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The VAPUS model (Hill et al., 2018, 2019) characterizes the powerful "brand personality" of ghost narratives in terms of their Versatility, Adaptability, Participatory Nature, Universality, and Scalability. This suggests that these narratives act as cultural memes that partly reflect interpersonal or group dynamics. We use these themes in a review and conceptual synthesis of key literature to address the phenomenon of "gaslighting," which denotes the determined efforts of an influencer to alter the perceptions of a targeted individual. Modelling ghost narratives as psychosocial constructions implies malleability via attitudinal and normative influences. Accordingly, we specify and discuss two apparent manifestations of this narrative plasticity, i.e., "positive (reinforcing) gaslighting" (i.e., confirmation biases) or "negative (rejecting) gaslighting" (i.e., second-guessing or self-doubt). These ideas clarify some Trickster-type effects and imply that all ghost narratives likely involve gaslighting to an extent.
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© 2019 AIPR, Inc. Australian Journal of Parapsychology
ISSN: 1445-2308 Volume 19, Number 2, pp. 143-179
143
Exploring Gaslighting Effects via the VAPUS Model
for Ghost Narratives
KENNETH DRINKWATER, BRIAN LAYTHE, JAMES HOURAN, NEIL
DAGNALL, CIARÁN O’KEEFFE, & SHARON A. HILL
Abstract: The VAPUS model (Hill et al., 2018, 2019) characterizes the
powerful “brand personality” of ghost narratives in terms of their
Versatility, Adaptability, Participatory Nature, Universality, and
Scalability. This suggests that these narratives act as cultural memes
that partly reflect interpersonal or group dynamics. We use these
themes in a review and conceptual synthesis of key literature to address
the phenomenon of “gaslighting,” which denotes the determined efforts
of an influencer to alter the perceptions of a targeted individual.
Modelling ghost narratives as psychosocial constructions implies
malleability via attitudinal and normative influences. Accordingly, we
specify and discuss two apparent manifestations of this narrative
plasticity, i.e., “positive (reinforcing) gaslighting” (i.e., confirmation
biases) or “negative (rejecting) gaslighting” (i.e., second-guessing or
self-doubt). These ideas clarify some Trickster-type effects and imply
that all ghost narratives likely involve gaslighting to an extent.
Keywords: gaslighting, ghosts, narratives, paranormal belief, Trickster
theory, VAPUS model.
INTRODUCTION
The “Trickster”—i.e., a “deceiver, liar, or trouble-maker” who
crosses and often breaks physical and societal rules—is a major figure in
Carl Jung’s (1956, 1969; Jung & von Franz, 1964) archetypal framework.
His explanation for the various psychological archetypes that seemingly
surface consistently throughout religious and cultural literature around the
world was that they derive from what he called the “collective unconscious”
or an inherited and thus universal psychic “layer” that contains all of the
knowledge and experiences humans share as a species. Recent revelations
about Jung’s work, particularly the Red Book (Jung, 2012) clearly establish
his theoretical framework within the history and influence of Kabbalah, a
root form of Jewish mysticism instrumental in many western mystery
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144
traditions. Thus, the Trickster should be understood as a concept historically
influenced by magical practice, mysticism, and paranormal experience.
Trickster Theory (e.g., Hynes & Doty, 1993; Jung, 1956, 1969) has
helped to contextualize and popularize the idea that, by their very nature,
anomalous or paranormal experiences orient percipients “betwixt and
between” reality and fantasy (for a discussion, see Hansen, 2011). We
sympathize with this assertion and note that it agrees with factors that
obfuscate the study or interpretation of witness testimony. On one hand,
percipients can understandably experience bewilderment or “enchantment”
(Holloway, 2010; Schneider, 1993) or otherwise endure cognitive
dissonance or a frustrating sense of capriciousness when faced with what
some authors (e.g., Radin, 2018; Stokes, 2017a, 2017b) portray as
incontrovertible parapsychological phenomena. However, Trickster-type
effects also appear congruent with anomalistic psychologists who posit that
paranormal experiences originate in the psychological, not physical, realm
via artifacts or errors in perception or interpretation (French & Stone, 2013;
Houran & Lange, 2004; Irwin, Dagnall, & Drinkwater, 2012; McKay &
Dennett, 2009; Prike, Arnold, & Williamson, 2018; Rogers, Fisk, & Lowrie,
2018; Ross, Hartig, & McKay, 2017; van Elk, 2015).
Haunt and poltergeist accounts (i.e., ghostly episodes) seem to
provide particularly instructive examples of Trickster-type effects. Most
obviously, many of these spontaneous cases involve clear instances of fraud
with various motivations (Nickell, 2001; Roll, 1977). However, Lange and
Houran (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001a) proposed a more nuanced view that
characterizes these anomalous episodes as cognitive-affective exercises in
percipients attending to, perceiving, and interpreting ambiguous stimuli—be
it psychological or physical (see Houran, 1997; Houran & Lange, 1996b).
Authorities have further argued that this process of meaning-making
partly reflects a confluence of mainstream consciousness (Bader, 2017;
Booker, 2009; Edwards, 2005; Goldstein, Grider, & Thomas, 2007; Sparks
& Miller, 2001) and experients’ perceptual-personality profiles (Kumar &
Pekala, 2001; Laythe, Houran, & Ventola, 2018; Parra, 2018; Ventola et al.,
2019). Such socio-psychological influences support the idea that witness
accounts and associated beliefs are goal-oriented narrative constructions
(see e.g., Eaton, 2019; Hill et al., 2018, 2019), which inherently echo
themes associated with an altered sense-of-reality and, sometimes,
consciousness. This view also implies that Jung’s proverbial Trickster
resides in and around everyone (Houran, 2003)just sitting on the
borderline between conscious and unconscious thought, as well as skating
along the lines of communication in social discourse.
This situation is especially acute in instances where experience-based
emotions, as opposed to strict logic, tend to guide witness understanding.
Altered reality, in this context, may produce an emphasis on social elements
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of anomalous experiences that explain phenomena via factors such as
interpersonal friction and traumatic personal events (e.g., a death in the
family). Hence, in order to authenticate experiences, percipients make sense
of them in terms of previous experiences, beliefs, and their own personal
worldview (Dagnall et al., 2015; Irwin, 2017; Steffen & Coyle, 2012). In
some instances, this normalizes ghost-related encounters, whereas other
times it reaffirms the peculiarity of experiences (Sharps et al., 2010).
THE PRESENT PAPER
Considering that such forces may influence perception or reporting in
witness experiences, this essay considers how the VAPUS model for ghost
narratives (Hill et al., 2018, 2019) can profitably augment or refine
Trickster Theory. By way of explanation, VAPUS focuses on people’s
interactions with their environments and how these activities reinforce
mechanisms that inform the perception of anomalous or ambiguous events
as paranormal or not (i.e., a percipient’s perceptual-personality profile,
current situation, and broader sociocultural context). Specifically, the model
asserts that ghost narratives as beliefs, stories, or experiences possess an
influential “brand personality” that parallels the strong consumer
engagement with social media or the most popular commercial products or
services (for a related discussion, see Annett et al., 2016). Consequently,
these narratives foster emotional and rational engagement to draw in diverse
demographic populations. This encourages social interaction via the sharing
of experiences, increases social value, and facilitates cultural acceptance
(i.e. Social Reality Theory or the Thomas Theorem, cf. Merton, 1995).
The VAPUS model condenses the brand personality of ghost
narratives to five sociocultural elements (Hill et al., 2018, p. 119):
VERSATILITY, in that narratives have flexibility to represent a
cross-section of moods, locations, or themes that span diverse
literary genres;
ADAPTABILITY, in that narratives morph, at least in part,
longitudinally in accordance with societal changes;
PARTICIPATORY NATURE, in that narratives invite interaction via
individual or social activity and engagement, such as tours, clubs,
private excursions, field research, and virtual activities (TV,
movies, books), etc.;
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UNIVERSALITY, in that narratives are interesting or relevant to
diverse demographic populations, including individuals spanning
the paranormal belief-disbelief spectrum;
SCALABILITY, in that narratives engage people individually and
collectively, via meme-like “contagious” processes.
Concomitant with this framework, occurrences where specific haunt-like
characteristics reveal a predisposition in witnesses to perceive phenomena
as more unusual are particularly important, such as aberrant salience
(Irwin, 2014; Irwin, Schofield, & Baker, 2014) or ambiguity tolerance
(Houran & Williams, 1998; Lange & Houran, 2000).
The notion that ghost narratives are malleable constructions due to
their VAPUS characteristics (and interactions among them) can elucidate
why and how certain attitudes, circumstances, or powerful social influences
can compel or encourage percipients to mistrust, modify, or solidify their
perceptions and judgments (Sharps, Matthews, & Asten, 2006). This paper
collectively describes the repercussions of these disruptive forces as
“Trickster effects”—and the influencers or exploiters themselves are
therefore akin to Trickster figures. As such, we synthesize key
representative literature to show that the Adaptability of ghost narratives
follows, in part, from the Participatory Nature × Scalability1 components of
the VAPUS model.
Notably, a ghost narrative is adaptable in a sense that groups with
motivations either to believe or disbelieve in the paranormal can actively
engage or participate with ghost narratives in the form of investigation,
communication, discussion, or evaluation. Indeed, “cognitive attraction”
and “social function” seem to act separately to facilitate the cultural
transmission of frequent collective rituals (Kaše, Hampejs, & Pospíšil,
2018), among which arguably includes ghost-hunting and its related
activities (Eaton, 2015; Hill, 2017; Hill et al., 2018, 2019; Potts, 2004).
In turn, skeptical and non-skeptical interpretations are established
either directly (e.g., within person-to-person contact) or indirectly as the
report, narrative, or “meme” begins to spread via social or technological
platforms (e.g., Scalability). Memes are broadly defined as culturally
transmitted information (e.g., ideas, styles, symbols, beliefs, or behaviors)
that can be spread from a person or group to other individuals or groups
(Blackmore, 1999; Heylighen, 1999; Moritz, 1990). A key aspect of this
idea is that the information can self-replicate, mutate, and respond to
selective pressures similar to biological genes. The meme construct is
1The characteristic of scalability subsumes Annett et al.’s (2016) related notion that ghostly
narratives possess inherent shareability.
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controversial and hotly debated (see e.g., Burman, 2012; Gill, 2011;
McNamara, 2011), but quantitative evidence supports the basic premise.
For instance, Pocklington and Best (1997; cf. Best & Pocklington,
1999) used a text retrieval algorithm (latent semantic indexing) to identify
sets of rare words that co-occur (sets which they called “term-subspace
traits”) in posts to some internet newsgroups. Since many posts originate in
response to previous posts, they are “threaded,” meaning that the authors
possessed genealogical data. The researchers statistically showed that in
some cases the “reproductive success” of a posti.e., its ability to generate
in-reply-to postswas a function of the degree to which certain of these
traits were expressed within it. This provided a proof-of-principle
illustration of cultural microevolution in text-based information. More
recently, empirical studies have similarly reported apparent memetic effects
in macro-behavior (e.g., Conley, Toossi, & Wooders, 2006; Sprague &
House, 2017).
Consequently, as Callahan, Jr. (2017) noted, a haunt narrative “… is
not just individualistic; it is social and historical, related to shared—and
contested—memory and identity” (p. 9). Accordingly, inherent to the
Participatory Nature of ghost narratives is the recognition that the self-
serving motivations of groups (small or large) are crucial for mediating the
“social acceptance” of the narrative as “truth.” Here, the roles of Social
Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 2004) and boundary maintenance
(Durkheim, 2013; Foucault, 2002) can interact with the process of narrative
formation or maintenance to produce belief about the narrative within
specific groups. These beliefs subsequently reflect the ideological
perspectives or needs of these groups.
By extension, there is the potential for “incidental” people (either
involved in or removed from the original experience) to contribute to the
construction of percipients’ narratives, as a function of the social groups or
organizations with which percipients affiliate or interact. Therefore, the
VAPUS model predicts that “moulding” effects can act to reinforce or reject
narratives, depending on the attitudes of the percipients and those of their
social influences. Accordingly, our paper explores this idea by applying the
VAPUS model to the curious behavioral phenomenon known as
gaslighting.
GASLIGHTING AS A PSYCHOLOGICAL CONSTRUCT
Nearly everyone has experienced being “second-guessed” by another
person. Martin (2019) outlined the history of this term on his PhraseFinder
website, explaining that it arose from baseball, where supporters unkindly
referred to the umpire as “the guesser.” In this context, secondguesser
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denoted a spectator who repeatedly told the guesser (and/or baseball
managers) what they were doing wrong. More precisely, the moniker
identifies someone who is continually criticizing (Lanigan, 1937). This
dated concept represents a mundane variant of the more manipulative or
menacing act of gaslighting.
Theorists typically define gaslighting as the malicious intent of an
exploiter to convince a victim that they are developing mental illness
(Barton & Whitehead, 1969; Lund & Gardiner, 1977; Smith & Sinanan,
1972). This encompasses the tendency to internalize the projections of
others (i.e., “projection”) (Dorpat, 1994, 1996). The idea derived originally
from a theatrical production called “Gaslight” (1938-1944) written by
English playwright Patrick Hamilton. In this story, a husband dims the gas-
powered lights in their home and then persuades his wife that she is
imagining the light fluctuation. His eventual goal is to hospitalize her for
mental instability and delusions (McKinnon, 2017) by using a form of
psychological warfare that undermines her sense of perception and memory.
Thus, gaslighting works via “seemingly valid” disqualification of the
victim’s feelings and perceptions (Jiménez & Varela, 2017).
Broadly applied, gaslighting represents any determined efforts of
individuals to alter the perception of situations so that intended victims no
longer trust their experiences as real, and doubt their own sanity (Knight,
2006; Thomas, 2017). It is not surprising given this background that authors
have adopted the term in research, and chiefly in clinical (e.g., Calef &
Weinshel, 1981; Lund & Gardiner, 1977; Tyndal, 1973) and political (e.g.,
Davis & Ernst, 2017) arenas. For instance, psychologists use gaslighting to
refer to certain abusive relationships Davis & Ernst, 2017; Riggs &
Bartholomaeus, 2018) in which one person aims to undermine another’s
confidence or stability (Cawthra, O’Brian, & Hassanyeh, 1987; Kline,
2006).
Moreover, family therapists describe gaslighting as those situations
where one partner attempts to control or manipulate the other (e.g., see
Galán and Figueroa’s [2017] theoretical review of gaslighting as a form of
manipulative psychological violence). Clinical researchers, such as Lund
and Gardiner (1977) referred to the concept as the projection of psychic
conflicts from a perpetrator to a victim. This produces “introjection,” or the
unconscious internalisation of others’ ideas or attitudes. The need for
positive regard and coping purportedly facilitates this process (Calef &
Weinshel, 1981), and the ensuing change in perceived reality destabilizes
perceptual experiences and renders the person malleable to real and illusory
experiences (Campbell, 2001). Consequently, the individual becomes
accepting of other, false realities (Sarkis, 2017).
Psychoanalytical literature further maintains that gaslighting involves
externalizing and transferring of state. This involves the unconscious
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redirection of one person’s state to another (i.e., “transference”) (Racker,
2018). In psychodynamic cases, although the creation of symptoms ceases,
new versions of fantasies and impulses develop. According to Loewald
(1986), this transference-neurosis influences past experiences, which blend
with the present worldview. Additionally, gaslighting relates to unconscious
fantasy. Particularly, the belief that the victim or recipient receives parts
from the other’s self (Casement, 1985).
Drawing on the “narcissistic” cycle of abuse (Elkin, 1999; Zayn &
Dibble, 2007), authors outline a series of stages in gaslighting: (i)
idealization, (ii) devaluation, and (iii) discard. These are not necessarily
linear and occasionally overlap. They are important, because they reflect
different emotional and psychological states of mind (Knight, 2006). In the
idealization stage, the gaslighter projects an image of himself (or herself) as
the perfect mate. Then, devaluation presents the victim as being incapable
of doing anything correct or acceptable, which is a reversal from previously
adoration and idolization. Finally, the protagonist discards the victim in
favour of the next target (Dorpat, 1996; Knight, 2006).
Nevertheless, it is easy to move from the clinical or interpersonal
mechanics of the gaslighting phenomenon to focus on cultural and social
psychology. Within these areas, various philosophies hold gaslighting
effects as malevolent examples of Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner,
2004), cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), cognitive biases due to the
schematic function of the mind (e.g., confirmation bia; Nickerson, 1998)
and belief perseverance (Bradfield, 2008; Guenther & Alicke, 2008). More
generally, gaslighting embodies existential crisis arising from the
presentation of an ideology that conflicts with the victim’s existing beliefs.
Confirmation bias is extremely relevant to gaslighting, since it
epitomizes the universal human inclination to attend selectively to
information. Precisely, the tendency to seek confirmatory evidence that
supports the prevailing worldview, whilst minimising or forgetting
contradictory information. This process serves as a mechanism for
protecting the psyche from data that undermines personal beliefs and
values. Underlying these well-researched psychological effects is the need
for control (Alloy & Abramson, 1982; Rodin & Langer, 1977). This
compliments Langer’s work on the illusion of control (Langer, 1975;
Langer & Roth, 1975), which identifies a need for control so strong that
individuals delude themselves to obtain it.
Gaslighting patterns emerge in the laboratory, conspicuously in the
initial research on conformity. Although dated and apparently exaggerated
(Hollander & Turowetz, 2017; Perry, 2013), Milgram’s (1963) infamous
shock experiments still serve as the prime historic example of academia’s
interest in mechanisms pertinent to the phenomenon of gaslighting. He
reportedly presented a seemingly “real” task involving authority figures
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who induced participants to exhibit unethical and immoral behavior. This
conformity to authoritative expectations apparently occurred, even though
the actions directly conflicted with the participant’s belief systems and thus
induced extreme distress. Furthermore, Asch’s (1956) study of peer
pressure provided a direct example of gaslighting. The presence of
confederates producing majority incorrect responses to a line-length
estimation task caused individual participants to question the validity of
their perceptions.
Gaslighting in practical application, as with most persuasive actions,
may contain components of all the above. A prominent example of this is
Stark and Bainbridge’s (1985) work on the processes of cult indoctrination.
This identified a series of techniques and functions that create uncertainty
and undermine the targets existing belief system in order to supplant it with
cult ideology. As such, gaslighting may play a role in the creation of
cultural beliefs rooted in “untruth” or “mutable truth.” From the perspective
of the Thomas Theorem (Merton, 1995), whatever is perceived as “real” by
a group of people is genuine in its consequences; resulting in actions based
on a perceived truth, accurate or otherwise.
GASLIGHTING THE PARANORMAL
Researchers in parapsychology and anomalistic psychology have
likewise implicitly or explicitly documented empirical gaslighting-type
effects. Consistent with the VAPUS model, considerable evidence suggests
that both paranormal beliefs and percipient accounts are “narrative-
malleable” constructs (e.g., Drinkwater, Dagnall, & Bate, 2013; Eaton,
2019; Ramsey, Venette, & Rabalais, 2011). More precisely, the contents of
ghostly episodes seem to be shaped or mediated by (i) contextual variables
available to percipients during their experiences (Caputo, 2014; Harte,
2000; Houran, 2000), and (ii) high-levels of transliminality or an otherwise
thin mental boundary structure (Kumar & Pekala, 2001; Laythe et al., 2018;
Parra, 2018). Even the fundamental and ostensibly straightforward task of
documenting paranormal beliefs and anomalous experiences is a very tricky
issue, because their measurement is vulnerable to intrinsic response biases
(Kane, Core, & Hunt, 2010; Lange et al., 2019; Lange, Irwin, & Houran,
2000) and context effects (Knox & Lynn, 2014) that can significantly distort
statistical outcomes and corresponding conclusions.
The VAPUS elements of Participatory Nature (representing the
interaction of the participant with the environment) and Universality
(signifying the narrative as accessible and relatable to a range of existing
beliefs and personalities) acknowledges the innate pliability of ghost
narratives. Explicitly, these elements indicate that accounts are open to
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social influence and alteration. For example, Ramsey et al. (2011) found
that source credibility of character witnesses (e.g., children) influenced the
persuasiveness of a presented narrative. This concurs with Davis and
Ernst’s (2017) research in political science, which reimaged gaslighting as a
mechanism that creates or maintains perceptions, and extrapolating to the
current domain, also perhaps narratives of the paranormal. Explicitly, the
prevailing views of believers and skeptics rely on the production of
narratives that are intended to promote or dismiss the existence of ghosts
(Eaton, 2019; Hill et al., 2018, 2019; Pollio, 2017). Therefore, we next
present representative evidence that substantiates the notion of negative and
positive forms of gaslighting.
Negative (or Rejecting) Gaslighting
Percipients can doubt their own experiences or question their own
sanity, such as when challenged by perceived authority figures. Research
likewise indicates that witnesses of putative paranormal events are often
aware that their anomalous experiences are unconventional. Consequently,
when discussing encounters publicly, they may rationalize encounters using
orthodox beliefs (Drinkwater et al., 2013; Schmied-Knittel & Schetsche,
2005). Relatedly, witnesses also often modify accounts in the face of overt
skepticism (Ohashi, Wooffitt, Jackson, & Nixon, 2013). This is an example
of negative (or rejecting) gaslighting” and represents a defining aspect of
second-guessing or self-doubt (cf. Braslow, Guerrettaz, Arkin, & Oleson,
2012). Particularly, it highlights the undermining effects of uncertainty on
beliefs and attitudes.
These examples underscore that narratives which are not
“ideologically approved” within mainstream society (i.e. deviant;
Durkheim, 2013) are especially vulnerable to gaslighting-type effects. This
is basically because defamed or unpopular beliefs provide an ontological
threat to popular cultural norms, notably science and materialism. For this
reason, anomalistic psychologists and other orthodox investigators should
adopt a neutral analytical perspective. A major concern is pathological
skepticism (see Edmund Storms cited in Chubb, 2000), where disbelievers
use scientific dogmatism, or even ridicule and belittling (e.g., hints that
experients are under the influence of substances, intellectually inferior,
over-dramatic, or over-imaginative), to undermine paranormal narratives on
purely ideological grounds. Acknowledging that experimenter bias can cut
both ways, for example, Irwin, Dagnall, and Drinkwater (2016, 2017; cf.
Irwin, 2015) published studies that scrutinized the idea and implications of a
“disbelief-belief” continuum. For related discussions, see Kennedy (2005),
and Van Eyghen (2019).
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There are certainly biases (conscious or unconscious) in academia,
similar to what occurs with paranormal believers or experiencers.
Illustratively, a survey of more than 1,000 college professors in the United
States found that 68% of natural scientists, social scientists (excluding
psychologists), and academics in the arts, humanities, and education
believed that extrasensory perception (ESP) is either “an established fact” or
“a likely possibility.” The comparable figure for psychologists was only
34%. Actually, 34% of psychologists asserted that ESP is “impossible”
compared with only 2% of all other respondents (Wagner & Monnet, 1979).
Psychologists are clearly more likely to disavow paranormal accounts than
other scholars, as underscored by McClenon’s (1984) seminal research.
Positive (or Reinforcing) Gaslighting
In contrast to negative (or rejecting) gaslighting, certain
circumstances can motivate the embellishment or rigid interpretation of
details in percipients’ accounts. Here we are dealing with confirmation
biases and belief perseverance effects (Anderson & Kellam, 1992;
Anderson, Lepper, & Ross, 1980; Bradfield, 2008; Guenther & Alicke,
2008). This is expressly true when believers have a personal investment in a
paranormal narrative or ideology, such as when religious-based
investigators assume that ghostly episodes are demonic.
Attribution Theory suggests that acceptance of a self-generated or
group-endorsed hypothesis reduces anxiety, and the resulting label (albeit
possibly non-veridical or delusional) tends to persist as a defense
mechanism (Houran & Lange, 2004; Lange & Houran, 2000, 2001a; Maher,
1974, 1988). Such labeling can have a strong effect on subsequent attitudes
(Eiser, 1990) and is likely to make attitudes resistant to change (Fishbein &
Lange, 1990; Lange & Fishbein, 1983). With respect to paranormal beliefs
and experiences, Krippner and Hastings (1961) found that if individuals
living within an alleged “haunted house” have identified with hope or
expectancy that the supernatural is occurring, they frequently resist
conventional explanations. Independent research has similarly found that
people often maintain their belief in the paranormal in the face of
conflicting or contradictory evidence (e.g., Irwin, Dagnall, & Drinkwater,
2012; Jones & Russell, 1980; Roe, 1999; Sparks & Pellechia, 1997; Vitulli,
1997; Vitulli & Luper, 1998; Wober, 1992). In essence, percipients in these
scenarios are engaged in “self-gaslighting” of a positive sort.
The VAPUS model, via the “Participatory Nature × Scalability =
Adaptability” calculation, might also explain the results from studies
germane to positive gaslighting. Illustratively, Laythe, Laythe, and
Woodward (2017) found that verbal reporting of sensations and phenomena
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
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by participants in a mock séance setting caused other participants to report
both similar and different sensations, all within the expectancy of what
séances ought to produce. This outcome conceptually replicates earlier work
on the role of psychological contagion in paranormal-related settings (e.g.,
Houran & Lange, 1996a; Lange & Houran, 2001a; 2001b; O’Keeffe &
Parsons, 2010; Romer, 2013).
These findings also closely parallel the phenomenology observed in
cases of mass psychogenic illness (Balaratnasingama & Janca, 2006; Chen,
Yen, Lin, & Yang, 2003; Colligan, Pennebaker, & Murphy, 1982; Radford
& Bartholomew, 2001; Wessely, 2000), whereby prior emotional tension or
stress in individuals can be absent, but the contagious perception and report
of anxiety symptoms is spread “line of sight” by witnessing the behavior of
afflicted individuals (Wessely, 1987). Contagion effects can likewise follow
from the communication of rumours and stories of an outbreak via word-of-
mouth or the media (Bartholomew & Wessely, 2002; Boss, 1997; Cole,
Chorba, & Horan, 1990; Kerckhoff, 1982; Kerckhoff & Back, 1965; Sirois,
1974; Wessely, 1987).
We should expound on this last point implicating the mass media as
an occasional Trickster figure. Hill et al. (2018, 2019) previously discussed
at length how various people, groups, and communication channels or
platforms in popular culture actively help to promote and reinforce
paranormal-related themes, beliefs, and activities. However, the mainstream
media has sometimes been complicit in shaping public opinion by widely
peddling misinformation or “fake news” across society (see e.g., Allcott &
Gentzkow, 2017; Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer, & Welch, 1992; Gupta,
Lamba, Kumaraguru, & Joshi, 2010; Lazer et al., 2018; Mendoza, Poblete,
& Castillo, 2010; Robledo & Jankovic, 2017; Vosoughi, Roy, & Aral,
2018).
These instances certainly include unverified news stories that
sensationalize, if not implicitly legitimize, various paranormal or
unorthodox claims (see e.g., History, 2018; LIFE, 2018). Other times, the
mass media selects stories that dismiss or rationalize anomalous experiences
(see https://theconversation.com/the-top-three-scientific-explanations-for-
ghost-sightings-58259). In either a positive- or negative-gaslighting
scenario, the published narrative provides content that allow people to
describe, relate to, or simply align to their prior experiences. Thus, this
creates context for the interpretive experience. In fact, Kilmer (2017)
discussed how reputedly true ghost stories have been reported in the New
York Times as ‘infotainment’ since its founding in 1851. Of course, this
news outlet is not alone; our Google search produced 353,000,000 entries
for the phrase “high profile ghost stories in the news” (conducted July 21,
2019). Thus, suggestion effects from media sources are another important
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
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contextual variable that can contribute to the VAPUS-based Participatory
Nature × Scalability = Adaptability” equation.
Similarly, Wiseman, Greening, and Smith (2003) demonstrated that
suggestion alone was apparently enough to create an Asch-like effect;
approximately one-third of research participants in a mock séance reported
that a table was levitating when it objectively was not. Thus, gaslighting
effects are also seemingly germane to apparent physical (poltergeist-like)
effects and not just anomalous psychological experiences. Importantly, both
Laythe et al. (2017) and Wiseman, Greening, and Smith (2003) showed
significant relationships between belief in the paranormal and the nature of
phenomena reported. Consistent with confirmation bias, believers were
more likely to report paranormal events, erroneously or otherwise. Langston
and Hubbard (2019) recently conducted a conceptual replication of these
earlier studies on suggestion effects and reported small but significant
increases (6%) in paranormal belief as a proposed function of a public ghost
tour. However, changes in the participants’ paranormal beliefs may have
been restricted by issues of adequate measurement and controls within field
settings.
These examples highlight the engagement, and potentially
manipulative, power of the VAPUS characteristics. Pollio (2017) further
demonstrated this with examples of children or relatives who used
“paranormal techniques” on their parents to reinforce the idea of ghosts or
demons. They did this to cause their elderly relatives to feel senile and
convince them that dementia had set in. Initially, the children might validate
breaking-and-entering or stealing from the relative as the work of demons
or spirits. This was a pretext to send elderly parents to nursing homes, in
order to take custody of their property or possessions. Such occurrences are
either singular or by groups leading to sustained harassment, also reported
as stalking in some cases.
With respect to positive gaslighting, Houran (2017) noted that
researchers must likewise guard against pathological science. Chemist and
Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir coined this term during a 1953 speech to
describe scientific investigations governed by wish fulfillment. Explicitly,
cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked
into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do
to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful
thinking or threshold interactions (Langmuir, 1953/2002, para. 15).
Examples of recent studies and discussions of this core premise are readily
available (e.g., Blanco, Barberia, & Matute, 2015; Irwin, Dagnall, &
Drinkwater, 2016; MacPherson & Kelly, 2011).
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IMPLICATIONS FOR MODEL-BUILDING OR THEORY-FORMATION
Potential Refinements to Current Thinking
It is reasonable to expect the present ideas and arguments in this
paper to inform working hypotheses that have been previously published
(cf. Houran, 2017, pp. 194-195). For instance, our synopsis here plausibly
dovetails with Lange and Hourans (1998, 1999, 2000) process model for
parapsychological experiences. In particular, these authors published a
series of path analyses that empirically modeled paranormal belief and
experience in haunt-related contexts as fundamentally adaptive, non-
pathological delusion-like” ideations (for overviews, see Houran & Lange,
2004; Lange & Houran, 2001a). These beliefs, in the absence of clear or
convincing orthodox explanations, give people a sense of relief or control
when confronting stressful or ambiguous stimuli. In fact, many studies
support the idea that supernatural beliefs generally serve anxiolytic
functions (e.g., Callaghan & Irwin, 2003; Drinkwater, et al., 2019; Glock,
1964; Greenaway, Louis, & Hornsey, 2013; Irwin, 1992, 1994; Kossowska
et al., 2016; Lawrence et al., 1995; Mathijsen, 2009; Perkins & Allen, 2006;
Rogers, Qualter, Phelps, & Gardner, 2006).
However, Lange and Houran’s “anxiolytic model” was found to have
important nuances. Paranormal beliefs appear to reduce low-to-mild fears
and anxieties associated with facing ambiguous stimuli, thereby creating a
negative (self-correcting) feedback loop (Lange & Houran, 1998). Yet, this
strategy is less effective when people are already highly anxious or fearful.
In these instances, paranormal ideations instead increase fear, thus creating
a positive (self-reinforcing) feedback loop (Lange & Houran, 1999).
Taken together, these findings suggest that people face a basic choice
between fear of an unknown and an esoteric explanation for an unknown.
The results of advanced nonlinear analyses that used this juxtaposition as
the dependent variable supported this hypothesis (Lange & Houran, 2000).
Thus, gaslighting-type effects might influence narrative development
specifically by facilitating the cognitive-affective process of balancing or
rectifying ‘Belief versus Fear’ in experients. Figure 1, encompassing both
positive and negative forms of gaslighting, represents one possible portrayal
of this hypothesis.
Note that our outline depicts both experients and external influencers
as potential instigators of gaslighting-type effects. This suggests a re-
definition of the phenomenon as “the conscious attempt to reframe or
reinterpret perceptions or interpretations in accordance with a specific
perspective or motivation.” The VAPUS model might therefore predict that
every ghost narrative involves “gaslighting” to an extent. In this way,
experients can: (i) maintain or embellish narratives as “paranormal” when it
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
156
is the preferred explanation for ambiguous/anomalous events due to a
personal worldview or in-group dynamics, or (ii) minimize or reject
narratives as “paranormal” when more popularly-accepted explanations are
preferred due to a personal worldview or in-group dynamics. In other
words, the VAPUS characteristics of ghost narratives such as their
Adaptability, Participatory Nature, and Scalability can inform Lange and
Houran’s anxiolytic model by asserting that interpretations for these
anomalous experiences are defense mechanisms that partly stem from
interpersonal dynamics grounded in social conflict or self-identity theories.
Figure 1. Conceptualization of positive and negative gaslighting via Lange
and Houran’s (1998, 1999, 2000) anxiolytic model of paranormal ideations.
Other empirical models of belief-narrative formation (or decision-
making) should also be recognized and contemplated here (e.g., the
Knowledge-Conditional Model: Fazio, Brashier, Payne, & Marsh, 2015, or
the two-stage model of psychosis symptomatology: Garety et al.,
2001)especially those that pointedly deal with paranormal themes (e.g.,
see Eaton, 2019; Irwin, 1992; Langston & Hubbard, 2019; Lawrence et al.,
1995). However, Figure 1’s depiction of gaslighting (and Trickster-type
effects in general) draws added inspiration from one of the most successful,
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
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well-validated models of decision-making in volitional actions, namely the
Theory of Reasoned Action (THORA: Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) and its later
extension called the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1985, 1991). This
theory has been subjected to rigorous theoretical and empirical study of
over 30 years across widely diverging areas (Sheppard, Hartwick, &
Warshaw, 1988; Sniehotta, 2009), and its major tenets, predictions, and
implications have proved robust (Armitage & Connor, 2001). For our
purposes, we treat the two formulations as interchangeable (cf. Ajzen &
Fishbein, 2005).
THORA specifies that volitional decisions or behaviors are
determined mainly by a conscious intention to perform a given behavior.
Intention is the cognitive representation of a person’s readiness to perform a
specific behavior, and it is considered the sole, immediate antecedent of
behavior or decision-making. In turn, this intention is a function of an
individual’s personal attitude toward the decision and his/her subjective
norms. To elaborate, subjective norms represent the perceived social
pressure to perform or not to perform an action, or more precisely, an
individual’s perception or “opinion about what important others [italics
added] believe the individual should do” (Finlay, Trafimow, & Jones, 1997,
p. 2015)i.e., perform or not perform a given behavior in a specific
situation. This perception or opinion defines an individual’s normative
belief (NB), which is often then multiplied by the motivation to comply
(with this belief) (Azjen & Fishbein, 1972). It is important to understand
that subjective norms as designated by normative beliefs are located within,
but not identical to, the broader construct of social norms. “While a social
norm is usually meant to refer to a rather broad range of permissible, but not
necessarily required behaviors, NB refers to a specific behavioral act the
performance of which is expected or desired under the given circumstances”
(Ajzen & Fishbein, 1972, p. 2).
As such, it is vital to collect raw data on anomalous experiences
before the information is substantially altered via: (i) elapsed time or (ii)
input from an experient’s subjective norms. These two sources of bias can
undoubtedly congeal around a narrative to produce a distorted account
based on an experient’s internal biases that minimize or solidify details over
time or based on the feedback or expectations of external influencers via the
Participatory Nature of experiences. Investigators should therefore estimate
the extent to which experients’ narratives have been biased by the
contextual variables of attitudinal and normative influences. This can be
done, for instance, by ensuring spontaneous case information includes
critical contextual data via questions like:
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
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Personal attitudes can bias or embellish accounts over time: How
long ago did your experience occur? or “How much time has
elapsed since the details of your experience were documented?
Subjective norms can bias or embellish accounts at any point: “To
what extent have you discussed your experience with family,
friends, acquaintances, or public groups?and If so, what were
the strongest or most common reactions or feedback they
expressed in reaction to your experience?
Directions for Future Research
Consideration of gaslighting from the above perspective suggests a
number of important applications and angles to new studies. Firstly, witness
confidence, accuracy, or susceptibility to gaslighting-type effects in the
report or recall of paranormal accounts might logically follow from the
Interpersonal Circumplex model (Kiesler, 1983; Leary, 1957; Wiggins,
1979). This view conceptualizes interpersonal behavior in terms of two
orthogonal dimensions: Dominance and Affiliation. High-Dominance
implies high status, power, control, and leadership, whereas low-Dominance
implies submission, obedience, yielding, and surrender. High-Affiliation
implies love, nurturance, warmth, and intimacy, whereas low-Affiliation
implies coldness, distance, and (possibly) hostility.
We should mention that Wiggins (1991) expanded the Interpersonal
Circumplex via Bakan’s (1966) labels of Agency and Communion for the
two dimensions. Agency highlights a person’s motive and capacity to ‘get
ahead’ and sometimes ahead of others. The Agency dimension is
considerably broader than Dominance, as it also pertains to characteristics
like competence, efficiency, and activity (cf. Abele-Brehm & Wojciske,
2007). Communion, on the other hand, highlights a person’s motive and
capacity to “get along” with others (Hogan, 1983), and thus is quite similar
to Affiliation. These variables might link especially to the mechanisms
underpinning psychological contagion effects (cf. Houran & Lange, 1996a;
O’Keeffe & Parsons, 2010), which consumer marketing experts argue are
driven by six principles that define the social transmission of ideas: social
currency, triggers, emotion, public exposure, practical value, and relatable
stories (Berger, 2013). We suggest that these principles align reasonably
well to Heylighen’s (1999) four-stage process for “meme replication”; i.e.,
assimilation, retention, expression, and transmission.
Secondly, considering the array of nuances or ambiguities in need of
exploration and clarification, large-scale studies could aim to integrate
perceptual, affective, personality, and motivational perspectives into more
holistic models of belief and witness psychology with the recently proposed
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Circumplex of Personality Metatraits (CMP: Strus, Cieciuch, & Rowinski,
2014; Strus & Ciecinch, 2017). Explicitly, CMP provides a sound
foundation for the assimilation of different models and personality
constructs by reconciling both trait and type approaches. Furthermore, it
facilitates the combination of dispositional and dynamic elements of
personality (McAdams & Pals, 2006).
This approach might potentially provide valuable insights into the
factors that influence the production or modification of ghost narratives.
Specifically, in the present context, an understanding of the factors that
influence susceptibility to and occurrence of gaslighting. This would
encompass contemplation of mediating or moderating variables that affect
individual and situational vulnerability. Once developed such a model might
extend to other areas of paranormal research and witness accounts,
generally. For instance, CMP might pinpoint the psychological forces that
most consistently or strongly define an individual’s personal Attitudes, or
the weight given to Subjective Norms, per the THORA model of decision-
making (Ajzen, 1985, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). It might also specify
when in the narrative process or which of its aspects tend to be under
attitudinal versus normative control. Although THORA seems seldom
utilized within anomalistic psychology or parapsychology (cf. Houran &
Lange, 2013; Houran, Lange, & Lange, 2013), we suspect that its tenets are
applicable to the construction or maintenance of paranormal-themed
narratives.
Along these lines, it seems prudent to gauge more precisely from
experients the source(s) of their attributions—be they esoteric or not.
Researchers, including some of the present authors, typically request
participants in fieldwork or questionnaire studies simply to rate the degree
to which they believe (or interpret) their anomalous experiences are
“paranormal” (e.g., Irwin, Dagnall, & Drinkwater, 2013; Ross et al., 2017;
Wiseman et al., 2002). We now suggest an amendment to this tactic to
improve on a vague global assessment of attribution.
Specifically, it should be more informative to parse the issue with
THORA. For example, the instruction set could measure an experient’s
personal Attitude via rating statements like: Please indicate the extent to
which you personally regard your anomalous experience as ‘paranormal’ ”,
or “My intuition tells me that my anomalous experience was ‘paranormal’.”
However, the influence of an experient’s Subjective Norms should be
assessed separately; e.g., Please indicate the extent to which those people
who are most important in your life would regard your anomalous
experience as ‘paranormal’ ”, orThose people who are most important to
me would interpret my anomalous experience as ‘paranormal’.
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DISCUSSION
Mirroring Hill et al.’s (2019) case analyses, this paper examined
gaslighting as an illustration of our VAPUS model for ghost narratives. This
model centrally defines spectral accounts as psychosocial constructions,
which implies an intrinsic malleability via a range of related psychosocial
influences. Our paper illustrated this by expounding on the interaction
among the “Participatory Nature × Scalability = Adaptability” aspects of the
VAPUS model. We propose that this formula helps to address the questions
of why and how with respect to gaslighting in some paranormal narratives.
Simply put, we contend that many of the same characteristics that make
ghost narratives so alluring and engaging also put them at risk for—if not
actively promote—Trickster-type effects.
These assertions align with general narrative theory, which construes
personal experiences as subjective and pliable constructions rather than
objective and fixed representations of physical reality (for a review, see
de Rivera & Sarbin, 1998). Accordingly, our focus on haunt-related stories
offers merely one example. The causes, correlates, or consequences of
positive or negative gaslighting might generalize to the witness psychology
of a broad array of mystical, paranormal, and anomalous experiences as
collated by Cardeña, Lynn, and Krippner (2014). To be sure, a review of
parapsychological-related literature reveals a scholarly awareness of
gaslighting in Western occult practices dating from the 12th century
(Marathakis, 2017; Regardie, 1995; White, 2018). References to gaslighting
can also be found within techniques of clinical psychology, which strive to
establish a state of “relative truth” that aims to create changes in an
individual’s psyche, and for some, external reality. This is most evident in
work on hypnosis and suggestion (Yapko, 2011, 2012).
Of course, our ideas have gaps and limitations. Most obviously, we
do not claim to know the extent to which gaslighting effects (or the specific
process hypothesized in Figure 1) have possibly embellished or diminished
the details of accounts within existing spontaneous case collections (e.g.,
Cornell, 2002; Gurney, Myers, & Podmore, 1886; Tyrrell, 1953/2010). All
told, the literature comprises many studies on variables that shape the
contents or interpretations of such anomalous experiences (for overviews,
see Lange et al., 1996; Lange & Houran, 2001a). However, contemporary
model-building and theory-formation might benefit from investigations that
go beyond the context effects and psychometric characteristics that studies
have typically considered (see e.g., Laythe et al., 2018; Ventola et al.,
2019). Our analysis of gaslighting via the VAPUS model—which is rooted
in Social Conflict (Marx, 1972; Oberschall, 1973), Social Identity (Tajfel &
Turner, 1979), and Durkheimian theories (Durkheim, 2013)—emphasizes
the need for more detailed research on the interpersonal dynamics
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
161
associated with paranormal belief, witness psychology, and contagion or
memetics.
As proposed earlier in this paper, we anticipate that future research
on the phenomenology of ghostly episodes will gain important insights by
drawing on advanced theories in personality and social psychologies;
chiefly those research areas that deal with the nature of testimony (e.g.,
Dewhurst, 2009; Fricker, 2006; Graham, 2016; Lackey, 2007; Williamson,
2000), and the issues of influence, persuasion, and conformity across
different social settings (e.g., Almassi, 2018; Berenstain, 2016; Lackey,
2018; Townsend, 2019). Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies like
those discussed above are expected to advance model-building and theory-
formation on narrative plasticity and its hypothesized positive and negative
forms. Pertinently, it would permit testing of the assertion that specific
settings ground an experient’s social identity and self-motivations. Better
awareness of this relationship will assist researchers in understanding and
controlling for the key differences between anomalous experiences versus
the interpretations that percipients or incidental people impose on them (see
Irwin et al., 2013; Lange et al., 2019).
Finally, to avoid accusations of pathological skepticism on our part it
is important we acknowledge that, contrary to the popular presentation of
science, the labelling of a “thing” does not necessarily equate to etiology
(cf. Houran, Lynn, & Lange, 2017). Precisely, prediction via
operationalization is not an explanation of cause. We therefore focus on
careful model-building over premature theory-formation. From this
perspective, we should stress that it is not outside the bounds of quality
empiricism to state objectively that many ostensible phenomena or
mechanisms inherent to gaslighting or paranormal contexts might not meet
the criteria necessary for robust analysis. So, there remains the possibility of
unknown or parapsychological components to ghost narratives that are
presently unmeasurable and thus outside the reach of current science and
orthodox theories. We can only hope that future studies will leverage
increasingly sophisticated methodologies and analyses that ultimately put
the Trickster in its place by reliably identifying and separating the “signal”
amongst the “noise” in this unquestionably hazy and meme-spirited domain.
THE AUTHORS
Kenneth Drinkwater (Ph.D.) is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher in
Cognitive Psychology and Parapsychology at Manchester Metropolitan
University, where he conducts research in parapsychology and psychology.
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
162
Brian Laythe (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Institute for the Study of
Religious and Anomalous Experience and Managing Partner of Iudicium, a
forensic psychological consultancy.
James Houran (Ph.D.) holds a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology from
the University of Illinois at Springfield (USA) and a Doctorate in Medicine
(Psychology) from the University of Adelaide (Australia). He serves as a
Research Director at Integrated Knowledge Systems and Research Professor
at the Laboratory of Statistics and Computation, ISLA in Vila Nova de
Gaia, Porto, Portugal.
Neil Dagnall (Ph.D.) is a Programme Leader and a Unit Leader in the
Psychology Department at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he
teaches at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
Ciarán O’Keeffe (Ph.D.) is Associate Head of the School of Human &
Social Sciences at Buckinghamshire New University. He is also Programme
Leader for the B.Sc. (Hons.) Criminological Psychology, B.Sc. (Hons.)
Psychology & Criminology, and B.Sc. (Hons.) Business & Psychology, in
addition to running modules on Exceptional Human Experiences,
Investigative Psychology, and Victimology.
Sharon A. Hill has a Masters degree in Education focused on Science and
the Public and is a professional geologist. As an independent researcher, she
studies natural anomalies, paranormal culture, and the investigation
methods of amateur paranormalists.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We thank David Vernon and John Potts for feedback on an earlier version
of this paper and Lance Storm (Editor) for accommodating this extensive
literature review and synthesis.
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Kenneth Drinkwater (Corresponding Author) and Neil Dagnall
Manchester Metropolitan University
Department of Psychology
3.11 Brooks Building, Manchester Campus
Manchester, M15 6BH
UK
Email: k.drinkwater@mmu.ac.uk
Brian Laythe
Institute for the Study of Religious and Anomalous Experience
32 Beechwood Road
Jeffersonville, IN, 47130
USA
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
179
James Houran, Ph.D.
7041 Briarmeadow Drive
Dallas, TX 75230
USA
Ciarán O’Keeffe
Buckinghamshire New University
School of Human and Social Sciences
Queen Alexandra Road
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
UK
Sharon A. Hill
Lithospherica, LLC
6116 Chatham Glenn Way
Harrisburg, PA, 17111
USA
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This essay explores factors that arguably hinder progress in the domain of parapsychology that deals with ghostly episodes-apparitions, haunts and poltergeist-like outbreaks. An infatuation with gadgets and hardware, a sensationalized public image and a lack of consistent, cumulative theory-building all individually and collectively seem to constrain the active adoption and application of other approaches that are more concerned with 'substance over style'. Indeed, this modern era of analytics opens new avenues in methodology and modeling. Examples of this potential are reviewed and discussed. Ultimately, it is proposed that multidisciplinary, collaborative research programs equally focused on psychometric and environmental variables are required to achieve a cohesive, scientific explanation for these phenomena.
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Jennifer Lackey (2018) has developed an account of the primary form of group assertion, according to which groups assert when a suitably authorized spokesperson speaks for the group. In this paper I pose a challenge for Lackey's account, arguing that her account obscures the phenomenon of group silencing. This is because, in contrast to alternative approaches that view assertions (and speech acts generally) as social acts, Lackey's account implies that speakers can successfully assert regardless of how their utterances are taken up by their audiences. What reflection on group silencing shows us, I argue, is that an adequate account of group assertion needs to find a place for uptake.