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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences : Psychology

Undergraduate Course: Methods and Controversies in Parapsychology (PSYL10149)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences CollegeCollege of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 3 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThis course aims to promote an appreciation of methodological issues in psychological research via case studies in parapsychology (the scientific study of paranormal beliefs and experiences).
Course description This course aims to promote an appreciation of methodological issues in psychological research via case studies in parapsychology (the scientific study of paranormal beliefs and experiences). No previous knowledge of parapsychology is required. Each topic will be explored through studying a particular controversy (e.g., can mediums communicate with the deceased?) and considering its wider scientific and methodological implications (e.g., what are the challenges when trying to assess the accuracy of verbal statements?).

The course will be taught through a ¿flipped¿ classroom method - that is, students will be provided with recorded lectures and core readings to go through prior to attending the weekly in-class sessions, which will be of two types. At the 1hr full class sessions, Professor Watt will provide interactive activities and opportunities for discussion to help to consolidate understanding of key concepts and readings that were introduced in the recorded material. At the smaller class 1 hour seminar sessions, students will be assigned to make short summary presentations of research papers, followed by discussion. These seminars are intended to introduce students to further readings that will help to broaden and deepen their understanding of methodological issues in parapsychology and psychology.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Students MUST have passed: Psychology 2A (PSYL08011) AND Psychology 2B (PSYL08012)
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
Pre-requisitesVisiting students should be studying Psychology as their degree major, and have completed at least 3 Psychology courses at grade B or above. We will only consider University/College level courses. Applicants should note that, as with other popular courses, meeting the minimum does NOT guarantee admission. **Please note that upper level Psychology courses are high-demand, meaning that they have a very high number of students wishing to enrol in a very limited number of spaces.** These enrolments are managed strictly by the Visiting Student Office, in line with the quotas allocated by the department, and all enquiries to enrol in these courses must be made through the CAHSS Visiting Student Office. It is not appropriate for students to contact the department directly to request additional spaces.
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2022/23, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  0
Course Start Semester 1
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Lecture Hours 20, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 176 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 100 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) Mid-course MCQ test 30%; end of course essay 70%
Mid-course MCQ test (online, 40 questions, 5 answer options)
Essay (maximum length 2500 words). One answer from a choice of three topics to be set by the course organiser.
Feedback Students will develop their understanding of course content through discussions with their classmates (either in-class or online), in response to 'pause for reflection' questions that will be posed each week by Prof Watt.
There will be the opportunity to raise questions with Prof Watt during weekly in-class (or live on Blackboard) Q&A/discussion periods, as well as through email and office hour.
Students will develop their understanding of course content through participation in interactive exercises and demonstrations (either in-class or online) provided approximately weekly by Prof Watt.
There will be a mid-course MCQ test which will give students both formative and summative feedback on their foundational knowledge of parapsychology.
No Exam Information
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. demonstrate understanding of parapsychology's terminology, recognise landmarks in parapsychology's history and development as a discipline.
  2. demonstrate understanding of the strategies used by pseudo-psychics to simulate psychic abilities, recognise the psychological factors that underpin many of these, and think critically about how to test pseudo-psychic claims.
  3. demonstrate detailed knowledge of the principal methods employed for controlled laboratory testing of claims of anomalous information transfer or influence, identify the key meta-analytic reviews of this research, and understand how and why these findings are debated.
  4. demonstrate critical understanding of the methodological challenges involved in controlled tests of hypothesised anomalous communication or influence.
  5. recognise how challenges in testing claims of anomalous communication or influence often also apply to psychological research, and demonstrate an understanding of ways to address these challenges.
Reading List
Course introduction
Course organisation, and why bother studying parapsychology?
Key reading:
Watt, C. (2005). 2005 Presidential Address: Parapsychology's contribution to psychology: A view from the front line. Journal of Parapsychology, 69, 215-232.
Week 1: Foundations
Historical background, terminology, and research strategies (pros and cons).
Key reading:
Irwin, H.J. & Watt, C. (2007). An Introduction to Parapsychology. Fifth Edition. London: McFarland. Introduction and Chapter 1.
Week 2: Is there anybody there?
Methodological challenges when testing claims of communication with the deceased.
Key readings:
Pratt, J. G. & Birge, W. R. (1948). Appraising verbal test material in parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology, 12, 236-256.
O'Keeffe ,C. & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing alleged mediumship: Methods and results. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 165-179.
Kelly, E.W. & Arcangel, D. (2011). An investigation of mediums who claim to give information about deceased persons. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease, 199, 11-17.
Week 3: Extra-Sensory Perception or Error Some Place?
The 'ganzfeld debate' - laboratory research investigating hypothesized telepathic abilities; collaborations with skeptics.
Key readings:
Hyman, R., & Honorton, C. (1986). A joint communiqué: The psi ganzfeld controversy. Journal of Parapsychology, 50(4), 351-364.
Bem, D. J., & Honorton, C. (1994). Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 4-18.
Milton, J., & Wiseman, R. (1999). Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 387-391.
Storm, L., Tressoldi, P.E., & Di Risio, L. (2010). Meta-analysis of free-response studies, 1992-2008: Assessing the noise reduction model in parapsychology. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 471-485.
Further reading:
Bem, D. J., Palmer, J., & Broughton, R. S. (2001). Updating the ganzfeld database: A victim of its own success? Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 207-218.
Week 4: Psychokinesis (PK): Can people influence objects by thought alone?
Why PK research moved from metal-bending to random number generators, and the perils of participant fraud and publication bias.
Key readings:
Truzzi, M. (1987). Reflections on "Project Alpha": Scientific experiment or conjuror's illusion? Zetetic Scholar, 12(13), 73-98.
Bosch, H., Steinkamp, F., & Boller, E. (2006). Examining psychokinesis: The interaction of human intention with random number generators - A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 497-523. (also followed by commentaries)
Week 5: Men who stare at goats. Methodological pitfalls to avoid when testing the hypothesis that people can detect when they're being stared at.
Key readings:
Sheldrake, R. (1998). The sense of being stared at: Experiments in schools. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62(851), 311-323.
Colwell, J., Schröder, S., & Sladen, D. (2000). The ability to detect unseen staring: A literature review and empirical tests. British Journal of Psychology, 91(1), 71-85.
Schmidt, S., Schneider, R., Utts, J., & Walach, H. (2004). Distant intentionality and the feeling of being stared at: Two meta-analyses. British Journal of Psychology, 95(2), 235-247.
Week 6: Predicting unexpected future events. Why are passenger numbers lower on trains doomed to crash?
Key reading:
Cox, W. E. (1956). Precognition: An analysis, II. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 50, 99-109. Photocopies on reserve in Psychology library. Available online at:
Week 7: Why believe? Origins and functions of paranormal belief.
Key readings:
Irwin, H.J. (1992) Origins and functions of paranormal belief: The role of childhood trauma and interpersonal control. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 85, 317-331.
Perkins, S. L. & Allen, R. (2006). Childhood physical abuse and differential development of paranormal belief systems. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194(5), 349-355.
Watt, C., Watson, S., & Wilson, L. (2007). Cognitive and psychological mediators of anxiety: Evidence from a study of paranormal belief and perceived childhood control. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 335-343.
Further reading:
Wiseman, R. & Watt, C. (2006). Belief in psychic ability and the misattribution hypothesis: A qualitative review. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 323-338.
Irwin, H.J. (2009). The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher's Handbook. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.
Irwin, H.J. & Watt, C. (2007). An Introduction to Parapsychology. Fifth Edition. London: McFarland. Chapter 15.
Week 8: Paranormal experience, or Normal experience? The role of psychological factors in seemingly paranormal experiences. Case study: precognitive dream experiences.
Key readings:
Watt, C., Ashley, N., Gillett, J., Halewood, M. & Hanson, R. (2014). Psychological factors in precognitive dream experiences: The role of paranormal belief, selective recall and propensity to final correspondences. International Journal of Dream Research, 7, 1-8.
Valásek, M., Watt, C., Hutton, J., Neill, R., Nuttall, R. & Renwick, G. (2014). Testing the implicit processing hypothesis of precognitive dream experience. Consciousness and Cognition, 28, 113- 125.

Week 9: Replication matters. Replication issues in parapsychology. How the ganzfeld debate exposes limitations of meta-analysis. The need for study registration, and the surprising history of Registered Reports.
Key readings:
Watt, C., & Kennedy, J. E (2015). Lessons from the first two years of operating a study registry. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 173.
Watt, C., & Kennedy, J. E. (2017). Options for prospective meta-analysis and introduction of registration-based prospective meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 7:2030.
Wiseman, R., Watt, C. & Kornbrot, D. (2019). Registered reports: An early example and analysis. PeerJ 7:e6232
Further reading:
Utts, J. (1991). Replication and meta-analysis in parapsychology. Statistical Science, 6, 363-403.
Alcock, J., Burns, J., & Freeman, A. (Eds) (2003). Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal. (Can be found online in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, numbers 6-7; several useful articles).
Week 10: Is the methodological revolution in psychology over, or just beginning? How Bem's 'Feeling the Future' studies helped to trigger psychology's replication crisis. What next for psychology?
Key readings:
Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407-425.
Kennedy, J. E. (2016). Is the methodological revolution in psychology over, or just beginning? Journal of Parapsychology, 80(2), 156-168.
Kennedy, J. E. (2017). Experimenter fraud: What are appropriate methodological standards? Journal of Parapsychology, 81(1), 63-72.
Further reading:
John, L. K., Loewenstein, G., & Prelec, D. (2012). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth telling. Psychological Science, 23(5), 524-532.
Wagenmakers, E. J., Wetzels, R., Borsboom, D., & Van Der Maas, H. L. (2011). Why psychologists must change the way they analyze their data: the case of psi: comment on Bem (2011). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(3), 426-432.

Resource list:
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills This course will develop students¿ research and enquiry skills and personal and intellectual autonomy through reading primary research and thinking critically about how to assess knowledge claims. It will build oral and written communication skills through essay writing, class presentations and discussions.
Course organiserProf Caroline Watt
Tel: (0131 6)50 3382
Course secretaryMiss Georgiana Gherasim
Tel: (0131 6)50 3440
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