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Minimizing Bias: Observer-Expectancy Effect in Paranormal Research

Do you see anything unusual?

Anyone interested in the paranormal field WANTS to find evidence of – well, the Paranormal.  For serious Paranormal researchers, this often means listening to and watching countless hours (and days) worth or audio and video recordings and examining hundreds of digital images looking for “anomalies”.

However, throughout the endless hours of analysis, it is important to account for biases that can creep into our evidence-starved brains – in other words, while looking for evidence of the paranormal, we often see what we want to see.  This bias can be described as the Observer-Expectancy effect (further termed OEE).

Wikipedia defines OEE as: “when a researcher expects a given result and therefore unconsciously manipulates an experiment or misinterprets data in order to find it”.  So, when you’re looking at an image of a “haunted” location, and you “expect” to see an apparition, you may unconsciously “notice” an apparition in places where perfectly natural explanations exist.

To illustrate this point, over the past 24h, I posted a photo of the “haunted” Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado (seen above) on our Facebook page.  I asked the simple question: “See anything unusual?”  Now, since the photo was posted on the Facebook page of a Paranormal Research group, it is natural to assume that the photo shows an “anomaly”, although this wasn’t implicit in my question.  I didn’t ask “Do you see the anomaly that I saw?”  I simply asked observers if they saw anything out of the ordinary.

If you look closely at the photo, you can see a man standing next to the hotel’s front desk (upper left of the image).  Many observers of the photo noticed him as well.  Although I don’t remember the man being in the room when I took the photo, does that mean that I captured an image of an ghost?  Not necessarily, but because the photo was taken at a reportedly “haunted” location, it is natural to assume that the man in the image is anomalous.  However, if I had taken this image at the Hilton DTC, you might not think twice about the man in the photo.  This demonstrates OEE – we expect to see “ghosts” in the photo from the Stanley Hotel, and we assume the man by the desk is paranormal.

This is a perfectly natural bias – it’s human nature to see things we want to see.  The OEE can also be demonstrated by the phenomenon of Pareidolia (or matrixing), where “a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as significant, e.g., seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing non-existent hidden messages on records played in reverse (from Wikipedia).  Again, if we EXPECT to see paranormal anomalies in photos of “haunted” locations, we might unconsciously try to see “faces” in dust orbs or ghosts in light reflections.  That’s pareidolia – we humans often see what we want to see.

What does this all mean?  As paranormal enthusiasts and researchers, we should always remember to think objectively while examining evidence.  While looking at photos from the “haunted” Stanley Hotel, you might also look at photos taken at the Hilton DTC to see if “anomalies” show up in photos from both locations.  If you see “orbs” with faces at haunted locations, compare them to those that show up in photos from YOUR basement.  Try to eliminate the expectations of finding paranormal evidence, and you might be more satisfied when you actually find anomalies you can’t explain.

For more information about the Paranormal Research Association of Colorado, please visit our Website here.

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  1. Minimizing Bias: Observer-Expectancy Effect in Paranormal Research | Paranormal Magazine | linked to this post on October 19, 2012

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