Research Interests and Current Projects Accepting Students

Recent Presentations

Langston, W., & Kittani, S. (2022, November). Presenting evidence to create belief in pyramid power: Influences of intervention type and personality. Poster presented at the 63rd annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Boston, MA.

Note: This page was migrated from an old site and is not really up-to-date. If this was 1996, there would be a picture of a wheelbarrow and an "under construction" sign here. some day I will have time to work on this...

My research interests can be divided into a number of different areas. The quick links below will take you to the relevant section of the page.

Note: Whereas I've always been interested in the topics I currently research, this was not my actual research program. After years of fruitless searching for an embodiment effect that would replicate, I became convinced that the whole enterprise is an exercise in pathological science. This led me to wonder: Why did I spend so much time working on something in the face of pretty clear evidence that I was wrong? At the same time, I was going out on ghost investigations and hunts with a ghost hunting team, and I had a revelation that my belief in embodied cognition and their belief in ghosts were virtually indistinguishable. This led me to see value in pursuing my interests in the psychology of belief as a research program that might have value. There's been a lot of fumbling around trying to get a research program started from scratch, and a lot of time has been wasted trying to tie up loose ends from the embodied language research (can nothing be saved?). What you see here is a distillation of all of that fumbling into a potential research program that will bear fruit and make a valuable contribution.

For a time, I noodled on a devastating critique of embodied cognition. However, I have decided that nobody likes a scold, and being one isn't going to change anyone's unshakable belief anyway. Instead, I'll just put this here: I think there's a baby in that embodiment bathwater. I also think there's a baby in the ghost hunters' bathwater. The question is, should we throw those babies out? For ghost hunting, I think I have a pretty good handle on what the baby is (hint: it's psychology!). Is the embodiment baby the same, or is there a core nugget of empirical reality bound up in a tumor of Type I error and overinflated theorizing? Only time will tell.

Aplying a model for clinical delusions to more mundane misbelief

What we're working from is a gross simplification of a model proposed by Garety, Kuipers, Fowler, Freeman, & Bebbington. (2001) to explain delusions. We find their application of the model to persecutory delusions to be particularly instructive: Freeman, D., Garety, P. A., Kuipers, E., Fowler, D., & Bebbington, P. E. (2002). A cognitive model of persecutory delusions. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41, 331-347.

An important note is that the beliefs we study are not clinical in nature and generally do not cause distress for our participants. This is a major departure from the realm for which the model was developed, and might lead to important differences between what we're studying and clinical delusions. The model does make some specific predictions that do appear to be supported by the existing literature on paranormal beliefs, and that serve as a useful guide for research in the psychology of belief. Some for-instances:

The factors influencing the formation of a belief can be separated from the factors operating to maintain and update the belief. For formation, something happens. This experience could be a function of the person's psychology (e.g., individuals higher in schizotypy might be more likely to see anomalous patterns that need to be explained) or it could be a function of the person's physical or social environment. Variables influence the meaningfulness attached to this experience (but not necessarily anxiety). Low tolerance for ambiguity is probably still implicated, as is the search for meaning. Cognitive biases associated with psychosis are probably still implicated. Basically, the process is almost the same as described in Freeman et al. (2002), but without the emotional distress that drives delusion formation, and without the precursors specific to persecutory delusions.

Once a belief exists, similar mechanisms to maintain it are probably also involved. It would still be the case (maybe more?) that people who experience anomalous phenomena would not want to attribute them to some form of madness; "the knowledge that the person is not ‘losing their mind’" (p. 337). The same processes to focus on confirmatory evidence and discount disconfirmatory evidence would take over. Again, the negative emotional consequences are probably not driving the bus, but a need for explanation could be. Identity might also be involved (once the belief has been incorporated into the self, maintaining identity is the motivating factor). As an analogy, the belief is like an object of great mass distorting the space around it and drawing everything that comes close into its orbit.

What projects emerge from this?

  1. The model proposes that supporting evidence will receive privileged attention "attentional biases will come on-line, as is found in emotional disorders: threat will be preferentially processed" (p. 338). Research in the paranormal belief literature also suggests that believers will attend more to information consistent with their beliefs (or memory processes will privilege consistent experiences; e.g., Wiseman & Morris, 1995; 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1995.tb02549.x). To evaluate this, we watched participants' eyes as they watched a video of some ghost investigators communicating with a spirit in a cemetery. The investigators used a pendulum that moved in specific ways in response to questions. We expected believers to attend more to the pendulum (the ghost's communication) and skeptics to attend more to the hand of the person holding the pendulum (the actual source of the motion). This did not happen. Instead, belief that the video depicted a genuine ghost encounter influenced what participants attended to. We did find that variables that were correlated with prior belief did not affect the interpretation of the video, supporting the idea of the two separate stages formation and updating. A preliminary look at the data was provided by Hunt, Hubbard, Anderson, Fehrman, & Langston (2016).
  2. We routinely survey people attending the Shadow Chasers ghost walks in Murfreesboro every October. Over the years, we have collected data from hundreds of participants to evaluate personality and other variables that might be associated with belief formation. We also have data from one year looking at change in belief as a result of the tour. These data also allow an evaluation of the model's separation of formation and updating stages of belief.
  3. We asked participants to use a pendulum to test whether or not a ghost image was present in a photograph and looked at change in belief as a function of knowledge and prior belief. Again, the variables affecting belief change should be different from those affecting belief formation.

What are we doing now?

  1. In a project we're calling the "hail Mary," we are asking participants about every possible form of experience that could lead to belief to see if there are any believers who do not have an experience (the model predicts a precipitating experience as the foundation of belief). We are also measuring a ton of personality variables with these participants, some of which should be associated with belief formation and some of which should not. Will the associations we find be consistent with the model's predictions?
  2. We are trying to develop a project to change belief to evaluate a "hail Mary" style project for the belief change stage. We've tried astrology, and are currently looking at pyramid power. This is proving to be labor intensive and complicated.


What is the role of meaning threat in the formation/maintenance of belief?

Projects aimed at understanding the evidence in favor of various forms of misbelief

Projects aimed at undermining claims that make mischief and are clearly wrong