By Tim Lawson, Ph.D., Mount St. Joseph University
Many years ago I discovered that even my brightest seniors believed in psychic powers and other paranormal and pseudoscientific phenomena. It was then that I realized the importance of teaching students about the differences between science and pseudoscience, and teaching them to think critically about such phenomena.
I am always looking for ways to make my psychology courses more fun, engaging, and effective for enhancing student learning, and pseudoscience and paranormal phenomena are topics that help accomplish all of those goals. These topics are interesting and grab students’ attention while helping us teach students critical thinking principles (e.g., considering alternative explanations, examining assumptions, and recognizing weaknesses in anecdotal evidence) as well as scientific principles (e.g., placebo effects, the necessity of control groups, and the importance of double-blind procedures).
I thought I would share with you some of my favorite demonstrations and activities related to pseudoscience and paranormal phenomena, which I have researched and found to be quite effective. My hope is that you might find them useful for courses you teach.
1. In my Introduction to Psychology course, I do a very believable, but fake, psychic reading after we cover the topics of perception and extrasensory perception. Prior to the class, I gather information about one particular student (using public sources, such as the internet and students' Facebook sites that are open to the public). In class, I tell them that I’ve been practicing my psychic reading skills, and then I “randomly” chose a student (whom I actually selected before class – but the students don’t know this) and bring that person to the front of the room. I ask the student to give some personal item (e.g., car keys) that I can hold to get “psychic vibes.” I start my reading with “cold reading” techniques, in which I say several general statements that seem specific but actually apply to most people (e.g., “ I see that you have a very flexible personality, sometimes you are fairly outgoing and other times you are more reserved”). Then I begin getting much more specific, acting as if I’m seeing details about them that I actually gathered in advance from my research (e.g., “I’m seeing you on the gym floor of a school that looks like it might be your high school. I see a mean-looking cat, like a wildcat, on the wall, and I see you standing there in a basketball jersey that is red and black. I see a number on the jersey, it’s a 1 and another 1; did you wear number 11?”). After the reading, I ask students whether the accuracy of a reading constitutes solid evidence of psychic abilities and whether there are alternative explanations for accurate statements. I admit that I have no psychic abilities, and we discuss “cold reading” techniques and “hot reading” techniques (and I explain how I obtained my information).
2. Another fun demonstration I use after talking about sensation in Introduction to Psychology involves water dowsing. I explain to them that dowsing involves finding hidden objects (e.g., underground water or metal) using metal or wooden rods. I tell students that I’m going to demonstrate dowsing for water, and I pull out two L-shaped metal rods I made from coat hangers. I place two blue plastic cups on a table in front of me and show them that one contains water and the other contains sugar. I then demonstrate that my dowsing rods cross each other when they are over the cup with water, but the rods stay parallel to one another when they are over sugar. I invite three students, one at time, to come up and try the dowsing rods; they typically experience the rods crossing over the water but not over the sugar. I set the cups aside on a computer kiosk, and then I ask students whether this is convincing evidence that dowsing rods detect water, and invite them to generate alternative explanations. After we discuss their answers, I explain that dowsing is supposed to find hidden objects, so I cover the cups and put them back on the table. I mention that I’m putting them back in the same position, but I actually switch the position of the cups. Then I demonstrate, once again, that the rods cross over the cup containing “water” (it’s actually sugar) and not the cup containing “sugar” (it’s actually water). I invite the same three students back to the front of the room and they also experience the dowsing rods crossing over the “water” and not the “sugar.” I reveal that the cups had been switched, and we talk about the ideomotor effect (i.e. how our ideas or expectations cause involuntary and unconscious motor activity). I also discuss how the ideomotor effect is related to Ouija boards and Facilitated Communication.
3. In my Research II course, I tell students about the Power Balance Wristband (PBW), which has holographic disks that supposedly improve people’s balance, strength, and flexibility. I bring a PBW to class and demonstrate on a volunteer student how the student’s balance, strength, and flexibility actually improves when the wristband is on his or her wrist compared to when there is no wristband on the student. I invite students to consider whether the PBW actually works or whether there are alternative explanations, and I have them write down their ideas for designing a quick experiment (using the same tests of balance, strength, and flexibility that I conducted) to determine whether the PBW actually works. Then I review a number of important research-design concepts that they learned earlier in our research courses (e.g., control groups, control variables, chance effects, experimenter expectations, double-blind procedures). I ask them to get into small groups to decide on an experimental design to test the effect of the PBW. I have them report out their designs, I select one of them, and the students conduct it in class. Afterward, we discuss whether their design utilized all of the important research design concepts we covered and how we might improve upon their design. I also explain that the PBW does not actually work, and I demonstrate how I made it seem effective by subtly influencing the student’s balance and strength, without the student’s awareness, during my initial demonstration.
I hope I have given you some useful ideas for how you might teach students critical thinking while exploring differences between science and pseudoscience in a fun, engaging, and educational manner. If you would like to read more about these demonstrations and activities, as well as the research I have conducted on their effectiveness, please consult the following references:
Lawson, T. J., Blackhart, G. C., & Gialopsos, B. M. (2016). Using the Power Balance wristband to improve students’ research-design skills. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 318-322. doi:10.1177/0098628316662763
Lawson, T. J., & Crane, L. L. (2014). Dowsing rods designed to sharpen critical thinking and understanding of ideomotor action. Teaching of Psychology, 41, 52-56. doi: 10.1177/0098628313514178
Lawson, T. J. (2003). A psychic-reading demonstration designed to encourage critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 251-253.
Tim Lawson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, OH. He is an award-winning teacher and scholar, and was recently awarded the Robert S. Daniel Teaching Excellence Award from APA’s Division 2. Dr. Lawson is the author of two books, Scientific Perspectives on Pseudoscience and the Paranormal and Statistical Reasoning in Everyday Life. He has published dozens of research studies in professional journals, such as Teaching of Psychology, and has been an invited speaker at many conferences on a range of topics, including social perception, statistical reasoning, and the teaching of psychology.