCTION
Everysooften,peopleclaimtond the face or gure of a
religious character or other important person in peculiar
places, for example, on toasted bread. These ndings are
even reported in the news, and the items are sold on eBay.
Although most of us can identify the shapes claimed,
reactions vary from serious wonder about the supposed
miracle to ignorance of these gures and disbelief in their
importance. These intriguing, funny, and often surprising
perceptions of human shapes can happen in unexpected
situations and have even ended up in a scientic journal, in
the case of the face of a sick man peering out of an ultrasound
image (Roberts & Touma, 2011). The present study examines
the role that religious and other paranormal beliefs may play
in illusory face detection.
Research on reports of seeing a face where no face
actually exists is scarce. In a recent study, illusory face
detection was found to be relatively high even in pure noise
images, with face detection rates as high as 41% (Rieth, Lee,
Lui, Tian, & Huber, 2011). The same study also suggested
that illusory face perception is highly affected by top-down
processes (i.e., expectations and previous experiences),
not only by bottom-up processes, such as visual input. In
another study, two participants tried to detect smiles on
faces with mouth areas consisting of white noise (Gosselin
& Schyns, 2003). Illusory detection varied from relatively
low to high: from 7% to 48%. These studies suggest that
even when only noise is present, false perceptions of faces
or facial parts are common.
Krummenacher, Mohr, Haker, and Brugger (2010) showed
that people who believe in paranormal phenomena errone-
ously identied faces in scrambled congurations more
often than skeptics did. Other studies have also shown that
paranormal believers are prone to perceive meaningful
patterns in ambiguous stimuli in, for example, semantic or
visual tasks (Brugger et al., 1993; Giannotti, Mohr, Pizzagalli,
Lehman, & Brugger, 2001). It can thus be expected that
illusory face recognition is more typical for paranormal
believers than for skeptics.
Illusory face detection can be considered, in a liberal sense,
as a form of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism, in a
strict sense, denotes the belief that nonhuman phenomena
have uniquely human properties, such as a sense of humor.
However, nowadays the concept is often used more liberally
in connection with attributes that may apply to animals
as well (e.g., a belief that God is an intentional agent;
Boyer, 1996) or without an assumption of a genuine belief
(My computer is grouchy today).
Cognitive scientists of religion have suggested that
anthropomorphism explains peoples inclination to believe in
gods (Barrett, 2000; Guthrie, 1993). The few available studies
about the relationship between individual anthropomorphism
and religiosity surprisingly propose that this is not the case.
Shtulman (2008) found that the more a person believed in
a supernatural being, the less it was described with such
human attributes as awake, honest, talkative, and skinny.
Similarly, perceiving such properties as anger, maliciousness,
wisdom, and self-condence in pictures of a tree and a volcano
is not connected to religious beliefs but rather to other
paranormal beliefs (Norenzayan, Hanse, & Cady, 2008).
Anthropomorphism is characterized as a process where the
highly accessible, early developing, and fundamental
knowledge about human agents serves as an inductive base
that is applied to nonhuman targets (Epley, Waytz, &
Cacioppo, 2007; Guthrie, 1993). Therefore, it is possible that
an association between religiosity and anthropomorphism is
more apparent in basic social processes functional early in
development and crucial in dealing with other people, such
as face detection (Beauchamp & Anderson, 2010), than in
less fundamental and later developing human attributes such
as talkativeness and self-condence.
We examined illusory face detection with artifact face
pictures and non-face pictures. Artifact face pictures are
pictures of artifacts and scenes in which face-like features
*Correspondence to: Tapani Riekki, Institute of Behavioral Sciences, Division
of Cognitive Psychology and Neuropsychology, P.O. Box 9, 00014 University
of Helsinki, Finland.
E-mail: tapani.riekki@helsinki.
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Applied Cognitive Psychology,Appl. Cognit. Psychol. (2012)
Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/acp.2874
such as eyes and a mouth might be perceived even though the
picture includes no actual faces or people. The hypotheses
were tested with two tasks: the perception of human faces in
artifacts and the rating of the face-likeness and emotionality
of the faces. Two hypotheses were set: (1) paranormal
believers and religious people are more prone to illusory
face perception than skeptics and non-religious people are
and (2) paranormal believers and religious people rate
artifact faces as more face-like and emotional than skeptics
and non-religious people do.
METHOD
Participants
A total of 47 (26 women, 21 men, mean age = 31 years,
range 2050 years) healthy participants with normal or
corrected to normal vision were included in the study. The
participants were recruited from various electronic mailing
lists (e.g., university studentslists), internet forums (e.g., a
skeptics association), notice boards (e.g., at an esoteric
bookstore), and with the snowball method. The participants
had 29 different occupations, and 39% of them either
were university students or university graduates. To obtain
participants from the opposite ends of the paranormal
beliefs continuum, two different advertisements were used.
These were otherwise identical, but in the rst advertisement
we emphasized that we are looking for participants who view
the paranormal positively or believe that there is an invisible
spiritual world; in the other, we stated that we were looking
for participants who are skeptical about the existence of
paranormal phenomena. The participants received personal
feedback from a questionnaire about their thinking style as
a reward. We also asked the participants whether they were
familiar with the idea of artifact faces and if they had, for
example, visited internet pages dedicated to the phenomena.
Familiarity did not predict performance in any of the tasks
(all ps>.50).
Originally 73 people were recruited for the study. The distri-
bution of paranormal and religious beliefs was found to be
strongly skewed, which was probably due to the emphasis
on skepticism or paranormal beliefs in the recruitment process.
Only those belonging to the upper and lower quartiles (25%)
were included in the analyses: paranormal believers (N=19,
mean age = 34 years) and skeptics (N= 20, mean age = 28
years); religious people (N= 20, mean age =34 years) and
non-religious people (N= 19, mean age = 27 years). We
focused on the more extreme groups to avoid a possible
qualitative difference between mild and strong believers:
believers who hold mild or medium strength beliefs may be
habitual believers, not true believers or skeptics (Vyse,
1997). Paranormal beliefs and religiousness correlated
strongly with each other, r= .84, p<.001, and 30 participants
who were categorized either as paranormal believers or as
skeptics were also categorized as religious and non-religious,
respectively. Thus, even though we speak separately about
paranormal and religious believers (or skeptics and non-
believers), the groups overlapped.
Religious and paranormal beliefs were assessed with
Tobacyks (2004) Revised Paranormal Belief Scale. The
scale includes 26 items. The four items that measure
traditional religious beliefs (e.g., I believe in God) were used
to measure religiosity (Cronbachsa= .85). Twenty items
addressing beliefs in psi, superstition, spiritualism, extraor-
dinary life forms, and precognition were used to measure
non-religious paranormal beliefs (a= .96; e.g., Astrology
is a way to accurately predict the future,Apersons
thoughts can inuence the movement of a physical object).
The questions were answered with a ve-point scale
(1 = strongly disagree,5=strongly agree). Two items
concerning the possibility of extraterrestrial life and witches
were removed because several participants reported
interpreting them in a non-paranormal way. The questionnaire
was completed after the experimental part of the study. Prior to
the experiment, the participants signed an informed consent
form and were given a short brieng about the study, including
information regarding ethical issues and the ow of the study.
A longer description of the study was given at the end.
Stimuli
The stimuli pictures were chosen in several steps. First,
28 color photographs were chosen from existing private
photographs of the authors that t the requirements for the
stimuli. Then, we took additional photographs to complete
a set of 150 color photographs of artifact faces and 100
non-face pictures. All of the artifact face pictures had a
face-like area where, at the minimum, eyes and a mouth
could be perceived. The faces in the pictures were evenly
distributed to different areas of the photographs. Some
of the artifact pictures were staged, such as ofce tools
arranged on a table, whereas others were natural, such as
a rock wall. The pictures depicted items, objects, and places
such as furniture, rooms, buildings, and landscapes. No
humans or animals were in the pictures. When possible,
the artifact face picture had a control non-face picture
with the same setting, theme, and light, taken by the same
camera (see Figure 1 for examples). In the non-face
pictures, there were no face-like areas. To keep the pictures
as natural as possible, they were not converted or adjusted
in any way except for resizing them to 640 640 pixels.
Next, four people rated whether they were able to detect
faces in the artifact face pictures and in the non-face pictures.
If three raters agreed upon the same face area, the picture
was added to the artifact face set. Also, to dene the artifact
face areas in the pictures, all of the raters estimated the oppo-
site top and bottom corners of the perceived face area, and
the box calculated from the average of these values was then
used as a hit box area for the face in the detection task. If any
of the raters reported a face-like area in a non-face picture,
the picture was discarded. A total of 124 artifact face pictures
and 99 non-face pictures were chosen to pilot the study.
A pilot test with 10 participants (mean age 32 years, seven
women) was conducted to test and choose the pictures for
the main study. Half of the participants took the test in a
laboratory and the rest with a laptop computer in various
places using the same procedure as in the main study, which
is described in the succeeding text. Thirty-eight pictures in
which everyone had perceived an artifact face were excluded
along with one picture in which no one had perceived a face.
T. Riekki et al.
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. (2012)
Twelve non-face pictures were rejected because of ambiguities.
The rest of the 98 artifact face pictures were used in the
detection and rating task along with the 87 non-face pictures
in the detection task.
The detection task
The detection task was done in a dimmed laboratory with a PC
and a Samsung 22" 1440x 900 LCD screen. The stimuli were
presented with Neurobehavioral Systems Inc.sPRESENTATION
W
14.1 software. The participants sat 60 cm from the screen.
The viewing angle was not restricted, and answering was
done with a mouse. The background color of the screen
was gray throughout the study.
The participants read the instructions for the study from a
computer screen. The test started with practice sections that
taught the answering method and the idea of artifact faces.
Because of the rapid pace of the test, participants were
instructed to be fast but as precise as possible. The rst
practice section consisted of six small green squares. The
participants had to point to each square and click on it as
quickly and precisely as possible, after which the next one
would be shown. In the second part, the six squares were
shown again but now only for 1000 ms each, and the
participants had to point to and click on the area in which
they had seen the square.
In the third section, six artifact faces and two non-face
pictures were used. To exemplify a range of artifact faces,
pictures were chosen from the pilot study on the basis of their
relative difculty, from easy to difcult. The participants were
instructed to try to nd a face-like area in the pictures. If
they found one, they were to point with the mouse to the
approximate location of the middle of the face, that is, the
nose, and press the left mouse button. If there was no
face-like area, they were instructed to press the right mouse
button. The answering time was not restricted, and the
pictures were presented one by one. To give feedback to
the participants, the target picture was presented again after
every answer, for both right and wrong answers, with the
face-like area circled or with an X in the middle of the picture
for non-face pictures. The fourth practice section used the
same procedure and instructions as the main task, which is
described next, but like the third section had only two
non-face pictures and six artifact face pictures.
In the main experiment, the participants were instructed to
try to nd face-like areas from randomly shown 98 artifact
face pictures and 87 non-face pictures. If they found one, they
were to point with the mouse to the approximate location of
the middle of the face and press the left mouse button. If there
was no face-like area, they were instructed to press the right
mouse button. The main task proceeded in the following
way. First, a xation cross was shown for 1000 ms. Second,
a picture was shown for 1000 ms. Third, a mouse cursor
appeared on the screen to be used for answering with an
answering time of 4000 ms. Because the pictures were
smaller than the whole screen, mouse clicks were made
on a highlighted gray area that replaced the area of the
pictures, as the picture was not shown during the time given
for answering. After the answer was given or if the participant
did not answer within the given answering time, the test
continued automatically to the next xation cross.
The variables for the hit and miss rates for the artifact
faces and non-face pictures were calculated in the following
way. For the artifact faces, left mouse clicks (yes, there is a
face-like area in the picture) were coded as hits if the answer
was given in the previously dened face area of the picture,
and all right clicks (no, there is no face-like area) were
coded as misses. If the area clicked when answering yes
was outside the previously dened face area, the answer
was coded as yes-miss. For the non-face pictures, all left
mouse clicks (yes) were coded as false alarms and right
mouse clicks (no)ascorrect rejections. Non-responses
for both types of pictures were coded as non-responses
(no group differences were found, both ps>.249). The
internal consistency of the test was good for both the artifact
faces (a= .93) and the non-face pictures (a= .98).
Figure 1. Artifact faces. Two pictures of artifact faces (rst row) and control pictures (second row)
Illusory faces and paranormal beliefs
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. (2012)
The rating task
In the rating task, presented after a short break following the
detection task, the participants rated the face-likeness and
emotionality of the artifact face pictures using a visual analog
scale and a mouse. The instruction was as follows: Next you
will be shown pictures in which a face-like area can or cannot
be found. Rate the possible face-like areas using the following
scales.The participants were asked to indicate how face-like
the artifact face was (the left end of the scale = not at all,
coded as 0; the right end = alot, coded as 170) and how
emotional the face was (the left end = negative, coded
as 170; the middle = no emotion, coded as 0; the right
end = positive, coded as 170). To obtain a score for the
perceived strength of the emotion, only the absolute value of
the rating was used (0170). Answering was done by moving
the cursor along the visual analogical scale and pressing the
left mouse button. If the participant thought that there was
no face-like area in the picture, they were instructed to press
the right button (this answer was coded as 0). The rst picture
was a practice picture taken from the detection taskspractice
section and was not used in the analyses. The artifact face
pictures and the setting were the same as in the detection task.
The pictures were presented randomly, without a time limit,
one by one with the answering scale and the question. Two
variables, face-likeness (a=.98) and emotionality (a= .95),
were formed from the ratings.
RESULTS
We used signal detection analysis (Green & Swets, 1966;
Macmillan & Creelman, 2005) to analyze the results of the
detection task because it enables the correction of the hit
rate with the false-alarm rate, revealing actual detection
sensitivity. Yesanswers for artifact faces and false-alarm
rates for non-face pictures were calculated and used to
calculate two variables based on signal detection analysis:
sensitivity d0(perceptual sensitivity) and the criterion C
(bias towards the answer yes). For all means, see Table 1.
Analyses of variances and covariance were conducted
between the paranormal believers and skeptics and the
religious and non-religious people between all the variables.
Age was added as a covariate in the analysis because
the paranormal believers were older than the skeptics,
F(1,37) = 6.45, p= .015,
p
2
= .148, the religious people
were older than the non-religious, F(1,37) = 10.01,
p= .003,
p
2
= .213, and because age correlated with
misses for artifact faces in the fast-paced detection task,
r= .24, p= .044.
The religious people had more false alarms in non-face
pictures, F(1,36) = 6.34, p= .016,
p
2
= .150, but also
more hits in predetermined face areas in artifact face pictures,
F(1,36) = 10.15, p=.003,
p
2
= .220, than the non-religious
people had. Similarly, the paranormal believers had more
false alarms in non-face pictures, F(1,36) = 7.95, p= .008,
p
2
= .181, and more hits in the predetermined artifact face
areas, F(1,36) = 9.99, p=.003,
p
2
= .217, than the skeptics
had. Regarding sensitivity d0, neither the comparison between
the paranormal believers and skeptics nor the comparison
between the religious and non-religious people was statistically
signicant (both p0s>.225). There were, however, group
differences in response criterion C. The paranormal
believers had a lower criterion than the skeptics had,
F(1,36) = 11.02, p= .002,
p
2
= .234, and the religious believers
lower than the non-religious people, F(1,36) = 6.06, p= .019,
p
2
= .144. No group difference was found in the yes-miss
answers, between the religious and non-religious people,
F(1,36) = 2.93, p= .095,
p
2
= .075, nor between the paranormal
believers and the skeptics, F(1,36) = 2.10, p= .156,
p
2
= .055.
Age had a signicant independent effect on the response
criterion and hit rate; the older participants had less hits and a
lower criterion value than the younger participants had in
both group comparisons between the believer groups.
Between the religious and non-religious people, the group
differences were not statistically signicant without
controlling for age. Regarding the paranormal believers
and skeptics, all statistically signicant differences were also
signicant without controlling for age, except for the hit rate
on artifact faces.
To approximate whether the believer groups were better
than non-believers at identifying the previously dened
face-like regions in the images, analyses of covariance were
conducted with age as a covariate. The number of correct
location identications divided by the sum of correct and
incorrect location identications for all trials where
participants reported detecting a face was the dependent vari-
able. The results showed that paranormal believers scored higher
(M= 90) than skeptics did (M=87), F(1,36) = 6.01, p= .019,
p
2
= .143, and that religious people scored higher (M= 90)
than non-religious people did (M= 86), F(1,36) = 5.26,
p= .028,
p
2
= .127.
In the rating task, the paranormal believers rated the
artifact faces as more face-like, F(1,37) = 6.25, p=.017,
p
2
= .145, and emotional, F(1,37) = 4.70, p= .037,
p
2
= .113,
Table 1. Means and standard deviations of all variables in the different groups
Paranormal
believers Skeptics
Religious
believers
Non-religious
people
Hit rates in predetermined artifact face areas 0.52 (0.13) 0.46 (0.12) 0.51 (0.12) 0.48 (0.12)
Yes-miss answers given outside the predetermined artifact face areas 0.05 (0.03) 0.07 (0.05) 0.06 (0.03) 0.08 (0.06)
False alarms for non-face pictures 0.16 (0.10) 0.10 (0.07) 0.15 (0.10) 0.10 (0.07)
Correct rejections for non-face pictures 0.84 (0.10) 0.90 (0.07) 0.85 (0.10) 0.90 (0.07)
Sensitivity d01.30 (0.38) 1.45 (0.31) 1.33 (0.36) 1.33 (0.36)
Response criterion C0.43 (0.34) 0.67 (0.39) 0.47 (0.34) 0.62 (0.38)
Face-likeness in the rating task 110 (50) 72 (44) 101 (51) 79 (39)
Emotionality in the rating task 54 (18) 42 (14) 51 (18) 45 (15)
T. Riekki et al.
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. (2012)
than the skeptics did. In contrast, the religious people
and non-religious people rated the face-likeness of the
pictures equally, F(1,37) = 2.29, p= .139,
p
2
= .058, and
no difference was found for emotionality ratings either,
F(1,37) = 1.03, p=.318,
p
2
= .027.
DISCUSSION
The religious people saw artifact faces in pictures of, for
example, rocks, landscapes, and lifeless material objects more
often than the non-religious people did. Similarly, the people
who believed in other paranormal phenomena (e.g., astrology
and telepathy) detected faces in the artifacts more often than
the skeptics did. Supporting Hypothesis 2, the paranormal
believers also regarded these face-like areas as more face-like
than the skeptics did and assigned more extreme emotions to
them. A similar trend was found between the religious and
non-religious people, but the differences were not signicant.
Moreover, compared with the non-believers and skeptics, the
religious and paranormal believers not only detected faces
more often when they were actually present, but in line with
Hypothesis 1, they also saw more faces in pictures without
any face-like patterns.
Signal detection analysis revealed that the participant
groups did not differ in their sensitivity in detecting faces
but that the paranormal and religious believers had a reduced
criterion for approving the presence of a face, reected in the
low number of misses at the expense of high false alarm
rates. The believerstendency to report seeing faces regard-
less of whether there were faces or not implies that they were
susceptible to the suggestion that faces may be present, on
the basis of, for example, a yea-sayingtendency, the
priming effect of the practice items, or on a conrmation bias,
which has been shown to be common among paranormal
believers (Hergovich, 2003; Wiseman, Greening, &
Smith, 2003). As such, the results are in line with earlier
ndings that paranormal believers are more prone to nd
patterns in noisy or ambiguous stimuli than other people
are (e.g., Brugger et al., 1993; Giannotti et al., 2001; Krum-
menacher et al., 2010) and that paranormal beliefs are asso-
ciated with a tendency to jump to conclusions on the basis
of inadequate evidence (Blagrove, French, & Jones, 2006;
Brugger & Graves, 1997).
However, it might be possible that the results are not only
due to these factors alone because the way in which the
paranormal and religious believers detected faces was not
indiscriminate. Whereas in a typical signal detection design,
the participants are simply asked to answer yes or no, in the
present study they also had to point to the area where the face
was. Interestingly, the paranormal and religious believers
were more likely to nd the face-like areas than the skeptics
and non-believers were: the group differences that were
found were in these hits, not in the yes answers given outside
the predetermined face areas. However, it is possible that the
believer groups identied the location of more faces simply
because they had the opportunity to do so as they reported
detecting faces overall more than non-believers. Therefore,
in future studies, believersdetection of face-like pictures
should be tested with a design where participants are always
asked to make location responses.
As a whole, the results hint at the possibility that the
believers may be overly sensitive to social information and
that only a small amount of information is sufcient to
activate their social information processing. This possibility
would be consistent with the arguments that these beliefs,
like anthropomorphism, stem from the capacity to recognize
and understand human beings (Epley et al., 2007). Theoretical
arguments (e.g., Bering, 2006; Bloom, 2007; Kelemen, 2004)
and empirical ndings (e.g., Lindeman & Aarnio, 2007;
Lindeman et al., 2008; Svedholm, Lindeman, & Lipsanen,
2010) suggest that paranormal and religious believers
stretch universally and early developing human attributes,
such as beliefs, desires, and intentional purpose, to inappro-
priate realms. It has also been suggested that processing
information relating to human beings is a fundamental
dimension of domain-specic cognition that comes in degrees
in the general population, ranging from underdeveloped
to hyperdeveloped (i.e., exaggerated) social cognition
(e.g., Baron-Cohen, Knickmeyer, & Belmonte, 2005;
Crespi & Badcock, 2008). Considering the theoretically
plausible link between social information processing skills
and paranormal and religious beliefs, it could be useful to
study their association more closely in future studies.
In the introduction, we suggested that detecting faces
in artifacts with no face-like patterns is one form of
anthropomorphism. For the present, theoretical arguments
have mostly focused on anthropomorphism as a determinant
of belief in gods and other spirits (Barrett, 2000; Guthrie,
1993), but empirical ndings have been rare and inconclusive
(e.g., Norenzayan et al., 2008; Shtulman, 2008), most
probably because of the myriad of ways the concept of
anthropomorphism can be operationalized. Our results
suggest that both religiosity and paranormal beliefs are
associated with anthropomorphism and that the tendency
to attribute human qualities to nonhuman phenomena may
extend to face perception as well.
Illusory face perception, a phenomenon often in the
public eye, was here studied with as natural stimuli as
possible, which has advantages and disadvantages. The
pictures were chosen for their naturalness to ensure face
validity: we tried to use stimuli as close to real-life situa-
tions as possible. On the other hand, this limits control over
the images. For example, a more controlled psychophysical
approach with an equal number of non-face and face
pictures could be used to investigate more precisely
where the group differences lie at the perceptional level.
Using receiver operating characteristics (see, for example,
Macmillan & Creelman, 2005) could further highlight the
relation of sensitivity and the response criterion. Also, to
rule out a possible response bias in the rating task, a control
condition of non-face pictures could be used. It should also
be noted that the paranormal believers were here partly
the same participants as the religious individuals (or the
skeptics and non-religious participants, respectively), and
it could be useful to use more diverse groups of paranormal
and religious believers in the future.
One thing that we learned during the research was that
illusory face perception is a pervasive phenomenon. It was
Illusory faces and paranormal beliefs
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. (2012)
hard to nd pictures of artifact faces that were difcult
enough to detect but still realistic because most of the faces
were so self-evident. Thus, the line between when a pattern
is face-like and when it is not is challenging to draw, and
as our results show, that line may be in a different place
for different individuals. To conclude, we may all be biased
to perceive human characteristics where none exist, but
religious and paranormal believers perceive them even more
than do others.
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T. Riekki et al.
Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. (2012)
... Related to pattern perception, Riekki et al. (2013) examined face detection among religious and paranormal believers and nonbelievers. They created an Illusory Face Perception Task [IFPT]): participants were asked if they saw patterns of faces (eyes, nose, and mouth) in Electronic copy available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4105308 ...
... -H5b: Illusory Face detection positively predicts PBs (Riekki et al., 2013). ...
... assessed using the Illusory Face Perception Task (IFPT) material (Riekki et al., 2013). The material is made of ten photographs containing a face-like area and ten pictures containing none. ...
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Abstract: Perception of randomness, patterns in visual noise, and coincidences have been associated with propensity to endorse paranormal and conspiracist beliefs. There is, however, controversial evidence about the relationships and related explanatory paths. Whereas some studies report a strong association between pattern and randomness perception, and conspiracy theory beliefs, others note only a weak association or none at all. And while paranormal beliefs have been associated with randomness perception and are routinely correlated with conspiracy theory endorsement, the exact relationships, and differences of both types of belief remain elusive. The present research sought to resolve these issues by assessing the predictive power of several factors in competition, such as pattern, randomness, and coincidence perception, using different paradigms in two studies including four samples of participants, as well as a meta-analysis of all findings, testing twelve hypotheses in the process. We find that belief in conspiracy theories was best predicted by coincidence perception, whereas paranormal beliefs were best predicted by illusory pattern perception. Our findings help clarifying the distinction between pattern, randomness and coincidence perception, which are often conflated in the literature on nonconventional beliefs and qualifies the widespread idea that believers in conspiracy theories tend to reject randomness.
... In this study we investigated two personality traits that have been related to positive aspects of schizotypy, but that have been largely neglected in creativity research: paranormal beliefs and the propensity to experience meaningful coincidences (Hergovich et al., 2008;Partos et al., 2016;Rominger et al., 2011;Stumm and Scott, 2019;Thalbourne and Delin, 1994). Paranormal beliefs, defined as beliefs which are currently unexplained by science (Irwin, 1999), were found to be linked with creative personality (Stumm and Scott, 2019; Thalbourne and Delin, 1994) and the detection of meanings in random arrangements, such as seeing faces in everyday objects (Blackmore, 1994;Brugger et al., 1993;Krummenacher et al., 2010;Riekki et al., 2013;Rominger et al., 2011;Sannwald, 1962; but see Farias et al., 2005). The propensity to perceive meaning in meaningless noise is called apophenia, patternicity, pareidolias, or the experience of meaningful coincidences (in a predominantly temporal sense; Beitman, 2009;Brugger, 2001;DeYoung et al., 2012;Diaconis and Mosteller, 1989;Partos et al., 2016;Rominger et al., 2018;Shermer, 2008). ...
... In accordance with the findings of self-rated creative ideation behavior, paranormal belief was positively linked with the number of intersubjectively meaningful patterns and with the propensity to perceive meaningful coincidences in daily life. This finding is in line with a wide variety of empirical research conducted during the last decades, which suggested that believers and non-believers differ in their imaginative behavior (Stumm and Scott, 2019), their perception of causality (Torres et al., 2020), and their cognitive and perceptual styles associated with apophenia (Blackmore, 1994;Blackmore and Troscianko, 1985;Brugger et al., 1993;Fyfe et al., 2008;Riekki et al., 2013;Rominger et al., 2011Rominger et al., , 2019. Matching the current findings, Sannwald (1962) reported that people, who believed to have experienced paranormal phenomena gave more answers during an inkblot test compared to controls. ...
... In contrast to creative ideation behavior, paranormal belief correlated with an increased perception of idiosyncratic/unique meanings. This may indicate that paranormal believers have a reduced threshold for the detection of meaning in meaninglessness noise (Brugger and Graves, 1997;Partos et al., 2016;Riekki et al., 2013). In line with this, a study reported a lower probability to perceive common patterns in people with higher positive schizotypy (Rominger et al., 2017). ...
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Apophenia, patternicity, and the experience of meaningful coincidences describe the propensity to perceive meaning in random arrangements, which is known to be linked with paranormal beliefs. Additionally, this trait of combining unrelated elements to create new meanings suggests an association with creativity. However, studies indicating a relationship between creativity and apophenia are scarce. To gain empirical evidence, the present study (n = 77) assessed the propensity to experience meaningful patterns in random arrangements by means of a questionnaire (coincidence questionnaire) and a behavioral measure. The applied figural association task allows to reliably differentiate between the perception of idiosyncratic/unique and intersubjective meaningful/non-unique patterns. Self-rated creative ideation behavior and paranormal beliefs were positively associated with the subjectively rated frequency of meaningful coincidences. Furthermore, participants high in both creative ideation behavior and paranormal beliefs perceived a higher number of non-unique meanings in the figural association task. Yet, participants high in paranormal beliefs additionally perceived a higher number of unique meanings. This divergence in findings suggests that creative ideation behavior and paranormal belief are associated with the perception of partly different meanings in random arrangements. In paranormal believers, this pattern of findings may indicate a lower threshold to detect meaning in meaninglessness, leading to more idiosyncratic/unique perceptions. Altogether, slight reductions of this threshold to detect meaningfulness may increase a persons’ creativity; however, excessive pattern recognition may facilitate paranormal beliefs.
... Using black and grey images of faces and "nonfaces" (scrambled eyes-nose-mouth configurations), Krummenacher and colleagues [73] found believers made significantly more Type I errors than sceptics, favouring "false alarms" over "misses" (i.e., believers had a lower response criterion when classifying images as faces, with a bias towards "yes" responses). Similarly, Riekki et al. [108] presented participants with 98 artifact face pictures (containing a facelike area where eyes and a mouth could be perceived, e.g., a tree trunk) and 87 theme-matched non-face pictures (e.g., a tree trunk with no face-like areas). Believers rated the non-face pictures as more face-like and assigned more extreme positive and negative emotions to nonfaces than sceptics. ...
... The section on intelligence similarly highlights links between paranormal beliefs and fluid IQ measures such as the Ravens Matrices [100,101]. Studies further show the same MD system is recruited when confronted with perceptually difficult tasks (such as those outlined in the section on perceptual and cognitive biases for degraded visual input) [66,67,107,108]. Aside from supporting our problem-solving ability, fluid intelligence and various aspects of executive functioning (e.g., working memory) underpins our ability to reason and to see relations among items and includes both inductive and deductive logical reasoning. ...
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... Douglas et al. (2016) reported that attributing the ability to have mental states to animated shapes is associated with endorsement of conspiracy theories. Riekki et al. (2013) found that a bias to see faces is associated with belief in the paranormal. There are plausible links between conspiracist ideation and psychosis (Galbraith, 2021), and to the extent that ASD and SSD are opposites, if ASD indeed biases only judgements of second-order intentionality, the same should apply to schizophrenia merely with the opposite sign. ...
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Introduction: Diametrically aberrant mentalising biases, namely hypermentalising in psychosis and hypomentalising in autism, are postulated by some theoretical models. To test this hypothesis, we measured psychotic-like experiences, autistic traits and mentalising biases in a visual chasing paradigm. Methods: Participants from the general population (N = 300) and psychotic patients (N=26) judged the absence or presence of a chase during five-second long displays of seemingly randomly moving dots. Hypermentalising is seeing a chase where there is none, whereas hypomentalising is missing to see a chase. Results: Psychotic-like experiences were associated with hypermentalising. Autistic traits were not associated with hypomentalising, but with a reduced ability to discriminate chasing from non-chasing trials. Given the high correlation (τ = .41) between autistic traits and psychotic-like experiences, we controlled for concomitant symptom severity on agency detection. We found that all but those with many autistic and psychotic traits showed hypomentalising, suggesting an additive effect of traits on mentalising. In the second study, we found no hypermentalising in patients with psychosis, who performed also similarly to a matched control group. Conclusions: The results suggest that hypermentalising is a cognitive bias restricted to subclinical psychotic-like experiences. There was no support for a diametrically opposite mentalising bias along the autism-psychosis continuum.
... Paranormal believers frequently have perceptual illusions in ambiguous visual stimuli [1]. Even though both paranormal believers and non-believers have the same ability to detect face perception, non-paranormal believers have less liberal response bias than paranormal believers [26], which is probably because paranormal believers perceive ambiguous stimuli as face-like patterns more easily. There is an interrelationship between illusory agency detection and paranormal belief in the studies regarding schizotypy and schizophrenia [13]. ...
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... Other biases related to paranormal belief (i.e., false perceived agency, Riekki et al., 2014; and faces in noise, Riekki et al., 2013) are explicable in terms executive functioning. Particularly, they denote failures to actively inhibit or exercise sufficient control over the influence of top-down signals on the processing of sensory data. ...
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This study investigated relationships between inter-class variations in paranormal experience and executive functions. A sample of 516 adults completed self-report measures assessing personal encounter-based paranormal occurrences (i.e., Experience, Practitioner Visiting, and Ability), executive functions (i.e., General Executive Function, Working and Everyday Memory, and Decision Making) together with Emotion Regulation and Belief in the Paranormal. Paranormal belief served as a measure of convergent validity for experience-based phenomena. Latent profile analysis (LPA) combined experience-based indices into four classes based on sample subpopulation scores. Multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) then examined interclass differences. Results revealed that breadth of paranormal experience was associated with higher levels of executive functioning difficulties for General Executive Function, Working Memory, Decision Making, and Belief in the Paranormal. On the Everyday Memory Questionnaire, scores differed on Attention Tracking (focus loss) and Factor 3 (visual reconstruction), but not Retrieval (distinct memory failure). In the case of the Emotion Regulation Scale, class scores varied on Expressive Suppression (control), however, no difference was evident on Cognitive Reappraisal (reframing). Overall, inter-class comparisons identified subtle differences in executive functions related to experience. Since the present study was exploratory, sampled only a limited subset of executive functions, and used subjective, self-report measures, further research is necessary to confirm these outcomes. This should employ objective tests and include a broader range of executive functions.
... There have been several studies investigated personality traits and individual differences in relation to pareidolia (37). It was reported that pareidolia is high in religious individuals (38) and individuals high in schizotypy (39). Other studies found that mood states and feeling lonely may increase the occurrence of pareidolia (40). ...
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While there are many studies on pareidolia in healthy individuals and patients with schizophrenia, to our knowledge, there are no prior studies on pareidolia in patients with bipolar disorder. Accordingly, in this study, we, for the first time, measured pareidolia in patients with bipolar disorder (N = 50), and compared that to patients with schizophrenia (N = 50) and healthy controls (N = 50). We have used (a) the scene test, which consists of 10 blurred images of natural scenes that was previously found to produce illusory face responses and (b) the noise test which had 32 black and white images consisting of visual noise and 8 images depicting human faces; participants indicated whether a face was present on these images and to point to the location where they saw the face. Illusory responses were defined as answers when observers falsely identified objects that were not on the images in the scene task (maximum illusory score: 10), and the number of noise images in which they reported the presence of a face (maximum illusory score: 32). Further, we also calculated the total pareidolia score for each task (the sum number of images with illusory responses in the scene and noise tests). The responses were scored by two independent raters with an excellent congruence (kappa > 0.9). Our results show that schizophrenia patients scored higher on pareidolia measures than both healthy controls and patients with bipolar disorder. Our findings are agreement with prior findings on more impaired cognitive processes in schizophrenia than in bipolar patients.
... 14 Moreover, a higher tendency to detect agents did not correlate with religious belief. 15 Second, we humans are typically able to evaluate our agent detection through our reflective faculties, and commonly do so, especially when the beliefs in question are important to us. 16 Thus, long-lasting beliefs about agents will not typically be produced by intuitive agency detection alone. ...
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In their article “Nature of Evidence in Religion and Natural Science” (Theology & Science 2020), Petteri Nieminen and colleagues compare the use of evidence in religion and science. Their claim is that religious use of evidence is characterized by “experiential” thinking and confirmation bias, which makes integration with science difficult. I argue, however, that their methodology is unreliable and their theory of religious cognition is too simplistic. Further research should take the complexity of “science,” “religion” and “rationality” more sufficiently into account.
... As a result, the participants misattribute underlying causal relationships to actual independent situations (Bressan, 2002;Rogers et al., 2009;Tversky & Kahneman, 1983). In line with this interpretation, it has been revealed that people of faith and conspiracy believers tend to perceive meaningful patterns in randomly generated stimuli (Riekki et al., 2013;van Prooijen et al., 2018). Hadlaczky and Westerlund (2011) showed that believers and skeptics have a different conception of random events with believers requiring less evidence before detecting meaningful patterns in noise. ...
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Previous research has shown that people who endorse conspiracy theories are more prone to the conjunction fallacy: the tendency to perceive conjunct events as more probable than constituent events. The present study examined the relationship between specific beliefs (belief in conspiracy theories, religiosity) and the susceptibility to conjunction errors (CEs) in specific domains. A total of 500 participants was presented with brief scenarios from the domains ‘coronavirus conspiracy’, ‘miraculous healing’, and a control condition. Each scenario included one statement about a separate event and a second statement about two joint events co-occurring. The participants estimated the probability of each statement. Results showed that the number of CEs made in the coronavirus domain was only associated with the belief in conspiracy theories, while general religiosity was only associated with CEs for scenarios describing miraculous healings. The assessed beliefs were not associated with CEs made in the control condition. Results suggest that distinct beliefs are uniquely associated with the susceptibility to conjunction errors in particular domains. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
... It seems individual differences in cognitive-perceptual bias make people susceptible to paranormal beliefs (Irwin, 2009;Narmashiri, Sohrabi, & Hatami, 2017. For example, it associates paranormal beliefs with a strong tendency to mistakes in decision-making (Riekki, Lindeman, Aleneff, Halme, & Nuortimo, 2013;Van Elk, 2013), the perceptual bias in obscure categories (Lindeman & Aarnio, 2007;Lindeman, Svedholm-Häkkinen, & Lipsanen, 2015), and dependence on Intuitive thinking compared to analytic thinking (Pennycook, Cheyne, Seli, Koehler, & Fugelsang, 2012;Prike, Arnold, & Williamson, 2017). studies show that decision-making and cognitive biases in people with paranormal beliefs result from cognitive impairment (Irwin, 2009). ...
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Cognitive control plays a role in human behavior and mental processes, and paranormal beliefs seem to be affected. This study aimed to investigate the role of cognitive control in Paranormal Beliefs using the Go/No-Go Task. Ninety-two people were selected based on low, middle, and high scores in the Revised Paranormal Belief Scale(R-PBS) (Tobacyk, 2004) and were classified into three groups. This produced 30 Severe Paranormal Believers (13 females, mean age 25.3 years), 31 Mild Paranormal Believers (14 females, mean age 26.4 years), and 31 Skeptics (16 females, mean age 25.8 years). All participants were tested on the Go/No Go Task. A multivariate analysis of variance was conducted with the group (Severe Paranormal Believers, Mild Paranormal Believers, and Skeptics) as the independent variable and the Go/No Go subscales scores as dependent variables. The findings show that there is a significant difference between the mean scores in Errors( Go) (F2,89=7.20, p=0.01) , Errors(No- Go) (F2,89=11. 81, p=0.01) and Reaction Time (F2,89=21.46, p=0.01) between the groups. The Severe Paranormal Believers and Mild Paranormal Believers had lower accuracy and slower RT than the Skeptics group. Therefore, Severe Paranormal Believers and Mild Paranormal Believers had a weakness in all Go/No-Go subscale scores. This finding suggests that paranormal beliefs may related to poor cognitive control.
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This paper examines the idea that an important dimension of human cognition is the amount of objective evidence required for perception of meaningful patterns. At the clinical extreme of this dimension are patients with hallucinations and delusions who experience perception with no external evidence and see connections between objectively unrelated events. Also, normal individuals exhibit considerable variation along this continuum. The theory proposed here predicts that normal subjects with low evidential criteria will be more likely to accept causal explanations, not only for everyday ''paranormal'' coincidences, but also for random contingencies in a laboratory experiment. This prediction was confirmed when 40 students completed a differential reinforcement of low rates (DRL) task designed to induce superstitious behaviour and were then questioned about their hypotheses concerning the contingencies for successful performance. Participants scoring high on the Magical Ideation scale (indicating greater belief in paranormal phenomena) tested fewer hypotheses during the task, and they ended up believing in more hypotheses regarding illusory contingencies than did their low-scoring peers. We proposed that a continuum of hypothesis-testing behaviour underlies the schizotypy continuum, with ''positive'' schizotypal traits reflecting a Type I error bias and ''negative'' traits a Type II error bias. Differential activation patterns within frontal-limbic networks are tentatively suggested as a physiological correlate of the behavioural continuum.
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The projection of human attributes onto non-human domains is often explained in anthropology as the consequence of a tendency to animism-and anthropomorphism present from the earliest stages of cognitive development. However, the experimental evidence suggests that intuitive ontological principles exclude such projections. So anthropomorphism, though widespread, is counter-intuitive. This apparent paradox can be solved by means of a cognitive theory of cultural representations, in which representations are likely to become stable and widespread if they have both salience and inferential potential. Anthropomorphic projections have inferential potential because they activate a powerful modular capacity for mentalistic accounts of behaviour. They are salient because they are counter-intuitive, and therefore attention-grabbing.
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We report three behavioral experiments on the spatial characteristics evoking illusory face and letter detection. False detections made to pure noise images were analyzed using a modified reverse correlation method in which hundreds of observers rated a modest number of noise images (480) during a single session. This method was originally developed for brain imaging research, and has been used in a number of fMRI publications, but this is the first report of the behavioral classification images. In Experiment 1 illusory face detection occurred in response to scattered dark patches throughout the images, with a bias to the left visual field. This occurred despite the use of a fixation cross and expectations that faces would be centered. In contrast, illusory letter detection (Experiment 2) occurred in response to centrally positioned dark patches. Experiment 3 included an oval in all displays to spatially constrain illusory face detection. With the addition of this oval the classification image revealed an eyes/nose/mouth pattern. These results suggest that face detection is triggered by a minimal face-like pattern even when these features are not centered in visual focus.
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Anthropomorphizing nature is a powerful and pervasive cognitive ten- dency. The present experiment examined whether existential concerns are implicated in this tendency. Nonreligious and religious Christian par- ticipants were asked to assign human characteristics to two natural ob- jects, one benign (a tree), and one potentially threatening (a volcano). Reminders of death reduced the tendency to anthropomorphize both ob- jects. The volcano was anthropomorphized less than the tree. These find- ings are examined in light of two hypotheses regarding the role of existential concerns in anthropomorphizing nature.
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This paper examines the idea that an important dimension of human cognition is the amount of objective evidence required for perception of meaningful patterns. At the clinical extreme of this dimension are patients with hallucinations and delusions who experience perception with no external evidence and see connections between objectively unrelated events. Also, normal individuals exhibit considerable variation along this continuum. The theory proposed here predicts that normal subjects with low evidential criteria will be more likely to accept causal explanations, not only for everyday ''paranormal'' coincidences, but also for random contingencies in a laboratory experiment. This prediction was confirmed when 40 students completed a differential reinforcement of low rates (DRL) task designed to induce superstitious behaviour and were then questioned about their hypotheses concerning the contingencies for successful performance. Participants scoring high on the Magical Ideation scale (indicating greater belief in paranormal phenomena) tested fewer hypotheses during the task, and they ended up believing in more hypotheses regarding illusory contingencies than did their low-scoring peers. We proposed that a continuum of hypothesis-testing behaviour underlies the schizotypy continuum, with ''positive'' schizotypal traits reflecting a Type I error bias and ''negative'' traits a Type II error bias. Differential activation patterns within frontal-limbic networks are tentatively suggested as a physiological correlate of the behavioural continuum.
Book
Detection Theory is an introduction to one of the most important tools for analysis of data where choices must be made and performance is not perfect. Originally developed for evaluation of electronic detection, detection theory was adopted by psychologists as a way to understand sensory decision making, then embraced by students of human memory. It has since been utilized in areas as diverse as animal behavior and X-ray diagnosis. This book covers the basic principles of detection theory, with separate initial chapters on measuring detection and evaluating decision criteria. Some other features include: complete tools for application, including flowcharts, tables, pointers, and software;. student-friendly language;. complete coverage of content area, including both one-dimensional and multidimensional models;. separate, systematic coverage of sensitivity and response bias measurement;. integrated treatment of threshold and nonparametric approaches;. an organized, tutorial level introduction to multidimensional detection theory;. popular discrimination paradigms presented as applications of multidimensional detection theory; and. a new chapter on ideal observers and an updated chapter on adaptive threshold measurement. This up-to-date summary of signal detection theory is both a self-contained reference work for users and a readable text for graduate students and other researchers learning the material either in courses or on their own. © 2005 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.
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What is the cognitive basis for the common belief that random events have a purpose, and are these beliefs a form of supernatural thinking, as Bering has suggested? Two questionnaire studies with Finnish volunteer participants (N = 2650, 1830 females, mean age 26) used structural equation modelling (SEM) to test the hypotheses that beliefs in the purpose of events are part of the same phenomenon as paranormal beliefs and that confusions of core knowledge of the psychological, biological and physical domains predict both sets of beliefs. In Study 1, participants were not given a definition of purpose, and in Study 2, purpose was explicitly defined as entailing planning by a supernatural agent. The results from both studies supported the predictions. The results indicate that construing events in terms of purpose is not a universal tendency but an individual cognitive bias that can be accounted for by false analogies from intuitive psychology, biology and physics. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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Three hundred and eighty-six participants were interviewed about their experience of dreams that seem to predict an event in the future, and their belief about whether such dreams can be explained naturally or paranormally. For those without university education, participants who had had a dream that seemed to predict the future (termed experiencers) and believers in paranormal explanations for such dreams (termed believers) made more errors on a probabilistic reasoning task about a lottery. Contrary to the chance baseline shift hypothesis experiencers and believers did not give lower estimates than non-experiencers and non-believers for the frequency with which others would answer three simple personal questions affirmatively. However, they were more likely to answer the three simple personal questions affirmatively about themselves than were non-experiencers and non-believers, which suggests an affirmative bias. This affirmative bias either affects paranormal experience and belief, or is a confound in the methods used in assessing experience and belief. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.