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Psychological Reports, 1999,85,847-855.

O Psychological Reports 1999

BELIEFS IN THE PARANORMAL: AGE AND SEX DIFFERENCES

AMONG ELDERLY PERSONS AND UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS '


WILLIAM F. VITULLI, STEVEN M. TIPTON, AND JENNIFER L. ROWE
Urziuersiry of Soufh Alabarno
Summary.-Beliefs in the paranormal were rated stronger in younger as compared to elderly adults by Emmons and Sobal in 1981, and sex correlates of paranormal beliefs appeared to be stronger in women than in men by Irwin in 1994. This research studied possible linkages benveen age and sex with a comparative analysis between results of Vitulli and Luper's 1998 survey among undergraduate students and
data from elderly men (M=72 yr., SD=9.2, n = 2 1 ) and women (M=69.3 yr., SD=7.7,
n=55). Crawford and Christensen's 1995 12-item Extrasensory Perception Survey was
administered to elderly persons living in apartment complexes and private homes, participating in activities in a recreation center, or attending a continuing-education seminar. A 2 x 2 multivariate analysis of variance from responses on the 12-item survey
showed that undergraduate men and elderly women had the highest ratings on paranormal beliefs. The s&-selecting characteristics of a segment of the elderly sample led
to a posr hoc univariate analysis of variance by partitioning that sample into those who
were attending a continuing-education seminar versus all other elderly persons. Summated ratings (total scores) for this survey showed main effects for these subsamples
and for sex. Sex and age differences were discussed in the context of the hypothesis
of social marginahty.

Beliefs in paranormal phenomena, e.g., extrasensory perception, Me


after death, precognitive dreams. have typically been rated higher in younger
than elderly adults (e.g., Emmons & Sobal, 1981; Irwin, 1994). And, sex correlates of paranormal beliefs ( e g , Blum, 1976; Emmons & Sobal, 1981;
Thalbourne, 1981; Tobacyk & M~lford,1983; Irwin, 1985, 1994; Clarke,
1991) appeared generally to be stronger in women than in men. Yet more
recent findings by Houran (1997) and VituUl and Luper (1998) contradict
the earlier data on sex. Houran (1997) found that among men and women
(M,,,=33.2 yr., SD= 12.5) men reported significantly more paranormal experiences than women and claimed significandy more paranormal abhties than
women. And, Vitulh and Luper (1998) found that among undergraduate
students (Ma,,= 19.6, SD=2.6) men scored significantly higher than women
in rating the strength of their beliefs in the paranormal regarding life after
death, the existence of extrasensory perception, having at least one extrasensory experience, and UFOs with people from other places visiting our planet. The term 'paranormal' used in that study and the present one is based
This research was approved by the university's Instirutional Review Board on Februa
;998 Address correspondence to Wdiarn F. Vituh. PO. Box U-1027, Department of P r y x %
ogy, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL 36688 or e-mail (wvitulli@jaguarl.usouthal.edu).

848

W. F. VITULLI, ET AL

operationally on the collective items in the Crawford and Christensen's (1995)


self-report survey. A number of studies have attempted to measure relationships between belief concomitants of ESP, life after death, psychokmesis,
and other paranormal phenomena on the one hand, with religious beliefs,
success at ESP tasks, and mind-body dualism on the other (e.;., Stanovich,
1989; Brugger, Regard, & Landis, 1991; Duncan, Donnelly, & Nicholson,
1992; Haraldsson, 1993). Each of these studies tested young adults, primarily college-age students. It should be noted that the interpretation of differences between outcomes of studies in the present review of the literature is
qualified by the observation that cultural differences were &ely to influence
these outcomes since data sets were collected in a wide range of countries
such as Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United
States.
Moreover, the extent to which age and sex may be related as explanatory concepts offers heuristic possibhties. Analysis of age differences by
Levin (1993) [from a large cross-section of subjects in the 1988 General Social Survey ( n = 1,481)] in mystical experiences including deji vu, clairvoyance, ESP experiences, spiritualism, and numinous experience showed a general increase over successive years in composite mysticism scores among the
younger ages, yet due to ~ossibleconfounding from cohorts, Levin (1993)
cautioned against any rrgrd interpretation regarding age. I n older adults
(41-60-yr. age group) "myst~calexperience is more common in females and
unmarried respondents; and in the 61-yr. and over age group, no exogenous
variables exert significant effects" (Levin, 1993, p. 511). Thalbourne (1994)
found no correlation between the Australian Sheep-Goat Scale (Thalbourne
& D e h , 1993) scores ("sheep" are behevers in extrasensory perception and
"goats" skeptical nonbelievers) and age among 402 respondents whose ages
ranged from 17-91 yr.; M=51.5, SD= 17.2. Relationships between age and
sex were investigated by Greeley (cited by Emmons & Sobal, 1981) regarding experiences of psychic phenomena with an inverse association between
age and psychic experience found for men, but a slightly positive association
for women (p. 50). Wuthnow (1976) appealed to a "social deprivation" version of the marginality hypothesis. That is, belief in the paranormal such as
astrology (or religion) provides "compensatory rewards" for otherwise socially deprived or marginal persons.
Given a ~ossiblelink between age and sex regardmg beliefs in paranormal events, the purpose of the present exploratory study was to compare the
results of Vituh and Luper (1998) in undergraduate students with data from
elderly persons obtained using the same modified survey of paranormal beliefs from Crawford and Christensen (1995). Since data from both populations were partitioned for sex as an ex post facto variable, possible interactions among the variables could be measured.

AGE, SEX, PARANORMAL BELIEFS

Participants
Pretest data from undergraduate students in a study by Vitulli and Luper (1998) including 122 undergraduate students (35 men, M=20.1 yr., SD=
2.6, range= 17-28; and 87 women, M = 19.2 yr., SD=2.8, range= 17-33) enrolled in a course in general psychology in the fall quarter 1997 were used to
compare with data from a diverse sample of elderly persons. A total of 76
elderly persons (21 men, M=72.0 yr., SD=9.2, range=51-87; and 55 women, M=69.3 yr., SD=7.7, range=46-94) located at several sites in the community of a southern town volunteered to participate. Among men, 11 were
from private homes, 3 from apartment complexes for senidr citizens, and 7
were surveyed from a senior citizens' recreational center. Among women, 39
were from private homes, 10 were from apartment complexes for senior citizens, and 6 were surveyed from a senior citizens' recreational center. The majority of elderly men and women who resided in private homes belonged to
a continuing-education group called "Odyssey." This latter sample may have
different characteristics than those from other locations.

Materials
A 12-item modified version (Vituh, 1997) of Crawford and Christensen's (1995) Extrasensory Perception survey was dstributed to students on
the first day of classes prior to any lecture and the same format was used
later to survey elderly persons. This self-report measure is a part of a laboratory manual in research skds and not a standardized psychometric instrument. The modified items used a >-point rating scale as compared to "Yes/
No" options in the original survey. The present survey was scored on a scale
anchored by 5 (strongly agree) and 1 (strongly disagree). As Vitulli and Luper (1998) noted, the title of this scale is a misnomer since extrasensory perception pertains to alleged sensory-related phenomena, vzz., clairvoyance, precognition, and telepathy, whereas the scale contains one item which refers to
psycholunesis, an alleged 'output' or motor-related phenomenon as well as
other items not tradtionally labeled as ESP such as out-of-the-body experiences, auras, ghosts, flying saucers, etc. When presented to the students the
scale did not contain a title, and when presented to the elderly persons a
title (Beliefs in the Paranormal) was added for purposes of information since
the elderly were not tested in a group setting amenable to group instructions. Also, at the top of the survey form for the elderly was a space to indicate the number of family members deceased during the last 10 years, yet insufficient numbers of responses were received from this request for meaningful analysis of the data
Procedure
For the undergraduate sample, on the first day of classes (Fall Quarter,

850

W. F. VITULLI, ET AL.

1997) and in a large auditorium the professor of the course explained that
he was a research psychologist and would hke to know something about the
beliefs of students prior to any lecturing so as not to bias their responses
(VitulL & Luper, 1998). Students were told not to respond to any items that
made them uncomfortable and to return their surveys in a large manda envelope, anonymously, whereas elderly people were surveyed [during fall and
spring semesters (the university shifted from quarters to semesters) in 1998
and 1999, respectively] in a variety of sites. These sites included apartment
complexes for senior citizens, a recreational center for senior citizens, and in
a classroom setting in which a program for continuing education was conducted for the Odyssey group membership. These latter individuals were taking a noncredit lecture course in a 5-lecture series entitled "Neuroscience:
Cognitive and Communication Sciences." They completed the survey prior
to the final lecture of the series. A covering sheet accompanying all of the
surveys administered to elderly persons requested that they not identlfy
themselves and that they could stop answering questions at any time with
"absolutely no penalty."
RESULTS
AND DISCUSSION

A Kuder-fichardson-20 (KR-20) analysis of total scores among 12 items


on the Crawford and Christensen (1995) scale gave an interitem consistency
coefficient of .51 among undergraduates in the Vitudli and Luper (1998)
study (note: this value is a correction from the .89 reported in their study
due to an error in calculation). Among the data from elderly persons in this
study, the Kuder-kchardson-20 intcritem consistency coefficient was .58.
Anastasi (1968) stated that, "unless the test items are homogeneous, the Kuder-&chardson coefficient will be lower than the split-half rehability" (p.
85). The wide range of content in items on the Crawford and Christensen
(1995) ESP survey included beliefs in Me after death on the one hand and
beliefs in psycholunesis on the other. This variation resulted in considerable
heterogeneity among the items which k e l y contributed to the (at best) moderate internal consistency of the scale. Recall that this self-report measure is
not a standardized psychometric instrument and the multidimensional characteristics of this scale need to be considered in any interpretation of our
data.
Table 1 summarizes means and standard deviations for undergraduate
students and elderly persons for each of the 12 items on the Crawford and
Christensen (1995) scale for men and women.
A 2 (Age) x 2 (Sex) multivariate analysis of variance with respondents'
scores on each of 12 items as dependent measures showed a significant main
effect for age (F,,,, =6.26, p < .001, power at .05 level= 1.00, q2=.29) and
for sex (F,,, = 2.35, p < ,008, power a t .05 level = .96, q2= .13). There was an

TABLE 1
MEANSA N D STANDARD
DEVIATIONS
O F RATINGS BY UNDERGRADUATE
STUDENTS
A N D ELDERLY
PEOPLE
FOROVER-ALL
SAMPLES
ON
Ttem
Men,

tz:

SD

Undergraduatet
Women,
35
Rank
M
SD

tr:

87
Rank

Men,

tz:

SD

THE

ESP SURVEY'

Elderly
21
Women,
Rank
M
SD

55
Rank

?I:

I. I believe in the cxisrence of ESP.


2. I believe I have had at least one ESP experience.
3 . I believe ghosts exist.
4. I believe in life after death.
5. 1 believc that some people havc contacted people who
havc died.
6. I believe that there are flying saucers and people from
other placcs than earth visiting our planet.
7. 1 have had a telepathic experience, where T felt like I
was reading another person's thoughts.
8. 1 have had a specific dream about something which
marched in detail an evcnt which occurred aftcr my
dream. I did nor know about the event at thc time of
the dream and did nor expect it.
9. 1 have had the experience of fcelin that "I" was outside of or away from my body. ~ f i iss called out-ofthc-body experience or astral projection.
10. I have seen, heard, or been touched by another being,
often refcrred to as a ghost, and could not explain
the expcrience as being due to a physical or natural
CBUSC.
11. I have moved an object with my thoughts alone. This is
called psychokinesis (PK).
12. 1 have seen light around my bod or body parts of another erson As far as I coulYtell this was not due
natural cause. This experience is
to a p!ysical.or
called an aura.
*From Crawford and Christcnsen (1995), Developitzg research skills: a labora~otyt t ~ a t ~ u aCopyright
l.
1995, 1991, and 1985 by AUyn & Bacon. Reprinted/ndapted by permission. Rating scale: (1) Strongly Disagree and (5) Strongly Agree. tFrom undergraduate pretest database of VltuUi and
Luper (1998).

u
w

852

W. F. VITULLI, ET tlL.

interaction between age x sex (FI2,,,,=1.79,p<.O5, power at ,052 alpha=


.88, q2=,103) among the 12 items on the multivariate test. Moreover, a post
hoc univariate analysis of variance benveen main effects for sumrnated ratings (total scores across 12 items) showed a significant interaction between
age and sex (F,,,,, = 8.47, p < ,004, power at .05 alpha = .83, q2= .04), viz.,
among undergraduate students the men had higher paranormal ratings (M=
32.5, SD = 8.0) than the women (M = 30.4, SD = 7.61, yet among elderly persons the women had higher paranormal ratings (M=32.4, SD= 10.4) than
the men (M=26.2, SD= 10.5).
Further, d u e to the self-selecting characteristics of a segment of the elderly sample, a post hoe univariate analysis of variance partitioned the elderly
persons into two groups including those who were talung continuing education courses under the Odyssey program (described earlier) versus all other
elderly persons. There was a significant main effect between the groups'
summated scores (Modyss,y= 29.3, SD= 10.3, n =42, and Moth,, = 32.4, SD =
11.1, n =35; F ,,,,
=3.75, p = .06; power at .057 alpha= .50, q Z =.05) as well as
a significant main effect for sex (Men, M = 26.0, SD = 10.3, n = 22, and Women, M =32.6, SD= 10.4, n =55; F ,,,,
=7.60, p = .007). The interaction was not
significant. The elderly people in the Odyssey program were hkely to be a
more homogeneous group than 'other' elderly persons to the extent that the
former indicated a desire to continue their education by taking regularly
scheduled seminars, whereas the 'other' elderly persons came from varied locations with a higher l i k e h o o d of diverse interests and backgrounds.
Main effects between ages and sex for separate items (see Table 1)
showed that undergraduate students had significantly higher ratings than
elderly persons for beliefs in ghosts (Item 3 , F,,,,, = 14.41, p < .001), behefs
that people have contacted other people who have died (Item 5 , F,,,,,=
13.64, p< .001), and beliefs in precognitive dreams (Item 8 , F,,,,,=26.67, p<
,001). Regarding sex, women over-all had higher ratings than men regarding
the existence of ESP (Item 1, F,,,,,=4.39, p < .04) and regarding seeing, hearing, or being touched by a ghost (Item 10, F ,,, = 7.76, p= .006). Moreover,
interactions of age x sex (see Table 1 ) showed that among undergraduate
students, men had higher ratings than women for beliefs in the existence of
ESP, yet among elderly people women had higher ratings than men for that
item (Item 1, F,,,,, = 9.97, p = ,002). And, belief in having had at least one
ESP experience among undergraduates was rated higher by men than by
women, yet among elderly people women rated it higher than men (Item 2 ,
F,,,,, =7.82, p= ,006). Belief in the existence of flying saucers was rated higher by men among undergraduates, yet women rated it higher among the elderly group (Item 6 , F,,,,= 12.40, p= .001). Having a telepathic experience
was rated higher by men among undergraduates and higher by women
among elderly people (Item 7, F,,,,,=5.67, p = ,021 and having a precognitive

AGE, SEX, PARANORMAL BELIEFS

853

dream was also rated higher by men among undergraduates and higher by
women among elderly people (Item 8, F,,,,,=4.46, p = .04). Ln summary, the
interactions show a consistent pattern in which undergraduate men rated
items supporting paranormal behefs higher than undergraduate women,
while elderly women rated items supporting paranormal beliefs higher than
elderly men.
Behef in Me after death (Item 4) received the highest ratings among all
groups. These data are consistent with those of Thalbourne (1996) who
found general belief in Me after death to be high among 85 first-year undergraduate psychology students. Thalbourne reported correlations between ratings for Me after death and a desire "for there to be an afterhfe" (p. 10441,
the tendency to believe in a duahstic philosophy, low death anxiety, and
high scores on the abbreviated Australian Sheep-Goat Scale (Thalbourne &
Delin, 1993) which measures belief in and reported experiences of ESP and
psychohesis. Stanovich (1989) found that among 160 students talung introductory psychology, scores on a duahsm scale (belief in mind-body separatism) were positively correlated with a scale assessing belief in extrasensory
perception.
If belief in paranormal phenomena tends to drminish with age, particularly among men, notwithstanding the caution expressed by several researchers (e.g., Levin, 1993; Irwin, 1994) regarding possible confounding due to
cohorts in cross-sectional designs, then these data seem to be a t odds with
the hypothesis of social marginality. The hypothesis provides an explanation
for the differential belief systems of people who belong to diverse demographic populations by suggesting that membership in the 'fringe' groups of
society lowers the threshold for endorsing convictions that endow the believer with 'magical' powers in compensation for their lower social status
(Wuthnow, 1976; Bainbridge, 1978; Ernmons & Sobal, 1981; Irwin, 1994). It
would be tempting to reject the vhdity of the social-marginality hypothesis
(based on our data) on the grounds of common designations of certain
groups such as women and the elderly populations as currently belonging to
the fringes of society as minorities. College women and the elderly participants in this study showed lower ratings of paranormal beliefs than college
men or younger participants, as main effects. Yet according to Baron (1998),
women occupy higher social status now than they did 18 to 20 years ago
(when Emmons & Sobal, 1981, published their study). Baron noted that in
the late 1990s, "overt discriminatory practices have been banned by laws in
many nations, and there has been at least some weakening of negative gender-based stereotypes" (p. 647). Regarding changes in attitudes toward elderly persons, Davis and Palladino (1997, p. 443) predicted that, as the number
of elderly individuals in our society increases and as research findings help
to view their abhties more realistically (and positively), there should be a

854

W. F. VITULLI. ET AL.

decrease in ageism (the tendency to view the elderly in a negative manner)


(Perdue & Gurtman, 1990). Moreover, current activities indicate movement
in the positive direction such as, "the United Nations has designated 1999
as the Lnternational Year of Older Persons to promote fundamental human
rights for older people and to usher in the new age for old age" [Coming of
Age Project, 1999, p. 1 (Retrieved September 6, 1999 from PRODIGY database (masterfile) on the World Wide Web: www.comimgofageproject.org
Chicago, ILI. Whereas Emmons and Sobal in 1981 found that among several demographic measures, being female and not being married were correlated with paranormal beliefs, yet age was negatively correlated, i.e., the
younger the subject the greater the paranormal belief. This latter findmg was
not supportive of the social-marginality hypothesis since the elderly group
were categorized as having fringe status. Nevertheless, the authors d d not
look at possible interactions between age and sex as we d d in this study. If
the social-marginality hypothesis is valid, then endorsement of paranormal
beliefs could serve as a correlate for detecting feelings of marginal social status. Cohort effects may explain the ascendence of elderly women in their
ratings of paranormal beliefs as well as the decrement in the ratings of elderly men. Generation gaps and role inversions of sex offer explanatory
into the interaction seen between sex and age in our findings.
While women's social status has advanced (Baron, 1998), they continue
to seek sex equity between the sexes in our society to the extent that, as
Desmarais and Curtis (1997) have noted, sexism may be perpetuated partly
due to subtle and hidden forms such as lower expectations for pay and
other benefits among women themselves. Recall that college men (M=32.5)
and elderly women (M=32.4) showed moderate endorsement of the paranormal beliefs in comparison to college women (M=30.4) and elderly men
(M=26.2); see Table 1. The summated ratings on 12 items would result in a
score of 60 if all items were rated as 5 (strongly agree). Since comparable
ratings of social marginality would likely be distributed on a continuum, the
aforementioned mean (paranormal) ratings may reflect the perceived decrement in social status such as, according to Emmons and Sobal (19811, "deprivation, deviance (or at least some unconventionality), psychological maladjustment, alienation, or some combination of these" (p. 49). Researchers
should include self-reports measuring feelings of distance from the mainstream of society as correlates of paranormal beliefs. These ratings would
clardy the status of the social-marginality hypothesis.
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Accepted October 25, 1999