I used to believe in ghosts, an afterlife, and that people had the ability to talk to the dead; these beliefs were fuelled by an information overload. As a curious teenager, I had the internet at my fingertips and I wasn’t really taught how to critically examine claims like these at school. Thus, when I joined web forums dedicated to discussing paranormal experiences and the proof of these experiences, I wasn’t able to distinguish between the plausible and the implausible.
In addition to the forums, there were numerous television shows catering to aspiring ghost hunters that championed spiritual and pseudoscientific methodology, and many magazines in the shops that encouraged the belief that paranormal ideas were real because others had experienced them.
I could get psychic readings in person, online, over the phone, on television, or by writing into my favorite magazines. Having paranormal beliefs validated is easier today because we are constantly bombarded with information that we can then cherry pick to suit our particular ideas.
Falling into the trap of illogical thinking is very easy. You can quickly invest a lot of yourself into your new beliefs, and thus they become an important part of your life. I speak from experience when I say that calling people who hold such beliefs “stupid” because of their lack of rationale does nothing to make them reconsider the conclusions they have reached about those subjects.
In fact, dismissing people as “stupid” may have the opposite effect, depending on why they hold those beliefs and what they’ve invested in them. Abandoning important beliefs isn’t a light hearted change of mind, and forcing someone to turn their back on what they hold sacred too quickly can have a harmful and negative effect. Attacking someone—calling them names and suggesting they’re an idiot—because of what they choose to believe can push them away from reason and logic, and can cause them to develop such dependency upon those beliefs that nothing will ever change their minds.
For example, followers of famous psychics still hold a belief in those psychics even after they have been caught cheating because they’ve been abruptly pushed out of their comfort zone by the announcement that the psychic was misleading them. For many it’s easier to run back into that comfort zone than it is to stand in unknown territory trying to adjust. You just have to look at the Facebook pages of such psychics to see this behaviour happening. Many would call these people “stupid” for continuing to believe that exposed tricksters have supernatural powers. However, if you put yourself in the shoes of the believer you’re calling “stupid” you might see a whole different picture.
Imagine you’ve paid for readings from that so-called psychic; you’ve made good friends with fellow fans of that psychic, you’ve attended stage shows, and now, for the first time, it feels like you might come to terms with the death of someone you loved dearly. That psychic tells you your loved one isn’t in pain now—they’re on “the other side”—and you feel a weight lifted from your shoulders. Then suddenly someone comes along and tells you that it’s all a lie. It’s a lot to consider giving up. It’s easier to continue accepting it as the truth, to continue talking to like-minded people and reading testimonies on websites. I personally wouldn’t judge anyone as weak or stupid for hoping their deceased loved ones are still near them, or at least happy. Grief is never easy and can turn the most rational person to irrational belief systems.
The people who called me stupid for believing in illogical ideas didn’t know me and rarely stopped to ask me why I believed what I did. They knew nothing about what I had invested in my beliefs before coming to the conclusion that I was an idiot simply because I had, at some point, reached a conclusion different from theirs. People who believe in ghosts and psychics rarely hold those beliefs just because they’re exciting ideas. Usually there is an experience at the root of the belief. It could be a trauma, bereavement, or an experience so scary that it’s more comforting to think “it was just a spirit” than to remain objective and say “I don’t know what it was.”
During my few years as a paranormal researcher, I have spoken to a large number of people who described their symptoms of sleep paralysis to me. For those who don’t know what people who suffer with sleep paralysis go through, the experiences they have are terrifying and life changing and for some any answers are better than none. Whether the answer lies with ghosts, demons, or aliens largely relies upon the influence of the people, society, and media they have come into contact with. For every rational article or scientific paper about the subject out there, there will be more that are irrational and speculative—and the latter are much easier to access.
The key to helping people think rationally about what they’ve experienced, or what they’ve come to accept as fact is to not tell them they’re wrong but to suggest alternatives. Sometimes people I encounter who’ve had a strange experience just need to be told that someone doesn’t think they’re stupid for not being able to explain what they saw or felt. Being able to say to someone ‘I believe you when you tell me you’ve experienced something weird’ can take a huge weight off of someone’s mind. They’re also more likely to trust your suggestions too.
The amount of times people say to me, “You’re a skeptic, so you’re going to think I’m stupid, but…,” is really quite sad. There is always a story behind illogical beliefs, so before dismissing the believer as merely “stupid,” one should always dig a little deeper, think a little longer, and consider the consequences of being dismissive.